September marks a significant day in U.S. history. The impact of 9/11 stretched across America, changing everything in an instant. Christina’s Corner, located in the Youth Services area of WPPL, memorializes Westlake resident Christina Ryook, who passed away that day. Every year, we share our hopes and wishes for the future as a way of remembering the past.

This year, our messages of hope became the foliage on a model of the Survivor Tree. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum describes it thus:

Weeks after 9/11, a single Callery pear tree, which became known as the Survivor Tree, was discovered buried in rubble at Ground Zero. It was burned and badly damaged, but it still showed signs of life. Workers rescued the tree and it was transported to a park where it was tended to and cared for. Over the years, it grew from eight to 30 feet tall, sprouting new branches and flowering in spring. It was returned to the 9/11 Memorial plaza in 2010. It is a living symbol of hope and resilience, which is the ability to recover and bounce back after facing change or difficulties.

9/11 Memorial & Museum

When I was asked to make the tree display, I thought long and hard about the best way to do it. I started by learning the tree’s story, and was particularly touched by this video by the 9/11 Memorial & Museum and Marcie Colleen’s Survivor Tree. (The illustrations are by one of my favorite artists, Aaron Becker.) I had recently made a 2D forest out of construction paper, but I wanted this tree to be special: something with more dimension and character than cut paper.

I referenced numerous pictures and videos of the actual tree, noting the marks on its branches where it had broken and regrown. After measuring the window where it would be displayed, I worked out a loose sketch and chose four main branches to recreate. For easy assembly and storage, I planned to make the trunk and the branches two separate pieces.

Drawing and making trees happens to be my specialty

I debated over a few different material options before deciding to use a pool noodle. Springy and flexible, I could cut the foam easily and without excessive noise and mess. (Denser craft foam squeaks and shrieks terribly when cut. I decided to spare my coworkers the headache.) Cardboard backing would lend the branches structure and support. I scribbled a pattern on the carboard, and then started cutting the noodle into branch segments.

Once the foam was glued down, I went in with an X-Acto knife to do some detail work. When you quarter a pool noodle longways, you end up with a lot of straight lines and a slightly curved outer edge. If you look closely at the before-and-after pictures below, you can see how I added more dimension to the largest branch by trimming the hard edge into a more organic shape.

One of the downsides of using a pool noodle instead of heavier craft foam is that the noodle is very porous. The outer “skin” of a noodle is relatively smooth, but the inner foam is rife with tiny cavities. Recently, I discovered that the careful application of flame will smooth the exposed inner foam. However, given the time-consuming nature of that task and the flammable cardboard backing, I decided to skip this step.

Can you see the difference between the shiny outer surface and the porous inner foam?

In lieu of fire, I used a whole lot of Mod Podge and acrylic paint. I love using this type of paint, but, depending on brand and thoroughness of application, it can be slightly translucent. I needed to make sure there would be no trace of the garish lime green. Ultimately, six layers were applied to the foam:
1. Mod Podge (to seal the foam)
2. White paint (to cover the green)
3. Mod Podge (still trying to seal the foam as much as possible)
4. Purple (to neutralize any lingering green)
5. Purple (to get a more even tone without white streaks)
6. Dark brown (Actual tree color)

When the dark layer was dry, I added highlights and shadows to give the tree some extra dimension and texture.

Once I trimmed away the extra cardboard and glued on some mini clothespins, the tree was ready for display!

This little tree is one of many across the nation. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum has encouraged everyone to make their own leaves and display them proudly. Meanwhile, the original Survivor Tree is also spreading its message of resilience through the seedling initiative. Since 2013, the tree’s seedlings have been given to communities that are rebuilding in the wake of tragedy. I am so glad I had the opportunity to work on this symbol of unity and hope. The tree will be on display for the rest of September. We welcome you to see all the encouraging messages from the community, and add one of your own!

Westlake Porter Public Library is also honored to display a piece of steel from the World Trade Center, located in the main lobby. Please take the time to visit. We must never forget.