For years, the “Trinity Root” sat in front of Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan. The work of art by sculptor Steve Tobin was a bronze cast of a remaining stump and root of a 70-year-old sycamore tree that protected St. Paul’s Chapel from falling debris on 9/11. It was installed in the courtyard of Trinity Church in 2005 and was there until mid-2015.
Tobin said that the Trinity Root sculpture was “about the power of the unseen and the strength beneath the surface. It’s really not about a tree. When you look at this piece and look away, I would hope that people think about things that are not visually apparent.” Trinity Root can be seen as part of a series of the artist’s work modeling things from nature. His 2002 Walking Roots piece at the Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis is a clear predecessor, modeled after a dead oak from his own property and reconstructed with the assistance of an archeologist. Tobin would later use steel in a similar way for his Steelroots series.
The Trinity Root was created and installed at Tobin’s own expense — $330,000 — and financed through a home equity loan. In fact, initially Trinity Church was not too interested in the concept. Tobin’s partner Kathleen Rogers who works on the promotion of his works recalls their persistence in a 2005 article in the New York Times, saying that at one point the church told her “‘Don’t ever call here again.'” But a new rector, Rev. Dr. James H. Cooper, came to Trinity and supported the project. In 2004, the tree stump was still sitting in St. Paul’s and Reverend Cooper let Tobin borrow the tree stump and roots.
Creating Trinity Root took 20,000 hours of labor with 10 assistants. The sculpture clocked in at a whopping 8,000 pounds and was 18 feet tall and 25 feet across. It has an additional layer on top of the bronze, a mix of dirt from the original site and paint, to make the sculpture look and feel more organic. It took its place at Trinity Church during the 9/11 commemorations in 2005, with original plans to move it at some point to St. Paul’s Chapel.
Trinity Root remained at Trinity Church for more than 10 years, when in December 2015, amidst some controversy, the sculpture was moved by Trinity Church to Connecticut and damaged in the process. Tobin himself was surprised to hear that Trinity Root had been moved Trinity’s conference center in West Cornwall, Connecticut, possibly to make way for an exhibition in the Trinity Church courtyard or to limit the visitors coming in to the courtyard. He had contacted the church earlier that year, hoping to apply a new layer of the paint and dirt mixture to restore the work and was told at that time there was some talk of moving the sculpture.
Although the church had ownership of the statue, it tried to transfer ownership back to Tobin and pay for the transit back but the artist was “too upset to read it,” according to the Times. Tobin made the work to be site-specific and had hoped to find another location in Manhattan, if it had to be moved. But, he says, he was not given the opportunity. Tobin told the New York Times that after the fact, the church “sent pictures of my piece, broken — significant damage — after they had told me it arrived in good condition.” The church countered saying the sculpture only suffered slight damage.
In 2017, Tobin sued the church for $1.2 million under the Visual Artists Rights Act which prevents “any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right” or “any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right.”
Tobin lost his case in November 2018. The verbal agreement between Tobin and Reverend Cooper to keep the sculpture in the courtyard was not codified in the contract between the church and the artist. The district court judge ruled the contract between the two parties “provides that it ‘constitutes the entire agreement between the parties…and may only be amended or modified by a written instrument executed by the duly authorized representatives of the parties.” Additionally, the judge determined that the church had not been grossly negligent in the move of the sculpture. The sculpture remains at the Trinity Church’s West Cornwall Conference Center to this day.
Next, check out 10 remnants of the original World Trade Center still on site.