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Towering Tree of Light project to honor Las Vegas shooting victims

Two years ago, Jay Pleggenkuhle sat in a cafe and, on a scrap of napkin, made a sketch for what three days later would become the Las Vegas Healing Garden.

Today, he’s looking over a new sketch on a new scrap of paper, for a monument he hopes will stir the community once again to come together and create something from nothing — not with spades and shovels — but with torches and hammers.

This is part of an ongoing series observing the two-year anniversary of the Oct. 1, 2017, shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. See all of our coverage here.

He envisions a Tree of Light, a monument of a tree to stand across the street from the Healing Garden on S. Casino Center Blvd. in the Las Vegas Arts District.

“Hopefully this will be monolithic enough that when people go to First Friday, they’ll say ‘I’ll meet you at the Tree of Light,’ ” Pleggenkuhle said.

The concept for a Tree of Light is still in its infancy, but for someone who with his partner turned a pencil sketch into a Healing Garden in just 72 hours, he’s confident in the community’s enthusiasm to help him meet the one-year timeline.

His design for a 60-foot-tall steel tree incorporates weeping willow-like branches that stretch out in a 30-foot-wide canopy of fiber optic lights. He imagines the roots of the tree inscribed with words, creating a tangle of “hope,” “compassion” and “unity” that reach into the earth. In his sketch, the tree will bear 58 flowers for each of the 58 victims.

Pleggenkuhle wants those who visit to be engaged, to be able to use their smartphones to connect with the tree and modify the lights, colors and even sounds.

Most important, he wants the community to be involved so that, as with the Healing Garden, when community members visit they can point to its leaves or roots and branches and say, “I welded that.” “I provided that.” “I was a part of it.”

“The idea is doing it as much as possible as a community,” says Pleggenkuhle. “I want everyone involved in creating.”

Community made

His inspiration for a community-built sculpture came from teenage Girl Scout Tahoe Mack, who successfully rallied hundreds of Las Vegans to help her create sustainable art piece, “Monumental Mammoth.”

In a fit of serendipity, Mack’s mother contacted Pleggenkuhle regarding his business, Stonerose Landscapes.

“While talking on the phone, she told me this amazing story about what her daughter was creating and invited me to look at it. I was blown away by it and how she put it together, how much heart and soul is in it,” said Pleggenkuhle.

At 15, Mack learned about potential destructive development at Tule Springs in Las Vegas. In response, she conceived a life-size mammoth — an animal that long ago roamed the wetlands area north of Las Vegas — constructed from metal garbage found at the National Monument.

She enlisted local artists to teach her how to draw using computer-aided design and weld the mammoth’s steel body. Her mammoth has been displayed at Burning Man and Life is Beautiful and soon will be installed at Ice Age Fossils State Park.

“Everybody has a creative side to them,” says Pleggenkuhle. “So many people are afraid to express that. What she did was give people the creative outlet to do something for good. Like what the Healing Garden did, it gave a creative outlet to do something for good.”

Finding an artist

The Tree of Light will be funded using donations that were initially raised for an art piece by Las Vegas artist and UNLV associate professor Timothy Bavington at the Vegas Cares event held at the The Venetian in 2017. Several attempts to reach Bavington for comment were unsuccessful.

“It just didn’t work out with Tim,” said Vegas Cares Producer and BEST Agency CEO, Ken Henderson. “What we’re doing now is putting money toward the second phase of the garden, the Tree of Light. That’s where we’re donating money to through the city.”

The Tree of Light project has yet to identify an artist to lead the charge.

Like the low, heart-shaped wall in the Healing Garden, Pleggenkuhle said the Tree of Light will be enclosed in concrete walls adorned with tiles painted by volunteers at a First Friday event.

“We did a really cool element with the garden,” he says. “Everyone who painted a tile left a thumbprint on it. With the Tree of Light, every little part will have a story.”

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands operates The Venetian.

A previous version of this story incorrectly cited the style of Ice Age Fossils State Park.

Contact Janna Karel at jkarel@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jannainprogress on Twitter.

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