It’s one of the best-loved and most often-repeated tales of scientific discovery: the “Eureka” moment when 17th century physicist Isaac Newton discovered gravitational force while watching an apple fall from a tree in his mother’s garden in Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire. The self-same tree, a traditional cooking apple variety, is now over 400 years old and is still fruiting, despite having been threatened by storm damage in the 19th century.
Now, three trees grown from seeds from Newton’s tree stand in the grounds of Colaiste Íde agus Iosef in Abbeyfeale in Co Limerick; as a symbol of the legacy of scientific endeavour, it is hoped that they will help to plant seeds of inspiration in fertile young minds for generations to come.
The trees are part of an extensive multidisciplinary arts project entitled Planting a Seed, commissioned under the Per Cent for Art scheme, where 1% of the cost of any publicly funded building project can be allocated to the provision of a piece of public art.
Artists Carol Anne Connolly and Augustine O’Donoghue collaborated with students and the local community on a year-long, seasonal project. The resulting output includes a bronze sculpture, a light installation based on Newton’s theory of light, an orchard of local heritage apple trees and a book documenting the project.
“Working in a context like a school, for us it wasn’t about going in and presenting our own work but about bringing people on that journey with us,” O’Donoghue says. Educational elements of the project included Transition Year students learning tree-grafting and seed saving techniques alongside the artists, and attending a workshop on light in the O’Brien Institute in Dublin, home to UCD’s art and science programme.
Working with the accessible symbolism of the apple tree and Newton’s moment also provided the key to paying homage to local heritage and tradition. One of the lasting artefacts, a delicate bronze sculpture of an apple tree branch complete with an apple battling the forces of gravity, which now graces the entrance hall to the newly built school, saw the artists ask locals for donations of apple tree branches for the casting process.
“We literally went around the town knocking on doors,” O’Donoghue says. “People told us their stories and gave us parts of their trees. It’s so exciting to think that their stories and legacies are there in the sculpture, and will be there forever.”
O’Donoghue and Connolly were well-positioned for the project; they say that an element of community engagement normally informs their work. The pair met while studying in the National College of Art and Design, when they attended the World Social Forum in Brazil
O’Donoghue says that the role of contemporary art can be viewed as much broader than just the provision of a piece of artwork.
“We wanted to push the boundaries of people’s understanding of what contemporary art is,” she says. “It doesn’t have to just be a sculpture; going off into your own studio and making the work and arriving into the school was something that we knew we didn’t want all along.”
Shane Curtin was the secretary of the Per Cent for Art committee at the school. He says it was vital to the committee, which was comprised of students, teachers and parents as well as expert advisors, that the commission wasn’t an “off-the-peg” piece of work, but one that genuinely reflected the position of the new school, at the centre of a rural community.
“We thought this should be a thorough process, respecting the artist and their vision, but equally that there should be some engagement with the social space that it occupies and the people who pass it every day,” Curtin, who teaches at the school, says.
Inundated with artists’ proposals, Curtin found they varied in their commitment to engage with Abbeyfeale as a unique location.
“On one of the applications, there was a typo; it was obvious that it was originally intended for a different school. Obviously, it was a carbon copy of a different application and they send the same thing to every school. Which is fine, I suppose, but it’s as relevant as somebody getting a contract to install projectors or something.”
The result of O’Donoghue and Connolly’s painstaking collaborations has been a multi-disciplinary body of work that has quite literally planted a seed for the students and the community they are a part of, Curtin says, and most inspiring of all may be the living part of the project: the trees themselves.
“In the future, the apples might be used in a home economics class, or in other ways. It’s already inspiring our students: one of the junior cert class has made a wooden artefact for his materials science and technology project which is based on the theme of celebrating Newton’s apple. Students are passing it every day, and will take their own inspiration from it.”
Documenting the project in book form has made the artistic process transparent and accessible, as well as documenting the stories of those who were involved, Connolly says.
“One of the families who donated a branch for the sculpture told us that it came from a tree that their grandfather had grown from seed,” Connolly says.
“The tree was about to be cut due to a problem with storm damage. It was really important to them that his grandchildren would be walking past this part of his legacy every day on their way in to school.”
These and other stories, as well as pictures of the students at workshops, form a book which the artists now hope may be of benefit to other schools who want to use the Per Cent for Art scheme in new builds and renovations.
It will take pride of place in the school library, but will also be accessible in PDF form through publicart.ie, the website portal for Per Cent for Art commissions.
Most of all, Connolly says, the educational element of Planting a Seed was a two-way street, equally enriching for the artists and the students.
“It broadened our horizons too; it broadened everybody’s,” she says.
“The day we took the students to Dublin was the first time some of them had been in a gallery, and being there with them for that was amazing.
It was great to go through the whole process as a group.”