“I offered $10,000 for it,” he adds. “It was just a log.” After a year of failed negotiations, he decided to look for another dead tree to use for a sculpture. “I spent a year hiking, and I saw a lot of logs,” he says. “All over California I hiked.” But none could match the original in its shape or in its singular pattern of rot. That first dead tree just spoke to Ray. So he drove back and took it. “You know, with chain saws.”
As with most of his works, he didn’t really know what he was going to do with the tree. He thought about making a giant inflatable piece, but he was turned off by the inevitable technical flaws. Still not sure where he was going with it, he made molds of the log, inside and outside, and cast it in fiberglass. Then it dawned on him: Turn the tree back into a tree. He shipped it to Japan, where master carvers, working in the manner of their 11th-century forebears, spent five years carving every sliver of bark, every crack, every insect burrow into Japanese cypress, or hinoki.
“I think the tree is his greatest achievement,” says Schimmel, who put up a fight to acquire Hinoki for MoCA. (Instead, pending trustee approval, it will head to the Art Institute of Chicago; Ray apparently wanted it to go to his hometown.) “The idea of both the cast and the carving on the foundation of the found object is a real achievement. The piece itself is just insane. You look at it, and you see it one way from a distance. Then you come closer, and you know why he had to have that tree.”
For Ray the bends in the road, the blind turns, are what making sculpture is about. “What makes an interesting work is what the trip’s like to the artifice,” he says. “It’s where you finally find the crack in the foundation.” •