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Kansas City sculptor uses tree thorns to represent 'fractious nature' of American democracy

Sculptor Susan White creates large works of art using thousands of thorns from the honey locust tree. She finds inspiration in the beauty of nature with a sharp point.

Susan White looks up as she walks through the snow beneath a honey locust tree in Bannister Park.

“Look at some of those big ones,” White enthuses looking up at the long, pointy spikes. “These are great. Look, these are so beautiful.”

White is a sculptor, and she uses the thorns from honey locust trees in her art. But harvesting them is harder than it looks, and she wears leather gloves to protect her hands and clips clumps of them off the tree with garden shears.

The trees, which are native to the Midwest, are known for the dense clusters of long and spikey thorns that surround the trunk of each tree. When they’re young, honey locust thorns are soft and green. As they age they harden and turn a deep mahogany. Later they fade to gray and turn brittle, and the prickly barbs protect the trees from grazing deer.

2. Flag II Haw Contemporary 2014.jpg
E. G. Schempf
Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse inspired Flag II, Haw Contemporary in 2014.

White says honey locust trees are easy to recognize. Even so, she requests permission from the Kansas City Parks Department to hunt for thorns around town.

“Once you start looking for them, you see them because the trunk is not smooth,” White says. “It's like having this crazy hair that sticks out from the trunk because it's real jaggedy.”

For 15 years, White has drawn thorns, painted thorns and cast them in bronze. She’s created three-dimensional flag sculptures made from thousands of them. White says she enjoys the push and pull of danger and beauty.

3. Flag IV studio view in prep for Como 2019.jpg
E. G. Schempf
In 2019, White prepared a study of Flag IV, in her studio during her residency at Studios Inc., in the Crossroads.

“There's a sense of come hither like you want to get closer and look at this, but then as you get closer, it's like, but stay away,” White says.

Piles of thorns cover a worktable in White’s studio in the Holsum building, a five-story building in the historic West Bottoms. All around her, masses of painted thorns hang in sculptures from the ceiling. It’s a prickly place where being careful is important.

White says she is pleased with the thorns she collected from Bannister Park.

“These thorns are really big ones. I mean, these are really, really big thorns. And that's really wonderful because it'll be an opportunity for a really nice sweeping piece.”

Sitting at a table, she carefully assembles thorns into sections. It’s like a dangerous puzzle without any rules.

“One of the things I like about this is that it really is so quiet, it's really so sort of meditative in the doing of it, which I really like.”

10. My favorite portrait w flag IV in studio at Studios, INc..jpg
E. G. Schempf
Thousands of painted thorns that make up her Flag IV installation project shadows on White.

Each section of thorns will become a part of a larger piece. White works slowly and deliberately with a careful respect for her material.

“I think of them as being both elegant and daunting, so they're elegant in that they're these beautiful linear forms that are natural and and they have sometimes they have these amazing gestures,” White says. “They’re just beautiful objects in and of themselves.”

Over the years, White’s constructed a series of five large American flags bristling with thorns and infused with symbolism. In 2019, her work found an international audience when she created an 11-foot-flag installation, "Flag IV," for an art festival in Como, Italy.

In her artist statement, White wrote:

“The thorn flag reflects the angst and frustration, the sense of disarray, contentiousness and the fractious nature of democracy occurring at this moment in America."

5. Flag IV Como Italy .jpg
Susan White
White's Flag IV, an 11-foot flag, hangs in an archway of Ex Chiesa di San Francesco during the exhibition, PopUp, Como, Italy in 2019.

White says each of her flags reveals something about the state of our democracy in political moments like human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and the contentious aftermath of the 2020 election. She’s already making plans for her next flag.

“It's really important to me to find a venue for the 2024 elections because we all know that's going to be even more contentious and even more difficult,” White says.

For White, the thorns carry a deeper meaning.

“They are just beautiful objects but at the same time, they can be incredibly dangerous,” White explains. “I see metaphors for life in that. There are just these amazingly gorgeous and beautiful moments in life. At the same time, there is, like, gross unfairness and huge cruelty.”

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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