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The art of trees: An interview with NatureMaker

This week we debuted our most ambitious LED project to date, The tree of lights located at The North Point Mall in Alpharetta, Georgia. An interactive tree reaching heights of 35 ft tall with illuminated leaves, able to change with the seasons and holidays. The tree of lights is a destination attraction that transforms a traditional mall courtyard into an immersive gathering space.

To make this a reality we partnered with NatureMaker who creates incredibly realistic tree sculptures from their Carlsbad, CA workshop. In business for over 36 years NatureMaker has developed remarkable sculptural nature pieces to compliment any exhibit, Indoors, outdoor, and even aquariums. At Britelite we value our relationships with our partners, and we can’t help but want to know more; with that, we sat down with the owners of NatureMaker, Gary Hanick & Jim Paul to tell us a little more about their start, their business, and what inspires them…

Naturescaping” in the 21st century encompasses a broad scope of design options, including multi-story icon oak trees under historic domes; a walk-through rainforest in a tropically themed atrium; even a grove of birch trees landscaped 62 floors in the air.

Architects and planners now have the freedom to creatively incorporate the element of “nature” in their most cutting edge restaurant, hotel, library, museum exhibit, residential and theme park designs. As free-standing elements, or as “column clad” trees (designed to camouflage pillars or I-beams), NatureMaker arboreal sculpture, when integrated into the interior landscape design, brings the outdoors in. “ NatureMaker

 

How would you describe what NatureMaker does?

Jim: For the last 36 years we have built our interpretation of how trees grow, as organic and realistic as possible and in the case of the North Point project it was more of a combination of that realism with the technology of your work.

The tree sculptures are used to transform the feeling of a space, dependant on what goals the client has set. For example a natural history exhibit and you need ancient trees there, or way-finding, like how The North point tree project helps direct the traffic.

“Every tree is different”

How do people respond to your trees?

Gary: People have responded beautifully to North Point, while people were setting up especially at night, people would just sort of flock to it, and after the fact, when it was completed there has been an increase of traffic around the tree. So the response has been really good.

Most of our trees tend to be very realistic and people often wonder how did they get trees to grow here. People get kind of amazed, it’s usually very positive, people just love trees. If you have a restaurant and put a tree in there, those are the first seats people are going to ask for.

How did NatureMaker get started?

Gary: It all started with Bennet Abram’s art in San Francisco – NatureMaker started off in the mountains, and that was Bennet’s inspiration, the national forest. It started as something Bennet wanted to do on a more serious basis, everything he did prior to trees was tiny, but expanded his vision from micro to macro. Bennet has been gone for 15 years, but back in the 90s he was asked to work with LEDs but the technology was not up to where it is now, but I know if he was around to see the tree at North Point, he would be really happy, it really is the four seasons, which is something he always inspired to create, the four seasons of life. The project would be near and dear to him, the technology of it, and what the technology does. That’s what made this particular tree special to me.

“The long and storied journey of NatureMaker began in the mountains of Idyllwild, California in 1983, when Bennett Abrams and Gary Hanick began experimenting with hardwood limbs and branches and other natural materials they found while exploring the forest. Their earliest works, conceived as “sapling” trees, became recognized as objets d’art by major retailers such as Macy’s San Francisco and Marshall Fields in Chicago.

Later their artificial trees were discovered by architects and interior designers and are now found in museum exhibits, libraries, lobby designs, restaurant interiors, themed environments, residences and all sorts of interior landscapes.”  – NatureMaker

How would you describe the North Point project to someone that has never seen it?

Gary: A friend described it as the dancing tree, because of the particular programming of the tree, but to me it’s the tree of light, the four seasons of the oak tree. Jim described it as a wayfinding tree – a play on nature and technology, people are going to want to see it. How Britelite programmed the various leaves and what it does, it’s also a fluid tree because it’s never constant, it’s always shifting and pulsating, and moving.  An abstract oak tree, part of what it does is make people feel better in terms of elevating people’s moods and consciousness, I think it has a positive effect.

From your perspective, What is the value of this project to the viewer?

Gary: Here’s a story — a couple years ago we were asked by a fundraising member of burning man to create one of our trees with LED lights, which we knew nothing about, even though we had been making trees for all these years. That’s where the idea for North point sort of got hatched, and our friend encouraged us to do this tree at burning man, well she went to burning man and she was telling me people were blown away by it, and the first night of burning man there was a wedding under the tree – at burning man it was the number one most photographed feature for that month. That is one of the goals with North Points, a photograph destination.

Tree of Tenere

Created in collaboration with Symmetry Labs

What elements of nature inspire NatureMaker the most?

Gary & Jim: It depends on what kind of tree the client wants, like for instance I like oak trees for inspiration – it’s like a dancing person when you really look at it, and people just really like to be around other people, so they are just naturally drawn to trees like that. We collect things from all over the world that inspire us, that we can use in the future.

We are inspired by the location of the project site as well. We did a project in Fresno for the airport, and they had us go to the Sequoia National Park for inspiration. We were able to collect artifacts with the national park service, and it ended up being a great opportunity and lent to the project.

“We are ultimately Inspired by the location of the project site.”

There is a long list of what makes NatureMaker installations sustainable, and I’m excited to talk about that with you: Did you always know you wanted the works to be eco-friendly?

Gary & Jim: Absolutely, when Bennet Abrams started this company, that was his whole ethos – he wanted to preserve what is, and not run it over. We are not trying to replace nature. Everything on the trees is recyclable, and mostly pre-recycled content, and almost zero VOC, everything we use is water soluble. “

“NatureMaker’s artistic trees are constructed of raw materials with a recycled content of 75%, depending on the design.
Our artistic trees are designed for durability, ease of disassembly, and minimal maintenance. 50% to 75% of the component parts are designed to be readily recycled at the end of the tree’s life.” – NatureMaker

Are you looking for new and improved ways to lessen environmental impact?

Gary & Jim: We are always looking for new and improved ways to do everything, each tree is supposed to be better than the one before. We just recently switched to water soluble primers to prevent rust, and it’s all safe, that’s our latest improvement.

We are proud of it, these designs will be around long after we are gone.

 

Tell me about NatureMaker’s role in the North Point project?

Gary & Jim: We were commissioned to build the tree for burning man, and a friend showed one of the developers of North point images of the burning man tree, our friend made that initial connection more than a year and a half ago. Developers are paying attention to what’s trending now, to bring together the community.

“Brookfield properties sought a high impact feature as a centerpiece for Alpharetta Georgia’s North Point Mall revitalization. In partnership with NatureMaker, Britelite created an immersive tree installation for the Center Court of the property. The North Point tree is an ever-changing Illuminated tree with a 30’ canopy and over 77.000 individually controllable LEDs. The tree features custom LED leaf and branch fixtures, mounted on a hand-sculpted artisan tree.” – Britelite Immersive

How do you see your business evolving or changing in the future?

Gary & Jim: We have the engineering, technology, and the artistry to do these big interactive trees, indoors or outdoors, that’s what we really enjoy doing. Everyone wants what’s new, everything changes, we have to evolve.

 

What is your most memorable project?

Gary & Jim: The last project we did, everything else fades into the background, because we are focused on the present.

Thank you to Gary and Jim of NatureMaker for taking the time to be interviewed! We have a follow up blog coming next week that dives deeper into the “tree of lights” North Point project. If you would like to learn more about how this project came to life, stay tuned.

Britelite Immersive is a creative technology agency that designs experience centers and immersive environments. Read more about our capabilities or view our work.

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