Parallels exist between art and trees: An oil painting and a banyan tree can each inspire an admiring enthusiast. They each have the power to stir emotions and connect with the human spirit. When cultivated with purpose and vision, a sacred Japanese bonsai is much like a masterpiece at The Louvre — created with passion and patience by an artist and, if delicately cared for, can survive long after the death of its sculptor.
There’s a similar parallel with the masterfully crafted tree sculptures found in Heliconia Court, the lush outdoor space between the 18 Forum Lane and One Nexus Way buildings in Camana Bay. Humbly nestled among leafy “elephant ears” and bright “lobster claws,” these distinctive trees are living, breathing works of art — a whimsical addition to the gardens with their curvy trunks and coiling branches.
Designed and cultivated under the leadership of Decco Senior Manager Landscape Design & Horticulture Whit Connors, these uniquely sculpted trees have been skillfully shaped over several years by Dart Arboretum Specialty Gardener and artist Silvestre Boongaling.
“They are remarkable works of art,” says Connors. “But unlike a painting or marble sculpture, they aren’t static — this art is alive and its beauty will morph and evolve over time.”
Boongaling’s vocation in arborsculpture started more than 12 years ago when he began working at the West Indian Club Nursery, now the Dart Arboretum, under the guiding vision of Ken Dart, an avid collector of trees.
“Back in the Philippines, I was an engineering graduate,” says Boongaling, “and gardening was a beloved hobby for me. One day I watched a show about bonsai and I was inspired to work with trees in this very artistic way.”
Today, Boongaling continues to be inspired by this ancient art of tree shaping, but his hobby is now his profession. “It’s a dream come true for me to work with bonsai and in arborsculpture every day.”
He describes the arborsculpture work in the Dart family garden as a tight team effort. “I cannot claim all the credit,” he says. “This began as a creative collaboration with Whit [Connors] and with Manuel Dequito, our friend and talented colleague who died two years ago and is missed every day. The three of us worked closely to create a variety of pieces that are still alive and well.”
His love of the craft is evident in his finest work, which currently lives at the West Indian Club gardens outside the Dart family’s private residence. In addition to many bonsai trees, larger arborsculpture pieces include a bicycle, a chair, a gazebo and several terrariums.
Arborsculpture requires a great deal of care and respect for the plant or tree that is being shaped, Boongaling says. The process begins with a seed that is cultivated into a sapling and carefully molded over time until a young tree begins to take the desired shape. Similar to the art of bonsai, the young trees — which are rooted in the ground — are continually sculpted into graceful maturity.
“The tree is alive and you must nurture it so that it can thrive while it takes the shape you have envisioned for it,” he says. “It’s a relationship and a responsibility … how you work with it can mean the difference between life and death for the tree.”
Many species of trees have been experimented with, including many local ones, to see if they will react well to arborsculpture. This is done by challenging the limits of root, trunk and branch bending through gentle yet persistent experimentation. The positive results will lead to the expansion of arborsculpture throughout Dart properties.
Right now, the public can see the Dart Arboretum’s arborsculptures only in Heliconia Court, but that will change.
“We’re looking forward to showcasing arborsculpture beyond Heliconia Court and the private West Indian Club garden,” says Connors. “Doing so means we can share this magnificent art with our local community.” Plans are underway to include them at the National Gallery as well as other public spaces.
In the meantime, art lovers and tree lovers alike can visit Heliconia Court, the leafiest and largest courtyard in Camana Bay, to admire the sculpted trees.
“You may not notice them at first glance,” says Connors. “We purposefully placed them in slightly hidden areas of this jungle-like garden to create a sense of surprise. They’re not calling for attention; rather they are meant to be delightful discoveries.”
Today, the verdant beauty of Heliconia Court is a work of art that uplifts the spirit. Generations from now, it will be hailed as a masterpiece that enchants the soul.