Rescued, Restored and Redeemed: Fillous’ Tree of Knowledge to Rise Again in Berea

The “Dream Team,” under supervision of David Smith, of the Cleveland-based Austin Finishing Company, working to restore the Robert Fillous sculpture, The Tree of Knowledge. From left: Madison Mattila, Manveer Singh, David Smith, Aislinn Murray, and Kalina Leyritana. © Keith Berr Productions, Inc.

Discussing the laborious and time-consuming reclamation of artist Robert Fillous’ historic TreeofKnowledgesculpture, Keith Berr holds his thumb and forefinger within a hair’s breadth of each other.

“It was this close to being destroyed and lost,” says Berr, award-winning commercial and fine art photographer and owner of Keith Berr Productions in Cleveland, of the majestic, 18-foot-tall cast aluminum relief sculpture designed and fabricated by Fillous to hang on the face of Berea High School in 1968.

The Tree of Knowledge, being removed for restoration. © Keith Berr Productions, Inc.

Registered with the Smithsonian American Art Museum as theTree of Education,but locally known as the Tree of Knowledge, the sculpture features seven branches depicting different areas of education: History, Science, Geography, Physical Education, Arts, Economics, and Literature & Humanities. At the top is a relief map of Berea overlaying an abstract representation of the Rocky River and Lake Erie. On a separate small piece in the upper right is a map of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport; in the upper left is a piece with a rocket superimposed on the buildings of NASA.

“Fillous was a visionary, and I don’t know if enough people appreciate the grandeur of what he was doing,” Berr comments.

A 1972 graduate of Berea High School, Berr was drawn into the project several years ago when former Berea High School teacher Gary Croy took him on a tour of the school. They viewed the sculpture while it still towered above everyone. In 2013, the Berea and Midpark school districts consolidated due to declining enrollment, and in 2017 they were in the process of designing and building the new Berea-Midpark High School in Berea.

Historic photo of the Tree of Knowledge, being installed at Berea High School in 1968, courtesy of Dennis Kushlak and the Berea Historic Society.

The school district had a tremendous amount to deal with overseeing the merger and trying to decide what to retain and what to discard from each high school. So the task of keeping, preserving, and restoring a sizable sculpture from Fillous, a Cleveland Institute of Art graduate and classmate of celebrated Cleveland artist Viktor Schreckengost, seemed a bridge too far.

Fortunately, Berr, The Berea High School Alumni Association, and other preservation-conscious artists recognized the masterpiece from a distance when they saw it or heard about its history. The original high school building, constructed in 1927, and several later additions were slated for demolition in August 2020. Sensing that there was no clear advocate for Fillous’ sculpture, Berr knew the clock was ticking for the Tree of Knowledge.

“At that point, the new high school was being built, and I did not want to lose the opportunity to at least get the piece into storage safely,” he says. “I was working directly with the Berea City School District and Marianna Peris, president, and her team at the Berea Alumni Association. I had been asked to serve as the point person, so I also made recommendations of qualified art preservationists and restoration experts to do the work.”

Berea Midpark student Madison Mattila meticulously works on the details in the process of restoring the sculpture. © Keith Berr Productions, Inc.

In that role, Berr contacted David Smith from Austin Finishing Company in Cleveland, a venerable large structure restoration specialist that he knew by reputation. Smith contacted the Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA) in Cleveland. The oldest not-for-profit regional art conservation center in the US became involved in the sculpture’s removal, and provided a quote for the restoration. The estimates Berr got for construction and installation of the sizeable refurbished artwork were ranging around $170,000. Berr shuddered at that price.

“I saw from one of the quotes that Dave was doing ninety percent of the work, and I knew that he had worked on Schreckengost’s Time and Space sculpture and with other major artists and did museum-quality work,” Berr recalls. “So I asked him if he would take charge of the restoration and work with me to assemble a crew to oversee the installation, and hopefully to lower the cost, and he said yes.”

For the moving and assembly services, Smith enlisted a company he had a strong relationship with, the 100-plus-year-old Tesar Industrial Contractors in Cleveland, to install the Tree ofKnowledge at its new location. Glen D. Ramage, architect, completed the drawings for the sculpture’s new placement.

Among his multiple duties on this passion project, Berr drove around Berea to identify the right spot for the substantial structure. Not an easy chore. In the middle of the COVID epidemic, face-to-face meetings were difficult, so Berr conversed via email with Tracy Wheeler, Berea City School District superintendent, and Dennis Kushlak, then president of the Berea High School Alumni Association. Berr and two of his classmates, Russ Hill and Nicole Lee Lambert, collected and submitted 1,700 signatures from Berea alumni supporting the saving of the Tree ofKnowledge. The board wisely requested suggestions of a group of students, who found the absolutely ideal location: the entrance to the new Performing Arts Center on the campus.

The piece will be mounted twelve feet lower than its original placement on the old high school, so that people can walk up to it and enjoy viewing it. However, it will be approximately seven feet high, so just above hand reach.

Working with the myriad photos he had taken of the sculpture and the new school under construction, Berr created a simulated image of the Tree of Knowledge, as if it were already installed on the new school structure, which the team has used to fundraise.

When Smith did his initial assessment of the piece, it was still too high to view any details. “Once you get up close to it, you kind of fall in love with it,” he remembers. “Once we did the secondary assessment, we could see all of the details, and it was intriguing. It’s all cast aluminum, except for some molded fiberglass pieces that are the eyes, which is kind of interesting for a piece that was done in the late ‘60s.”

Famous for his meticulous and painstaking work on restoring pieces, Smith customized a table and set of drawers specifically to work on the sculpture, as well as a lift to raise and lower the pieces as needed. He admits that he grappled with some of the intricate details of restoring the sculpture, which was still in remarkable condition despite having been worn by weather and sun over the years in its southern exposure location.

“I was thankful for how good of a shape it was in,” he says. “That was a credit to Fillous’ craftsmanship, not only as an artist but as a fabricator.”

Although he employed a microscope to identify the original colors from tiny chips, there were some that were hard to define. For example, he first thought the base of the tree was black and red. Then, after he and Berr reviewed old black and white photos of the sculpture, he had a late-night epiphany in bed that the red residue was leftover foundry sand. He stripped the red oxide he had used down to the metal again, and the base is now black and silver.

Smith also spent a significant amount of time replacing the worn and rusted connector hardware (screws and nails) throughout the piece.

“I had to make new mounting hardware out of stainless steel, and that was more like making jewelry than restoring artwork,” he says. “Nobody is ever going to see it, but I’ll know it’s there.” So will anyone who has to restore the piece in the future. Smith and Berr worked assiduously to document all color choices and everything they did on paper and with photographs.

One of the favorite aspects of the project for Smith has been collaborating with the team of Berea-Midpark High students, hand-picked by teacher Jim Bycznski, from his visual effects and design class, which Bycznski dubbed “The Tree of Knowledge Dream Team.” Students who had previously been in the class had also had chances to create props, masks and other items for filmmakers. In 2006, for example, they created the whimsical figure of Schreckengost, piloting one of his iconic pedal car planes, to celebrate his 100th birthday; it flew above Tower City’s fountains for many years.

“I’m always looking for real-world opportunities for my students, so that they learn about team work, collaboration, time scheduling, budgeting, etc.” Bycznski says. “I want them to know they don’t necessarily have to make a living being an artist, but they can use their artistic and creative skills to get into restoration, preservation or other fields.”

For the Tree of Knowledge, they worked in the Allied Finishing shop under Smith’s supervision to paint portions of the relief forest on the sculpture.

“I told them the sin isn’t making a mistake, because I can fix that,” Smith recalls. “The sin is not telling me, and that helped them relax immediately. They did a great job, and it was fun to see them so engaged that I didn’t hear two words from anyone until they were finished.”

Today, the alumni association, Berr, and Assistant Superintendent Mike Draves from the Berea City School District are closing in on completing the project. Currently, reinstallation is planned for April 2023. The total amount needed for the restoration and installation came to $87,933, and the alumni association and Berr have raised $58,527 to date.

Intricately involved in the restoration project, Kushlak, who became president of the Berea Historical Society in June 2021, graduated from Berea High School in 1959. In 1968, the Tree ofKnowledge stood tall outside the windows of the classroom where he taught mathematics for two years.

“The idea back in 1968 was to encourage the arts or as one school board member said, to encourage the finer things in life,” Kushlak informs. “We thought this was a crucial artwork to save and preserve in the history of the school district, and it couldn’t be preserved with just photos. The mission all along was for the sculpture to be on the building and let kids see Fillous’ piece of art.”

Tax-deductible contributions can be made by sending a check to the Berea High School Alumni Association at 390 Fair Street, Berea, Ohio 44017.

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