Where Money Grows on Trees

Utopia; paradise; Shangri-la.  Abundance. Lush tropical forest. Grounds For Sculpture, with its fantastical artwork, opulent gardens and peacocks strutting their stuff, is a nice place to site a utopia.

And artist Ming Fay has done just that. Canutopia, a name derived from the words “canopy” and “utopia,” fills the new East Gallery with the fruits of abundance, fanciful shapes, colors and forms.

Given the recent spike in visitation at the Hamilton-based museum, you probably have been there recently. If not you will be treated to new wings, acreage and artwork. Having survived the economic downturn with an ever-changing cast of characters at the intersection of Sloan Avenue and Klockner Road by GFS founder J. Seward Johnson Jr., as part of Sculpture Along the Way, the Hamilton-based museum opened the 10,000 square foot  East Gallery of the Seward Johnson Center for the Arts earlier this month.

With a state-of-the-art catering kitchen for special events, the facility, available for weddings, bar mitzvahs and the like, even includes a gallery. The stipulation is, the artwork needs to hang from the ceiling, a la Maurizio Catalan’s retrospective hanging from the oculus in the Guggenheim Museum last winter.

Ming Fay’s work so fits the bill, one has to ask: What took so long to bring him here?

All that’s missing is a monkey to swing through this jungle. “Monkeys get in trouble (for their mischief),” says Fay. “It becomes a metaphor for me.”

This is a 30-year retrospective for Fay, whose work has been exhibited everywhere from the Whitney Museum and Queens Museum of Art in New York to the Museum of Art, Hong Kong, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai. There are more than 100 works in mixed media here. Many start with a wire armature and are built up with paper pulp, clay, polyurethane foam and paint.

Fay is a lifelong student of botany. He has studied it the age-old scientific way: by observing. He understands biological forms so well, he can play with their scale and form to create whimsy. Inspired by some aspect of a plant, he will research it and create his own interpretation.

“I have always had this idea of searching for utopia,” says Fay, a New York resident who teaches at William Paterson College. “Utopia is not a fixed place, it’s an idea that can be seen from different perspectives. All utopias come and go. Utopia is a human idea, an illusion.”

That original utopia, the Garden of Eden, vanished after sin. And communism, another utopia, just didn’t work out the way it was supposed to. “All of these ideas changed in reality,” Fay says.

Born in Shanghai in 1943 and raised in Hong Kong, where his mother was an artist and his father an art director for films, Fay came to the U.S. in 1961 to study at Columbus College of Art and Design. He studied at Kansas City Institute of Art, and earned a graduate degree in sculpture at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“My parents were a strong impetus on my becoming an artist,” Fay says. He lived in China during political turmoil, and communists were preaching utopian ideals. His parents reacted by leaving Shanghai for Hong Kong. “I was struggling with the ideas, and so came to America for a different kind of utopia.” Fay found New York devoid of nature so created his own.

Fay’s ideas of utopia changed when he witnessed his new nation fighting the Vietnam War. “Where is all this going? In our struggles to create food, we are causing pollution and climate change. Then you realize utopia is just another idea.

“Humankind has always been interested in symbols,” he continues. “The Chinese symbols are longevity, spirituality and love. My earlier work aggrandized fruit and vegetables, but fruit has no meaning. People like to assign meaning because of its looks.”

The cherry, he says, has a sexual connotation in both Asian and Western cultures. The pomegranate, with its seeds, is a symbol of fertility.

One wall of the East Gallery contains ominous black forms like bats, their wings outstretched. With dimples, ridges and horns, each of these shapes is unique. These forms are based on a relative of the Chinese water chestnut, or caltrop, a nut that symbolizes, in Chinese folklore, spirituality and inspiration.

“Westerners call it devil’s fruit,” says Fay. The Chinese see is as a spiritual seed. It’s edible and used as a starch, but its fierce shape also suggests sexuality.

Another plant that fascinates him is the money tree. The mythical Chinese money tree can bring good fortune, and is a symbol of wealth and nobility. “It doesn’t exist, but everyone wants the tree that can generate money,” Fay says. In a sense, “all trees that bear fruit and seed can be considered money trees.”

In this region, the “money plant,” “silver dollar,” or “honesty,” (botannical name, lunaria), with a purple blossom in the spring, forms a papery seed pod that lasts through winter and resembles silver coins. Fay has great fun playing with this form, creating large silver dollar pods made from hemp and filled with seeds — they hang like giant fans.

There are also many wishbones. “My first wish on a wish bone was for a son,” says Fay.

Parker, 28, helps with his father’s installation, as he’s done in Hong Kong and Shanghai. He reminisces about growing up in a large loft in Union Square in the 1980s, with oversized fruit as toys. Sometimes he’d help to make wire and papier mache pods and leaves.

“For me it was like furniture but when my friends came over they thought it was so cool,” says the younger Fay, recounting how the work evolved from oversized peppers, pears, peanuts and brazil nuts to more invented works inspired by nature. “His work has more raw energy now. Before it was on the floor, but in the last 10 years it’s been hanging from the ceiling. It’s evolved into something more wild.”

Parker, who studied international relations at Columbia, works in emerging markets for the Economist. His father never pushed him to be an artist, but presented it as a option. “I have a strong interest in the arts and am always proud of my father, so I enjoy working my creative juices during these installations. I have fun and understand my father’s vision.”

Curator of Exhibitions Virginia Steele was assembling stacks of silver dollars for one of the money trees. “We spent a lot of time researching who we wanted in the new space,” she says. “Ming has a long and distinguished career and is a natural fit for this space. Although he lives in the city he’s so aware of the healing force for nature, where we can refresh and re-create ourselves.”

Giant mussel shells, periwinkle, shark teeth – “these are relics of another age,” says Steele.

Ginger-like roots, a wasp nest, berries, maple seed pods and catalpa pods, star anise, gumballs, osage orange, horse chestnut, a sort of tree house with a pear and hot peppers, waxy gobs of color – how does one begin fitting all this into a new home?

“It’s an intuitive feeling about where to place it within the concept of Canutopia,” says Fay. “With the space as a stage, you design what goes where and set it up. It starts to work, then you evolve until it’s done. Either the time is up, or you’re exhausted.”

“It just may be paradise,” says Steele.

Ming Fay: Canutopia is on view in the East Gallery, Seward Johnson Center for the Arts, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, through February, 2013. 609-586-0616; www.groundsforsculpture.org