BYU rebuilds iconic ‘Tree of Wisdom’

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The iconic campus sculpture, “Tree of Wisdom,” is being rebuilt north of the Joseph Smith Building and will be complete by the end of December, according to a Todd Hollingshead, media manager for University Communications.

Hollingstead stated that the sculpture was demolished in 2011 due to the natural wear and tear on the piece.

“After all those years, it had been not as stable as it had been when it was first constructed,” Hollingstead said. “They analyzed it and realized that the wear and tear had taken its toll on it. They made the decision to tear it down, so they could rebuild it and do a new version of the same sculpture that would be more stable and last longer.”

The statue was originally built in 1975 and was designed by a then part-time faculty member, Frank J. Nackos. According to the BYU website the sculpture consists of 10 evenly spaced, curved panels that weigh two tons each. In 1996, the sculpture was moved from its original location north of the Harold B. Lee Library to make room for an extension.

Nackos said the design for the sculpture suddenly came into his mind long before he had the opportunity to have the sculpture on campus. He entered the design into a contest for on-campus art, and his design was approved and accepted.

“While I’d been working on my master’s degree in 1974, a sudden idea came into my mind,” Nackos said. “This complete sculpture came into my mind, and I could turn it around and see it. I made a drawing and a little model. Something inside just said, ‘Set that aside. There’s a place for it,’ so I did.”

The “Tree of Wisdom” is being rebuilt north of the Joseph Smith Building. Photo by: Whitnie Soelberg

Nackos said he originally thought the sculpture would not be approved because of its modernist design, but he was glad that it did. He said he considers this sculpture is his greatest accomplishment in art because of the impact it has made.

“I’ve done a number of large sculptures in a lot of places and galleries,” Nackos said. “That sculpture was the jewel of all my sculptures. It’s the one that I’m most appreciative of because I felt I had a special inspiration to produce that sculpture and make sure it was held in the proper place.”

The “Tree of Wisdom” has become an icon for BYU campus. Brian Christensen, associate professor of visual arts, was a student of Nackos and remembers seeing the statue as a Provo teenager and BYU student.

“I grew up in Provo since I was 13,” Christensen said. “I remember seeing it as a kid. I think the more I looked at it and lived with it, the more it came to mean to me as a symbol of the tree of knowledge and how actually using a modernist approach to that symbol actually says something about our campus and our students and our attitude towards things.”

Nackos said his original message behind the design of the sculpture surrounded the idea of using seeping one’s roots deep into the soils of knowledge and then branching out and sharing that knowledge with others. He also hopes students will find their own meaning in the piece.

“The message is that their experience at BYU is one of preparing for the future to grow,” Nackos said. “But it’s also just a sculpture in terms of the beauty of form. I would hope that they would walk around it and contemplate it, so they can interpret it themselves.”

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