April 23, 2007

‘Tree Sculpture’ Burns in Collegetown Fire

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Fire trucks with flashing lights lined College Avenue, and police cars blocked traffic from moving between Oak Avenue and Dryden Road in Collegetown around 8 p.m. yesterday. Students gathered in front of Collegetown Bagels, questioning whether Sheldon Court had caught fire. The commotion? The installation located in the plaza between the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts and Sheldon Court had caught fire.
Ithaca police officer John Arsenault said that he was driving through Collegetown when someone pointed out the fire to him. When he first arrived on the scene, he said, the fire was small. He then went into Collegetown Bagels and asked for a fire extinguisher.
Bryan Kotowski, an employee of Collegetown Bagels and an Ithaca resident, was working when Arsenault came in.
“I just got the [two] fire extinguishers,” Kotowski said. “I just went out with him.”
Arsenault had put out the fire by the time the Ithaca Fire Department arrived.
The installation, made up of six individual structures that resemble tree trunks, was commissioned by the Cornell Council for the Arts. Artist Patrick Dougherty designed and completed the project, which is made of maple and dogwood saplings and branches from the Cornell Plantations and other local sources.
Lieutenant Mahlon Irish of the Ithaca Fire Department, who responded to the fire last night, said that the other parts of the installation could easily have caught fire if the first part kept burning.
“[The fire] had started to go up inside it,” Irish said.
The branches were treated with fire retardent coating when the sculpture was built, according to Irish. He said that they must not have been treated recently, however.
At the time, the IFD was not sure how the fire had started.
“[The fire] probably didn’t start by itself,” Irish said. “Investigation people are coming up.”
Erica Waichman ’09 was in Collegetown Bagels when she realized the installation was on fire.
“There were sparks, and it was smoking.” Waichman said. “It was crazy.”
When the statue — which is titled “Half a Dozen of the Other” — first went up, students had mixed opinions on the sculpture. Some believed it was nice to have an art installation located at the entrance to Collegetown, while others thought that it was eye-sore and interrupted the open area in front of Sheldon Court.
The sculpture was scheduled to remain in place for one year.
Doughtery is the first of five artists to participate in the CCA’s “5 Years/5 Contemporary Installations.”