Los Angeles art show features historic Barnsdall olive wood

The Barnsdall Art Park in East Hollywood, California has spent its pandemic years getting a makeover. The park is known for its art center and the site of Hollyhock House, designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. But central to this urban oasis is a historic 463-tree olive grove. And now an innovative olive-wood themed art exhibit and online auction is raising money to plant an additional forty trees.

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The Barnsdall Olive Wood Workshop Exhibition and Online Auction opened November 13 for in-person viewing at the contemporary art gallery Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Twenty-one well known local LA artists, architects, designers and landscape artists have their work in the show. All the pieces feature Barnsdall olive wood from a recent pruning. The online auction closes December 4.

Related: LA’s Barnsdall Art Park revives historic olive grove

The show’s mission is to improve the air quality of East Hollywood — piggybacking on L.A.’s Green New Deal, a sweeping initiative that includes planting 90,000 new trees — and to further beautify the grounds. Canadian immigrant and real estate broker Joseph H. Spires originally planted a commercial olive grove here in the 1890s. In 1919, he sold the property to oil heiress, philanthropist and art lover Aline Barnsdall. She hired Frank Lloyd Wright to build Hollyhock House, which became L.A.’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Inhabitat talked to two artists participating in the Barnsdall Olive Wood Workshop Exhibition and Online Auction: Sevag Pakradouni of Sev’s Wood Crafts and Kasey Toomey of landscape architecture design firm TERREMOTO. Here’s what they had to say about turning wood from historic trees into new works of art.

Inhabitat:  How did you get involved with the Barnsdall Olive Wood show?

Sev: My daughter Katherine was the horticulturist and project manager for the recent Olive Grove Initiative which was created in partnership with the Barnsdall Art Park Foundation, the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Los Angeles Parks Foundation. One of the aspects of this initiative involved a horticultural survey of the grove’s existing olive trees and the careful pruning of 400 trees. When I heard that they were going to be pruning the olive trees, I immediately recommended that the wood be saved and utilized, rather than chipped or discarded. 

Olivewood is a valuable wood, and one of my philosophies as a wood worker is to salvage and create functional art out of wood that might otherwise go to waste. We worked with the contractors who pruned the trees so that all pieces of wood two inches in diameter or greater were saved and safely stored to be made into future art that would benefit the Barnsdall Art Park Foundation’s goal to restore the grove. Even though some of the wood was still “green” and not yet workable, there were enough dried pieces to initiate this art project mere months after the grove was pruned. After the remainder of the wood cures, we will have even more to work with in years to come.

Inhabitat: Tell us about the pieces you made for the show.

Sev: In my woodworking, I like to combine form with function, art with utility. When I thought of the era when this grove of olive trees became the foundation for the landscape of the Hollyhock House, I wanted my piece to harken back to that period of time in history, so I decided to use my piece of olivewood to make bases for lamps utilizing (now modern LED versions) Edison light bulbs. I let each piece of wood guide my hand to create what it would eventually become, so each lamp base has a different shape and feel from the other.

Since Sev’s Wood Crafts is a family affair, my daughter utilized her selected piece of olivewood to create a pyrographic drawing entitled . She cut and arranged the wood to form her canvas and then burned her designs into the wood freehand.  She never knows what her designs will be in advance, but allows the wood and her instincts to guide the process.  Olivewood is easy to burn and provides a good contrast, as it is light in color and relatively uniformly textured.

Toomey: We selected the most gnarly piece of olive wood we could find, and our creative process started from there. We riffed on the hollyhock/spine motif found throughout the Hollyhock House, specifically the Hollyhock House chairs. We repositioned the olive wood branch as the spine for our stool seat as a direct reference to the olive grove. Also, we utilized wood offcuts from the detritus of our creative practice, highlighted by the red painted board end of the fir that was slapped on at the milling yard. As environmentally-conscious designers and artists, we work hard to use everything with love and care and often are most inspired by what’s left behind. We aim to create environments and objects that are aesthetically, ecologically and metaphysically provocative and productive.

Inhabitat:  Have you worked with olive wood before? How is it different from other woods?

Sev:  I’ve worked with olivewood before and have always liked its character in finished products. I’ve made vases, bottle stoppers, pens, belaying pins, hair forks and other items, and it never ceases to amaze me. It takes a natural high luster and is highly prized for its dense, intricate grain pattern when the wood is particularly old.  Fun fact: our cats seem to react to the smell of the wood as they do to catnip. If I have shavings on my shoes or olivewood in the house, it isn’t long before they’ve taken notice. 

It’s not always easy to find large pieces of olivewood, so I often try to use whatever I can find from trimmings and cast-offs that are considered “leftovers” from other wood workers or carpenters. I can’t abide waste, so I will work with pieces small enough to make a simple hair stick or wooden pendant that my daughter burns with a design in order to maximize its use. Our backyard is a testament to my inability to see wood go to waste, as we have piles of wood we’ve salvaged from the neighborhood, whether it’s a 60-year-old apricot tree the neighbor just cut down, or chunks of miscellaneous wood I’ve intercepted on its way to the chipper.

Toomey:  We hadn’t worked with olive wood as a material before, but we have planted many olive trees in our landscape practice. We chose to not manipulate or mill the olive branch into wood. Instead, to honor its natural form, we kept it as is. 

Inhabitat:  How do you feel about the Barnsdall olive trees?

Sev:  The most exciting olive trees in the grove are the oldest trees. There are 46 of the 463 trees in the grove which are 130 years old and original to the grove prior to the Hollyhock House being built. The wood that comes from the gnarled branches or stumps of one of those older trees has some of the most unique and beautiful character inside. To see a stump remaining from one of those older trees and to know that its demise years ago was treated like the demise of any other dead city tree — meaning it was chipped into mulch and processed as green waste — causes me physical pain to think about.

Toomey:  While they are a remnant of a more agrarian past, nonetheless they remain and persist — offering habitat, shade and food for birds, insects and humans. The integration of the existing olive grove into the Barnsdall landscape design by Frank Lloyd Wright is analogous to our entire design ethos where landscapes are curated amalgamations of place — the past, present and future.