A tree like no other is going up at the North Dakota Museum of Art.

It's called a "solstice tree," and it's made up of a couple thousand white paper plates, folded and colored by about 1,300 students in classrooms throughout Grand Forks.

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At 18 feet high, the floor-to-rafters paper sculpture, in a Christmas-tree shape, is undergirded by a "trunk" of stacked paper-plate spheres.

A special two-day event for the exhibition, titled "The Solstice Celebration: A Tree of Circles," is set for today and Saturday at the museum at 261 Centennial Drive. It's free and open to the public.

Today marks the winter solstice, the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year.

"It marks the year end and a new year beginning," said Matt Anderson, director of museum education.

About 2,400 plates have been collected this week from the schools where, this fall, artist Bradford Hansen-Smith provided paper-plate-folding lessons, blending art with geometry and math.

The artist asked the children to color or label the plates with something that represents their culture, and the result is a three-dimensional, "spectacularly-colored" mosaic of their varied backgrounds, Anderson said.

"This project belongs to the community," he said. "It's their show."

About 50,000 plastic twist ties are used to connect the folded plates and assemble the tree, which is "decorated" by round spheres, suggesting Christmas tree ornaments, and surrounded by geometric icicle forms.

Geometry via art

The solstice tree is the culmination of a project launched this fall, when Hansen-Smith began conducting workshops for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Hansen-Smith has developed a process of learning simple to complex geometric relationships through the process of folding paper circles, Anderson said.

"He calls this process 'Wholemovement,'" Anderson said.

In the schools he visited last this fall, Hansen-Smith taught students how the paper plates could be manipulated and how the folding process reveals that all geometry can be derived from the circle.

Under his tutelage, "children and adults enjoy folding, taping and coloring paper plates, all the while being led into deeper discussion of mathematical principles," Anderson said.

The solstice tree "is complex and extraordinarily stable," he said. The paper plates, which serve as building blocks, come together to make a very stable structure."

All cultural backgrounds

The tree is meant to represent children of all cultural and faith backgrounds, Anderson said.

In the classroom, as children folded their plates, Hansen-Smith encouraged them "to add their own creative voice," whether by word, picture or motif, he said.

"The messages they wrote were about things, like, what they were thankful for and what the holidays mean to them."

Grand Forks Superintendent Terry Brenner was "very supportive of this effort, and was excited to support it," Anderson said.

After an invitation was sent to every school in the district offering his services, Hansen-Smith was welcomed into a variety of classrooms, "from art classes to elementary schools to math classes, everybody," Anderson said.

"To get that response from all of these teachers has been pretty fantastic," he said.

Of his initial ventures into art and, later, into basic geometric forms, Hansen-Smith said.

"Drawing and making things is how I have always explored and understood the world around me," he said. "I made a living as a sculptor for many years before needing to know more about spatial patterns of movement and how they worked."

He cited Buckminster Fuller, the noted American architect, systems theorist, author and inventor who's known for designing the geodesic dome, as "my introduction to geometry."

His own paper-plate sculpture show, titled "Bradford Hansen-Smith: Circles," a collection of objects made solely from paper plates, was exhibited last spring at the North Dakota museum, where classes of students came to learn his methods from him.

At the museum event today and Saturday, local student music groups have been invited to perform, and cider and seasonal treats will be served.

Students who miss the events this week may have another opportunity to see the solstice tree. Next month, the museum plans to bring children in by bus from their schools, Anderson said.

"Kids can come and see what they've built," he said.

The exhibit will be up through Jan. 17. The museum is closed Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

If you go

What: The Solstice Celebration: A Tree of Circles"

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: North Dakota Museum of Art, 261 Centennial Drive, UND

Admission: Free

For more information, go to www.ndmoa.com or call the museum sy (701) 777-4195.