Lighting the Tree of Resilience

Western Montana Lighting has the honor of supporting art installation for Parkinson’s disease awareness

Several years ago, local artists Carolyn Maier and Hadley Ferguson started dreaming about an art project that would raise awareness of Parkinson’s disease, connect members of the community, and bring resources to Montana. What began as an idea that interwove the artists individual stories and inspirations ultimately became a powerful piece of art that stands as a testament to the stories of thousands of people whose lives have been influenced by Parkinson’s.

The Tree of Resilience, as the piece is called, has deep roots in Missoula. Carolyn is both the Executive Director of the Silver Foundation and a trained photographer. Hadley Ferguson is a Missoula-based artist who was diagnosed with a rare form of Parkinson’s called Multiple Systems Atrophy at the age of 39. (Take a drive down Broadway near Higgins to see her mural of historic Missoula.) You might recognize Carolyn’s name in connection with Western Montana Lighting from the collaborative Silver Light Scholarship, which supports students seeking degrees in the Sustainable Construction Technology Program at Missoula College.

Carolyn was inspired by her family friend and mentor, Morris Silver, a local businessman, philanthropist, and avid gardener who lived with Parkinson’s for 30 years. Morris built a large greenhouse in midtown Missoula in the 1950s and, between its glass walls, cultivated dozens of tropical fruit trees, flowering shrubs, and tea roses that otherwise wouldn’t survive in Western Montana. Among his bountiful botanicals was a grapefruit tree grown from seed that, year after year, would outgrow the greenhouse and break through its windowpanes. Every year, Morris would faithfully prune its branches, replace the panes, and continue to nurture the tree.

For Carolyn, and the Silver Foundation on the whole, the grapefruit tree became a symbol of resilience – so much so that the foundation’s logo is a grapefruit tree bursting from a greenhouse. When she and Hadley originally began brainstorming the piece, their intention was to create a sculpted tree that would be on display at Missoula’s Silver Park. Gradually, the project evolved to tell the stories of people with Parkinson’s, and it became a symbol of connection and hope, inspired by Morris Silver and his resilient grapefruit tree.

Every one of the thousands of mango paper leaves features a quote from a person whose life has been touched by Parkinson’s. Volunteers contributed thousands of hours to hand-stitching more than 4,000 paper leaves onto mesh leaf frames, which were then affixed to 40 spun-copper branches. The body of the tree was crafted out of forged steel woven around copper mesh, which allows the tree to radiate light from within.

In May of 2016, the Tree of Resilience made its debut at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture in Missoula and, in September 2016, the Tree brought inspiration to thousands at the World Parkinson’s Congress in Portland, Oregon.

And then came the lighting puzzle. The original lighting for the debut in Missoula and the convention in Portland was a temporary solution. When Carolyn and Hadley were invited to have the Tree of Resilience take up permanent residence at the Michael J. Fox Foundation offices in New York City, they needed to find an alternative.

Given the tree’s dimensions, limitations, and the fact that it had to be transported across the country, it became evident to Carolyn and Hadley that they needed a very smart, custom solution. Ultimately, they entrusted Western Montana Lighting’s experts with the honor of wiring and illuminating the tree.

Carolyn reached out to Drew Mihelish, owner of WML, who recognized that the base itself needed to be transportable separate from the tree and that all light sources had to be directional and manipulated as needed. Drew developed a concept that would allow for multiple bulbs to direct lighting up the tree at different angles to make sure it was lit evenly from within, similar to the concept she created to light the U.S. Capitol tree topper.

Once she had established the concept and drawing and received the parts, Gavin Hewitt from the WML warehouse constructed and wired the base. Gavin was up against an extremely tight and non-negotiable same-day deadline to get the project done in time for Carolyn and Hadley to ship the tree from Montana to the Michael J. Fox Foundation New York. With a can-do attitude and exceptional attention to detail, Gavin dove in and made it happen.

Today, the Tree of Resilience lives in an elegant corner window of the Foundation offices, 23 floors above the bustle of the city. As the Foundation notes, the Tree is significant in that, “visitors from across the Parkinson’s ecosystem, including people with Parkinson’s and their loved ones, world class researchers, industry partners, government regulators, funders, and every member of our growing family will have the opportunity to see the beautiful manifestation of resilience of the Parkinson’s community.”

We at Western Montana Lighting feel privileged that we were invited to contribute to this meaningful project of optimism, inspiration, and community. We are grateful that, like Carolyn, Hadley, Morris Silver, and the Tree of Resilience, our Missoula roots run deep.