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Bennett Abrams, 72; Artist of Full-Scale, Lifelike Trees

August 16, 2004|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Bennett Abrams, whose fabricated trees with lifelike burls, knots and bark, decorate casinos, hotels, shopping malls and private homes around the world, has died. He was 72.

The co-founder of NatureMaker in Carlsbad, a pioneer of custom re-creations of full-scale trees, Abrams died at home in San Marcos from complications of lung cancer Aug. 3, according to his life and business partner, Gary Hanick.

A self-taught artist and naturalist, Abrams referred to his sculpted creations, some of them seven stories tall, as "eco-art." Among his early commissions, he made an Amazon rainforest for a Legoland in Windsor, England; a redwood forest for the American Wilderness Experience in Ontario; and a Vietnamese jungle commissioned by the First U.S. Army Division Museum in Wheaton, Ill.

Plastic versions of plant life were more typical in his business when he began in the 1970s, but Abrams developed a technique using welded steel frames coated with wet mulch, molded to resemble bark and painted in naturalistic colors. His litmus test, he said, was that his trees could pass for the real things from as close as two feet away.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Abrams obituary -- The obituary of "eco-artist" Bennett Abrams in Monday's California section referred to Buffalo Bill's Casino as being in Stateline, Nev. It is in Primm, Nev., which was known as Stateline until 1996.

Along with large orders for several Las Vegas casinos, including 300 bonsai pine trees for the Mirage hotel, he accepted private commissions such as the one for a single olive tree ordered by a couple in Abu Dhabi after they saw Abrams' trees in the lobby at Caesars Palace.

He often pointed out that his tree sculptures would last at least as long as the organic versions. "No one will remember me, but these trees -- they're non-biodegradable -- will still be here in 200 years," he said in a 2001 interview with The Times.

The idea to re-create nature first came to him in the early 1960s while he was exploring Victorian taxidermy and Egyptian mummification techniques. Victorian "elegancies" -- preserved songbirds displayed under glass domes -- inspired him to put plants and insects under glass. He coated his floral arrangements with hot wax, an ancient Egyptian technique.

Abrams started experimenting with artificial trees in the early 1980s, using a fallen branch he found outside his log cabin in the mountain resort community of Idyllwild. He added handmade leaves to the branch. He went on to build handmade ficus trees, a popular apartment adornment at the time.

"The other choice was to buy a tree made of rubber," Hanick said Wednesday. "Everything was mass produced. Bennett forged a new path."

Born in Belvedere, Ill., and raised on a dairy farm in Rutledge, Minn., Abrams was fascinated by nature from childhood.

"The world became my playground," he told The Times in 1996. "I would lie on the ground and in my mind the moss was a forest and the ants were little horses."

He moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s and worked as an artist. In the late '70s he joined a metaphysics study group in Woodland Hills, where he met Hanick. Their first venture was to manufacture silk flowers and plants, but they soon began to produce saplings as well. In 1984 they founded California Country Trees, and in 2000 changed the name to NatureMaker.

One of their earliest commissions was a five-story oak tree modeled after a "hanging tree" from the Wild West. It went to Buffalo Bill's Casino in Stateline, Nev.

"That was a turning point for our business," Hanick said. "The hanging tree was the largest piece Bennett had ever created."

Redwoods and oaks, each one a structural feat priced as much as $500,000, became increasingly popular. One 65-foot redwood was recently installed in a sporting goods store in Iowa City, Iowa. Another project, a forest of more than 20 oaks and maples, will be unveiled later this month at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

What began as a two-man operation became a multimillion dollar business staffed by nearly 50 full-time artists, welders and structural engineers.

Abrams is survived by Hanick.

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