When Tony Feher, who’s known for building sculptures out of disposable materials, was asked to design a public-art installation for the new federal courthouse in Rockford, Illinois, he wasn’t sure he was the best artist for the job. “What would I do, hang Coke bottles from the ceiling?” he says.
Instead, for the first time in his career, Feher abandoned the man-made for the natural. To take advantage of the wide swath of lawn in front of the courthouse, he planted an orchard of 100-plus crab-apple trees in interlocking diamond patterns.
For variety, the artist chose five different kinds of crab-apple trees. Starting this May, they’ll blossom with red, pink, or white flowers. In the fall, they’ll grow apples in scarlet, bright gold, or orange clusters. “I wanted each tree to be an individual, animated character,” Feher says, adding that the gnarled, stretching branches of the crab-apple tree make it especially expressive.
His orchard is arranged so that visitors walking along the granite paths will experience an almost moving environment. “You never see the same group of trees from any angle,” Feher says. “From here, three pink trees and a red one. From there, a round tree and then a tall one and then a weeping one.”
The work is part of the Art in Architecture program, developed under the Kennedy administration, which sets aside 0.5 percent of the estimated cost of federal construction projects for public art. Past commissions have included Alexander Calder’s geometric Flamingo (1974) in Chicago’s Federal Plaza, Jim Dine’s big bronze Cleveland Venus (2003) for Cleveland’s federal courthouse, and James Turrell’s neon installation Sky Garden (2007) inside the San Francisco Federal Building.
Feher is one of the few participants in the program to make an outdoor, living artwork, which he considers an appropriate gesture toward Rockford, a city replete with public gardens. “There’s a real horticultural consciousness in that community,” he says. “My hope is that they won’t say, ‘Go look at the Tony Feher sculpture.’ They’ll say, ‘Go look at the trees.'”