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The sun is just beginning to warm the late morning air as a crowd gathers on the corner of High and Ellicott Streets. Amidst the embraces, handshakes and jovial conversations growing on this small corner of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, camera crews set up tripods and test equipment.

They have all come to dedicate the 8ft tree that now rises from a concrete pedestal above the crowd. The first of many permanent public art installations that the Buffalo Renaissance Foundation hopes to fertilize throughout the city of Buffalo in the upcoming years this is no ordinary tree; The “Spirit of Life Tree” by artist Valeria Cray-Dihaan, composed of graciously curving planes of earthy, clay-colored Corten steel, is the first permanent public art work to be built in Buffalo since the 1980′s.

“Our intention is to collaborate with organizations around the city to tell the story of Buffalo,” said Jake Schneider, President of the Buffalo Renaissance Foundation. “We are thrilled to install the first piece on such a high visibility location on the growing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.” Indeed, the story of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus illustrates the potential for development and expansion in a downtown Buffalo experiencing it’s own rebirth.

The area surrounding the public sculpture still hums with the constant activity and noise of construction crews expanding this “world-class” center for “clinical care, research, education, and entrepreneurship” ( Plastic orange fencing and blocked parking meters portent of near-future areas of development on the BNMC campus. Perhaps a more apt site for this first public art installation in 20 years- forged under a new triumvirate between Buffalo’s powerhouses of business, community development and the arts- could not be found.

For artist Valeria Cray-Dihaan, the BNMC site is all too important to the significance of her sculpture. “The tree is called the Spirit of Life, and I think it’s also about healing, because of where it is. People come here to be healed, and I hope this sculpture can give them a sense of that while they are here.” While insisting that “anything you make, whether it’s art, music or writing, you put your spirit into it, your energy,” Cray-Dihaan muses, “I hope I put good energy into this.”

Hearing her story, it’s clear that a great deal of energy towards growth and positive change went into the creation of the “Spirit of Life Tree.” The piece represents a departure for the artist from her normal territory of small-scale sculpture into that of the monumental, the construction of the massive steel planes requiring a great deal of new research, learning, and sacrifice. “This sculpture was completely new for me. I’ve been cut, burnt. It was not easy for me,” explains Cray-Dihaan.

Even the choice of material lends itself to the spirit of growth and cyclical change that characterizes life, and in a sense, the city of Buffalo itself. “I chose Corten metal after some research, because it becomes stronger with age,” explains Cray-Dihaan. Ultimately designed for a seasonal climate as well, she illustrates “it will be beautiful in the snow, then when it rains in the spring it will turn dark brown, and when the sun comes back out it will turn red again.”

Through collaboration with her son Kris, who owns a metals business, the artist was able to procure the materials, working space, and labor assistance needed in the construction of her vision. “I definitely could not have done it alone,” Cray-Dihaan explains, and acknowledges that there are many people to whom she owes her thanks in making this public artwork possible. Nor could she have done it without the support and advice of Judy Beecher, Jake Schneider, the Buffalo Renaissance Foundation, or the donors whose names grace the base of her sculpture.

It’s almost noon now, and the dedication has ended. The crowd thins out as friends and family of the artist pose for photographs with the newest addition to the Buffalo artscape. The rounded arms of the Spirit of Life Tree, backlit by the mid-day sun and glowing with a beautiful reddish-brown befitting a rust belt Renaissance, appear to cradle the heads of bystanders in a half-halo of cool autumn sky. The tree that grew in Buffalo, raised by a village of caring communities art-lovers and prominent organizations, takes its place as a symbol for the city’s change, growth and healing to come.

By J.S.Cook
Buffalo Rising