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Poet's Walk: Once there was a forest

James Surls | Los Angeles

Image of Once there was a forest installation Image of Once there was a forest installation


Ernst & Young Plaza
725 S. Figueroa Street
Los Angeles, CA 90017

About the work

A collaboration between poet Robert Creeley and artist James Surls, Once There Was a Forest consists of low, polished, black granite, cylindrical bollards that suggest petrified tree stumps. These are arranged in an arc stretched across the front steps of the Ernst & Young Plaza office building. The top surface of each bollard has a polished pink granite square incised with images and poetry by Robert Creeley. The chosen images correspond to the text and include: a bowl, an ivory billed woodpecker (extinct since 1936), a bed, a pair of human eyes, a rocking chair, and a sailboat.  The bollards provide a place for people to rest and observe the passing traffic, while the poetry etched on the surface act as reminders of a history and space far removed from the quotidian bustle of contemporary life.

They say this used to be a forest with a lake
You went by so quickly thinking there’s a whole world in between
If I sit here long enough, all will pass me by one way or another
World’s still got four corners
No one speaks alone, it comes out of something
What’s still here settles at the edges of this simple place still waiting to be seen
Human eyes are lights to me sealed in this stone
It’s not a final distance.  This here and now

Creeley selected a clear typewritten font to reinforce the simplicity of his poems. To prevent chipping and breakage of the stone, the pink granite panels were sandblasted and engraved with images and verse and the incisions highlighted with India ink. Surls described the installation as “the best thing I have ever done. I felt a real kinship with Creeley. I like the site; I chose the bollards; I got the site I picked; I was pleased with the poetry and I got the images I wanted.”

James Surls received his MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.  Surls was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1979, the Texas Artist of the Year award in 1991, and a “Living Legend Award” from the Dallas Contemporary Art Center in 1993.  Surls has exhibited his work at the Museum of Fine Art, Houston; El Paso Museum of Art; the University of Texas, Tyler; Cranbrook Academy Museum of Art; and the Seattle Arts Museum.