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Alan LeQuire’s Dream of Trees

The tale behind the legendary sculptor’s latest installation at the Four Seasons

Alan LeQuire working in the “Dream Forest” of the studio behind his gallery. Photograph by Chuck Allen

Maaan, there’s a story there!”

– you think when you first lay eyes on the “Dream Forest” sculptures at Four Seasons Hotel and Residences on First Avenue and Demonbreun. 

Unlike the eleventy-four other new silver buildings downtown, the storied Four Seasons has distinctive presence. First is the iconic, easy-to-find location, hard up against the pedestrian bridge. Its 50 floors have a front-row seats for riverfront goings-on.

And second, Four Seasons acquired three monumental, stylized, distinctive cement tree trunk/human torso sculptures from local sculptor Alan LeQuire.  ADVERTISEMENT
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To paraphrase David Byrne, “Well, how did they get there?” There has to be a story, right? One does not simply make a cement forest of trees with human features and install it at the Four Seasons. 

Any number of back stories and preceding events could be a starting point. The marvelous thing about LeQuire’s long, productive art career in Nashville is that there are a lot of places you could jump into his story, because there’s a lot of LeQuire art in Nashville. And the wonderful thing about that is that even if you’re not into art, not from Nashville, or have never heard of LeQuire, you’ve likely interacted with at least one of his sculptures.

Wood prints of "Dream Forest" by LeQuire share space with the organic wood sculptures of William Kooienga, whose work is also prominently featured at the new Four Seasons.

 Wood prints of “Dream Forest” by LeQuire share space with the organic wood sculptures of William Kooienga, whose work is also prominently featured at the new Four Seasons.

The Nashville of Musica, Athena, and Jefferson Street

At the top of the “likely seen” list is the “Musica” sculpture. “Musica” is the monumental sculpture at the center of the Midtown roundabout on the north end of Music Row. Its explosive expression of joy, dance, and rhythm is iconic now, but at the time of its installation, Nashville wasn’t so ready for a dynamic sculpture of nudes near the home of Hank Williams. Radio hosts at the time poked fun at it, nicknaming it “The Round-a-Butt” and “Nudica.” 

“Sculpture gives form and meaning to the mess that surrounds it.”

– Alan LeQuire

And there’s the massive statue of a stoic Athena inside the Parthenon, unveiled in 1990 to a Nashville that was equally thrilled, baffled (Why so big?), and scandalized (Those chunky thighs! Those toes – gurrrrll!”). It was LeQuire’s first big public piece, a herculean effort involving 42 tons of clay, dozens of volunteers, several laborious versions, and years of casting before the public presentation.

Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the seven monumental heads in “Cultural Heroes,” a traveling exhibit of heroic-size likenesses of Bessie Smith, Marian Anderson, Woody Guthrie, Billie Holiday, Lead Belly, Paul Robeson, and Josh White. Formed much larger than life-sized, the heads have a classical, timeless quality, but also, each performer is depicted in open-mouthed song, paying tribute to their art. The series is quietly groundbreaking for representing individuals of color in an artistic modality rarely used to depict black and brown people.ADVERTISEMENT
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These are the LeQuire big ideas: cultural icons, commemorations, and celebrations.

But his most recent piece, the cement trunks at the Four Seasons, is its own creature. It’s a thing of beauty, but also of the menace in unknown places and unseen things. The hotel’s website places the trunks in context of the original forests of the Southeast. Okay, maybe it’s that, too. However you approach it, “Dream Forest” is one of those pieces that looks inevitable, eternal, like it’s always existed. 

Alan LeQuire's "Dream Forest" installation at the new Four Seasons Hotel and Residences

 Alan LeQuire’s “Dream Forest” installation at the new Four Seasons Hotel and Residences

Whichever of your primal strings “Dream Forest” twangs, being near the piece, or even just walking past it, is some kind of a strong vibe.

How it started

The story of “Dream Forest” is actually a set of stories. LeQuire had a dream as a child that he calls a “waking vision,” but which he also says might have been a breakdown episode. “They were these very frightening waking visions that involved big abstract forms that were overtaking me or suffocating me. The trees’ trunks were [human] torsos.” 

A scale model of "Dream Forest," which has been installed at the newly opened Four Seasons.

 A scale model of “Dream Forest,” which has been installed at the newly opened Four Seasons. 

Detail of the "bark" and etching of writer Madison Smartt Bell's poetry in one of the prototypes.

 Detail of the “bark” and etching of writer Madison Smartt Bell’s poetry in one of the prototypes.

 Much later, in his forties, LeQuire again had a dream/vision of tree trunks as torsos. “I know it sounds crazy, but it actually happened,” he says. But this time the vision was entirely positive. “[The trees] were the opposite, emotionally, from what they had been when I was a child. They were warm and supportive. I had a tremendous feeling of welcome from my ancestors.”

LeQuire has always taken a systematic approach to executing his artistic ideas. To create “Dream Forest,” he says he combed through those dreams of tree/torsos “for the specifics of the forms.” Where, exactly, did the tree and torso morph and meld? What should the texture look like? He wanted to capture precisely the remembered beauty and balefulness.

He then set out to fabricate the trunk torsos in three dimensions. His closest friends not only encouraged him to proceed with the project, some of them offered to help.ADVERTISEMENT
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Writer Madison Smartt Bell, a Nashville native and friend of LeQuire’s with an accomplished body of fiction and nonfiction, helped LeQuire shape narratives from what he could remember of the dreams. “He’s very interested in dreams,” LeQuire says of Bell. “He took my narratives and embellished them with his own dreams, and the result is a beautiful long poem that is inscribed in the originals as a poem in nine sections – one for each of the original tree torsos.”

The poems didn’t make it onto the final cement sculptures – the process of carving words into the cement turned out to be too fiddly. But while the poems do enhance the works, they’re not critical to the message of the trees. Just their presence is a monumental message, a reminder of a forest’s sacred beauty and peace, but also its potential for menace and danger.

Massive-scale heads sit alongside miniature maquettes at LeQuire's fantastical gallery on Charlotte Avenue.

 Massive-scale heads sit alongside miniature maquettes at LeQuire’s fantastical gallery on Charlotte Avenue.

Looking for LeQuires

Lequire’s tree torsos are just the most recent example of his prolific public art. Nashville boasts so many LeQuire sculptures, it’s practically its own sculpture trail. 

In addition to giant Athena inside the Parthenon, Centennial Park also has the suffragists, a bronze grouping of ladies in hats holding posters demanding women’s right to vote. (Tennessee was the state that ratified women’s suffrage, led largely by Nashvillian Ann Dallas Dudley.) 

Mildred Stahlman, founder of the first pediatric intensive care department, commissioned a mother-and-baby sculpture from LeQuire, and sprinkled around town and beyond you can find LeQuire likenesses of Tommy Frist, Cornelia Fort, Albert Schweitzer, Harvey Branscomb, Jack Massey, Jack Daniel, Cordell Hull, and many more. There are LeQuire pieces in Knoxville and Chattanooga. There’s a “David” with his harp in Birmingham, Alabama, and also at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt.  ADVERTISEMENT
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LeQuire has said, “Sculpture gives form and meaning to the mess that surrounds it.” In retrospect, that was true for his terrible childhood nightmare that turned into a dream. We may similarly hope that “Dream Forest” will bring form and meaning to the block at First Avenue and Demonbreun. 

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Local Artists Everywhere

While Alan LeQuire’s “Dream Forest” is by far the largest and most noticeable piece of local art at the Four Seasons Hotel and Residences, it’s not alone. Works by notable local artists are scattered throughout the hotel and residences. And the pieces by non-Tennessee artists all have strong connections to music or to the natural beauty of the state.

“Originally, the directive by [Four Seasons] ownership was, ‘We want to celebrate local artists, both emerging and established,’ ” says Barbara Lewis. The owner of Lewis Art Consulting, she co-curated the property’s art collection with ZONAMACO Art Fair founder Zélika Garcia.

“That was the overall direction for us. Ownership had some connections and put together a list of some artists to reach out to, and from there we just took it and ran with it,” Lewis says. “Not just artwork that was good, but also artwork that fit the hotel and the hotel’s design. It was really the collaboration and working with the spirit of Nashville, having classic and eclectic artwork.”

The Four Seasons’ local collection includes significant works by sculptors Andy Harding and Vadis Turner in the hotel lobby and restaurant areas. The cavernous events space boasts abstracts by Kristi Hargrove, Lindsay Davis and Wendy Walker Silverman. Art in the spa and gym area was chosen to reflect Tennessee’s pastoral beauty, with photographs by Jeff Frazier and Don Dudenbostel, as well as paintings by Tess Davies in the women’s spa.

The commitment to local artists continues on the residences side of the property, as well, where Lewis also curated the artwork. “The residence side for me was really special,” she says. “That was more of a nod to Nashville’s nature and organic side.”

The residences reception area boasts a large sculpture by Nashville-based sculptor William Kooienga carved from the salvaged trunk of a fallen osage orange tree, which is native to the region. Five additional Kooienga sculptures, each carved from a different native tree, are installed on a private upper-level terrace.

-Kristin Whittlesey

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