In early 1993, liturgical artist David J. Hetland first proposed and then executed a wood-block design for Lent and Easter in Olivet’s chancel wall. The design was intended to be a one-time piece of temporary art designed to provide some continuity and to help give the congregation and worship space a visual focus for the season.
The Face of Christ received high praise and prominent local news coverage. After the art was dismantled, there developed support for considering and commissioning a permanent work in its place.
Subsequently, other “disposable” works were constructed to enhance various seasons of the church year and to provide a congregational focus during a time of turmoil. Among them have been the Holy Spirit depicted as a dove in flight, an Advent Star that evolved into the Olivet Cross during lent, and a Descending Dove to commemorate Olivet’s 75th anniversary.
In 2000, the topic of a permanent work of chancel art was again raised. Bill Cowman (Foss Associates Architects and former member of Olivet’s Council) and Pastor Jeff Sandgren held several phone conversations with Edward A. Sovik, the architect who orignally designed Olivet. Sovik found the idea intriguing and suggested that he had always envisioned a major work in the chancel space but was unsure what it might be.
Hetland’s response was the design for the “Tree of Life.” commissioned by the congregation in 2001 as a bold proclamation of its faith, this stately, but stylized olive tree rises from the chancel platform, with gnarled roots anchored in and emerging from the spaces between the bricks.
“Tree of Life” emerges
Olivet’s name comes from Mount Olivet outside Jerusalem – the Mount of Olives, so named because olive trees have always flourished in its soil. Because they grow to be so old, some say that certain trees (or their descendants) thriving on Mount Olivet may have actually been there in Christ’s time.
Of its four distinct and independent summits, the most important is the “Mount of Ascension.” It is from this site that Christ, according to tradition, “ascended into heaven” following his crucifixion and resurrection.
Carved from blocks of genuine olive wood from the Holy Land, a twisted trunk (in the shape of an ascending cruciform) and latticed branches attest to the sturdiness of the timeless old tree.
“Tree of Life” facts
Dedication: Palm Sunday, March 24, 2002
Dimensions: Approximate 15 feet by 18 feet
Weight: 1,100 pounds
Materials: Olive wood, copper, brass and Byzantine smalti (mosaic)
Number of leaves: Approximate 6,000
Designer: David J. Hetland
Production Team: David Badman (metalwork), Bryan Duncan (lighting), Douglas Fliss (structural design), Janet Flom (wood carving, Steve Revland (wood lamination), Dakota Construction (installation)
About The Artist
David J. Hetland was a nationally recognized liturgical artist and Olivet member known particularly for his works in mosaic and stained glass, as well as the huge murals that had served as backdrops for the Concordia College Christmas Concerts. Hetland studied under well-known regionalist Cyrus M. Running at Concordia and was the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree and the prestigious Alumni Achievement Award from his alma mater. David Hetland passed away on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2006.
Chancel Art Steering Committee
Mark Anderson, Bryan Duncan, Susan Fuglie, Patti Hall, Bill Hoverson (chair), Renee Knorr, Hal Neugebauer, Pastor Jeff Sandgren
A Time to Grow
When artist David J. Hetland was commissioned to create a permanent artwork for Olivet and settled on olive wood from the Holy Land as his medium, he could not have predicted the amazing story that would unfold.
At about the same time that Hetland was developing his design, the 2000 Camp David summit was falling apart. The artist became concerned that, if he waited, the wood might not be secured.
It was an anonymous Olivet couple who made possible the purchase of the wood – an act of leadership and faith even before the project had been presented to and approved by the congregation.
Hetland’s first contacts with Micheal Zoughbi, the man who arranged to ship the olive wood, were via fax, email and telephone. Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem, Micheal and his family manage a business specializing in handmade olive wood figurines sold to tourists who visit Manger Square. With so little olive wood sold due to the violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Het’s order for a significant shipment of olive wood was a welcome one.
In his correspondence, Micheal described the fear, violence and poverty. His olive wood sales were helping to support 16 families.
“The tanks are standing at the doorways of our house,” Micheal wrote.” … I hope you are praying for our safety.”
In October 2001, Micheal Zoughbi was able to visit Olivet while in the U.S. He had come to America on business, hoping to establish an export market for olive wood figurines from the Holy Land. With the help of Arland Jacobson, director of CHARIS at Concordia college and a frequent visitor to the Holy Land, Olivet thus became a distant marketplace, making shipments of figurines available to church members in exchange for donations to a Bethlehem relief effort.
The congregation responded enthusiastically, raising more than $11,000 over three Sundays. Just in time for Christmas, the money would be wired to Jerusalem, then carried for distribution to the families in need and the children of Bethlehem.
It has been a special connection. Olive wood from the Holy Land will grace Olivet’s sanctuary for generations to come. And Olivet families can treasure their olive wood carvings, joining with Christian brothers and sisters half a world away to pray that one of Christianity’s holiest cities will again be a place of peace.
Adapted from an article by Bill Hoverson, published in the Olivet Emblem, January 2002.