Arts

This artist is building the miniature tree houses of your childhood dreams

Jennie Suddick explains why she's making tweenage fantasies a reality. Be a part of her Tree House Project this summer at Victoria's Open Space!

Why Jennie Suddick is making tweenage fantasies a reality

From Jennie Suddick's The Tree House Project. If only there were a place like this on Air BnB... (Courtesy of the artist)

You don't need to have ever scrambled up a rope ladder to understand the appeal. What kid has never heard of a tree house — or desperately wanted one, for that matter? Bart Simpson has one. Same goes for the Goonies and Arthur and every last one of the Berenstain Bears. Hell, Casey and Finnegan got to live in theirs. And the Lost Boys in Hook? Somewhere, an entire generation of engineers probably owe their careers to Rufio's skateboard ramp.

Growing up in the Toronto suburbs, artist Jennie Suddick saw plenty of tree houses (because pop culture), but never actually climbed into one. But like so many other kids with a box of markers and a dream, she and her friends made plenty of plans. Maybe they'd build a classic playhouse-style crash pad, slung in the arms of their favourite willow — laws of physics be damned. Or, with enough buy-in from parents (and maybe a local crane operator), they could hoist an old Cadillac into a neighbourhood tree.

Tweenage fantasies, unfulfilled — until now.

Jennie Suddick. The Tree House Project. (Courtesy of the artist)

Suddick's ongoing body of work, simply titled The Tree House Project, makes good on all those forgotten summer vacation plans and then some.

But the project, which began in 2015 in her hometown of Markham, Ont., isn't just about her story. What kind of tree house would you have built as a kid?

Suddick collects sketches and floorplans from anyone and everyone (actual kids included) during community workshops that she's held at Markham's Varley Art Gallery, Spark Box Studio in Kingston and Toronto's Gardiner Museum. A four-day residency at Open Space in Victoria has resulted in a new exhibition, on now at that artist-run centre to July 28. She'll actually be there to Friday, building new tree houses — albeit tiny ones — with anyone who drops by.

Back to her process, though. Once Suddick has a rough draft from someone, she designs blueprints and then builds architectural models — dreamy white paper miniatures based on some of the common themes that crop up among the hundreds of submissions she's received so far. Hollow trees, à la the Berenstain family home, are apparently overwhelmingly popular. Swiss Family Robinson (or maybe Ewok?) inspired swinging bridges appear in one fantasy house.

Sketches from The Tree House Project. (Photo: Kara Stanton/Courtesy of Open Space)
Jennie Suddick. The Tree House Project. (Photo: Kara Stanton/Courtesy of Open Space)

And while everyone's imaginations are encouraged to roam free — free as a child in the time before helicopter parents — a lot of the participants, she says, design tree houses built from the sort of junk they'd have been able to scavenge back in the day. (There's a fort built out of lawn chairs, to give you an idea.)

She says she has 300 drawings so far, many of which are displayed now at Open Space, with more being collected during the run of the show. Some 15 models join them in the gallery.

No full-scale versions have been built — yet. Making it happen is just a matter of funding, says Suddick.

Even if we never had them, [a tree house] is something that stands in for a place where we let our imagination run wild.- Jennie Suddick , artist

In Toronto, Suddick is an assistant professor at OCAD University and also the co-founder of Crazy Dames, a project she runs with urban planner Sara Udow. They stage community events to get people thinking and talking about how we live in cities, and the way art and design is a part of all that. Building blanket forts, a.k.a. the tree house of the living room, is a recurring motif in their workshops.

It's the same sort of collaborative, community outreach that drives the Tree House Project, but here, Suddick says she's not just hoping to get people back in touch with make believe. They're not building tree houses in their backyards, after all — they're making them in art galleries.

"Even if we never had them, [a tree house] is something that stands in for a place where we let our imagination run wild," says Suddick.

"I like to describe [The Tree House Project] as a chance for people to have an entry point to thinking about the ways they interact with art and can take part in the production of artwork, or behave in galleries in a different way."

"When I first did it at the Varley, there were a few people who walked into the building and were like, 'Where's the art?' Well, you're going to help me make it. This is the first step. And then a few people were terrified and other people are like, 'Oh cool.' They just jumped in."

"It's almost surprising how little you have to do in terms of promotion to get someone to sit [...] and talk to you about their childhood memories."

Take a look!

Jennie Suddick. The Tree House Project. (Photo: Kara Stanton/Courtesy of Open Space)
Jennie Suddick. The Tree House Project. (Photo: Kara Stanton/Courtesy of Open Space)
Installation view of the Jennie Suddick's Tree House Project at Open Space, Victoria. (Photo: Kara Stanton/Courtesy of Open Space)
Jennie Suddick. The Tree House Project. (Courtesy of the artist)
Jennie Suddick. The Tree House Project. (Courtesy of the artist)
Jennie Suddick. The Tree House Project. (Courtesy of the artist)
Jennie Suddick. The Tree House Project. (Courtesy of the artist)
Jennie Suddick. The Tree House Project. (Photo: Kara Stanton/Courtesy of Open Space)
Visitors to the Tree House Project at Victoria's Open Space can leave their drawings in the gallery. They'll be added to the show throughout the summer. (Photo: Kara Stanton/Courtesy of Open Space)
Jennie Suddick. Installation view of The Tree House Project at Open Space, Victoria. (Photo: Kara Stanton/Courtesy of Open Space)

Jennie Suddick. The Tree House Project. To July 28 at Open Space, Victoria. www.openspace.ca

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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