Trees have been planted as memorials to loved ones for generations, but the Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center in Cambria City has given that practice a special twist.
It has established a Nationality Tree on the wall of its green space along Chestnut Street.
The parklet, which has yet to be named, features more than 100 native plants and flowers.
The arts center commissioned to have the tree created. It is approximately 5-feet tall and exhibits a number of branches.
“We have 130 leaves available for people to celebrate their ethnicity,” said Rosemary Pawlowski, arts center executive director. “It’s a permanent reminder that generations to come will recognize the diversity of our community.”
The tree is designed to demonstrate the energy, faith, devotion and courage of those who helped carry the community forward.
The Nationality Tree’s origins can be traced to Pawlowski’s work as a volunteer on Johnstown’s Flood Centennial in 1989.
“I remember the large numbers of people walking around wearing T-shirts touting different nationalities, such as German, Italian or Irish,” she said. “It was heartwarming to see the pride they took in their ancestries. I wanted to find a way for people to express that joy at the arts center.”
Pawlowski explained that the tree is a representation of strength. A tree can be interpreted as protection; the tree of life, rooted in earth.
“The tree is a symbol that serves as a wonderful reminder of how our region has grown and that our ancestors helped nourish the community to grow,” Pawlowski said.
A postcard campaign to encourage people to obtain a leaf began in September. The arts center’s motto for the campaign is: “Remembering Our Roots One Leaf at a Time.”
“We sent cards to the 1,600 people on our mailing list of patrons and friends,” Pawlowski said.
Each leaf costs $100 with all proceeds earmarked for the sustaining fund for the garden.
People have given different reasons for buying a leaf.
“We had some family members buy a leaf to remember their father, and others purchased a leaf because they had relatives who worked in the Tulip Bottling Co.,” Pawlowski said.
The arts center is located in the former soft drink factory.
As the branches spread, the dark green leaves with white lettering are easy to read.
“The branches and limbs are near eye level and give everyone walking by or coming to the park the opportunity to stop and ponder our ethnic history,” Pawlowski said.
Leaves make up the configuration of the tree that really illustrates how the Johnstown area is a true hotbed of multiculturalism.
“We are offering people the opportunity to honor their family ancestry and loved ones,” she said. “It’s a concept that we hope will be quite popular.”
For those with three or four countries of origin, Pawlowski said a name would be sufficient to celebrate those differences.
“Anyone having multiple roots also could choose their dominant ethnicity,” she said.
Elaine Heider of Upper Yoder Township wanted to honor her ancestry and bought a leaf. She inscribed it with her maiden name, Fronis, in salute to her Greek heritage. Her husband, George, chose to honor his Lebanese roots with a second leaf.
“We are both first-generation Americans born in this country,” but we are proud of our heritages,” Heider said. “This is a great way to demonstrate that pride and support the arts at the same time.”
Heider thinks the Nationality Tree is a splendid way for area people to demonstrate the diversity of the region.
“We were once considered the melting pot of the world as immigrants came straight to Johnstown to work in the booming steel mills and coal mines,” she said.
“The tree is a wonderful way of seeing the many backgrounds of those who came here to enrich their lives and the region.”
Pawlowski is pleased that the tree is located at the Chestnut Street entrance to the park, giving it additional exposure to passing traffic.
“The park is becoming a place where people come to relax among the plants and flowers, read a book or have an outdoor meeting,” Pawlowski said. “We have conducted art classes and drumming sessions in the space. It’s outdoors, but has an intimate feel.”
To purchase a leaf, send information and checks to: The Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center, 411 Third Ave., Johnstown, Pa. 15906.
Tom Lavis covers Features for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter.com/Tom LavisTD.