There’s no missing the big red tree that recently sprouted from the grassy corner of St. James Park at St. John and North First streets. A full 15 feet high or so, its straight trunk is crowned with an intricate forking pattern of bare branches ending in carefully pruned nubby ends. And of course, the tree is red. Real red. Bright shiny red.
This red tree has an official name: Cultural Citizen Tree. It was “planted” (actually, it’s a hollow fiberglass and steel structure with a concrete base) by local artist Hector Dio Mendoza as part of the city’s ongoing “Who’s on 1st/What’s on 2nd” series of public art installations. In honor of the new hands-free law, Mendoza pulled over and parked in order to return Fly’s call about the tree.
He says that he was “thinking of a tree as an icon of nature” and the intersecting branches “as a metaphor for people who come across each other every day in San Jose.” He thinks a little more and hits on just the right phrase: “It’s a family tree.” And the red? “I was thinking of vibrancy and energy,” Mendoza says.
For many people, the tree conjures up darker thoughts—namely, the infamous 1933 lynching in St. James Park. But incredibly, Mendoza says that he didn’t consciously connect his tree with the tragedy while he was working on it. “I found out about that after [the tree] was done,” when he was in L.A., he says, “and saw a project an artist was doing about lynchings.” The symbolic overlap had a powerful effect on the artist: “It blew my mind that I happened to make a tree in that particular site.” Mendoza also recalls that when he was installing the tree, he got to talking to a bystander, who observed that “it looks like a geyser of blood coming from the earth,” perhaps an unconscious reflection of how that terrible day continues to resonate in San Jose.
Mendoza also spent several months walking around downtown San Jose interviewing people about their lives. “I just took my tape recorder and digital camera, and I had some questions written before, but most of the time, I went on to different ideas with people. Some said, no, they didn’t feel comfortable. Some really opened up. ... I wanted it to be a dialogue, not an interview.”
Mendoza collected the interviews and posted them on a website (http://www.culturalcitizen.org). The range of life histories reveals something approaching a global human web. Mendoza’s project quickly became the center of attention. “Every day, I was working on it people left stuff—flowers, candles—like it was a memorial or an altar.” Mendoza himself, who is 38, hails originally from Mexico and has lived in the San Jose area for 15 years. He’s on his way back to Yale to finish his MFA. The tree will be up at least through the end of the year.