The Adam Speaks Tree House - An Interview with Artist Chris Alton

photo of artist Chris Alton

The Adam Speaks Tree House was launched on the 25th November 2017 and will stand within the grounds of Croome until 25th November 2019.

Q: What’s it’s like to be an artist who works through participation?

Chris: This project was shaped by the workshops that I ran with St. Barnabas CofE First and Middle School, Writing West Midlands, Birmingham Institute of Theatre Arts and Kimichi Independent Secondary School. These workshops spanned an array of activities, including; drawing, model making, collage, costumes making, writing, singing, music, dance, and even a catwalk. Each approached Robert Adam's work in a different way; adopting his techniques, drawing inspiration from similar sources, or considering the stories that went untold with regard to the creation of the buildings and objects that he designed.

Adam Speaks artist Chris Alton with children at St Barnabas School
Adam Speaks artist Chris Alton with children at St Barnabas School
Adam Speaks artist Chris Alton with children at St Barnabas School

These workshops were instrumental when it came to shaping the final artwork. I remember pinning and taping all of the drawings, collages, pieces of writing and photographs to my studio wall and wondering where to begin. One overriding them was that of collaging and remixing aspects of something old in order to make something new. I also wanted to carry the sense of play, which had existed throughout the workshops, into the artwork. It was during this process of reflection that I noticed how many of the collages and models from the St. Barnabas School workshop had incorporated trees. The participants had inadvertently (or perhaps not) created uncanny, physically impossible treehouse-like structures. I think this was the moment that everything began to click into place.

First Adam Speaks workshop at Kimichi School
Chris Alton at Kimichi School
First Adam Speaks workshop at Kimichi School

Working in a participatory manner often means that I find myself doing things I wouldn't have otherwise attempted. Handing over the reigns to other people can lead to new ideas and unexpected lines of thought. I've found that it challenges my practice, as I don't get to stick to what's familiar or comfortable.

Q: How did Robert Adams design work at Croome influence the artwork?

Chris: I began this project by getting as familiar with Robert Adam as I could, without inventing a time machine. One of the things that I found most interesting about his work was his approach to the appropriation and repurposing of Ancient Roman and Greek architectural motifs. I was struck by how postmodern his approach was, particularly with regard to collaging and remixing the old in order to make something vibrant and new. I used this technique throughout the workshops, whether we were crafting new mythical creatures or combining aspects of modern buildings with Adam's own.

Planning the exhibit
Adam speaks artwork illustration
Planning the exhibit

The fact that the work was going to be sited at Croome also influenced the work, or at least contributes to how it can be read. Until the early 2000s, many parts of the Croome site were derelict or being taken over by plant life. In some ways, the treehouse imagines what might happen if this process were to continue: trees growing straight up through neoclassical follies, weeds reclaiming stately homes and the carefully landscaped gardens returning to their marshy origins. This also harks back to the Ancient ruins from which Adam initially drew inspiration.

Q: How the piece was physically created?

Chris: Starting with watercolour sketches and some approximate dimensions, we put together a 3D model of the treehouse using modelling software. As we planned to prefabricate the treehouse in parts, then transport them to Croome for assembly, we then decided to model into smaller units; columns, wall panels, roof segments, etc. Each unit was fabricated in timber and plywood. We also pre-painted most of the parts. 

Construction starts on our Adam Speaks exhibition
Construction starts on our Adam Speaks exhibition
Construction starts on our Adam Speaks exhibition

Once on site, we set about assembling the treehouse. Everything had been made with great attention to the specification, so the whole kit slotted together quickly and smoothly. This whole process took us about 6 days in total. We'd start as the sun rose and leave as the sun set. Croome certainly isn't a bad place to spend a week!

Q: Now it’s in place, what are your feelings about the artwork?

Chris: It's always difficult to picture how an artwork will look upon completion. During each project that I undertake there will always be nights where I lie awake wondering whether the final work will live up to the image in my head, or on the computer screen. I can safely say that Adam Speaks has exceeded my expectations, as well as thoroughly pushing my ability as an artist. I still marvel at the fact that I pulled it off.

The Adam Speaks treehouse
Croome the Adam Speaks treehouse
The Adam Speaks treehouse

I think it sits really well in the landscape. It fits in, whilst simultaneously managing to be unexpected. Being based in South East London, I can hardly amble by at my leisure, but I do keep half an eye on social media. It's lovely to see the various pictures that are posted; the treehouse in the landscape; friends hanging out of the windows; or children using it to play.

Q: How would you like people to interact with the artwork?

Chris: Whilst I wouldn't want to be prescriptive about how people interact with the treehouse, it's intended as a playful structure. I encourage people to climb inside and track as much mud as possible across the floorboards! It's there to be used; to be an instigator of and a vessel for play and imagination.