Tree of Knowledge
Public Education & Awareness Award & Preservation Merit
Keith Berr is an advertising and fine arts photographer who has developed a unique live/work compound in Cleveland, where he holds events, fundraisers and educational gatherings to promote the arts. He is very involved in the region’s art scene and is a Berea High School graduate. Over the past four years, he has been instrumental in rescuing and preserving a work of art that is important to the Berea community. The artwork is a sculpture titled the “The Tree of Knowledge” that was created by Cleveland Institute of Art graduate, Robert Fillous, who was commissioned in 1967 to create a large polychrome aluminum cast sculpture to be displayed on the exterior of the Berea High School, artistically depicting the geography of the region and the different branches of education. The Tree of Knowledge was installed in 1968 and has remained a symbol of education and the arts for over 50 years.
Berea High School was slated for demolition in 2020 and when Keith went on a tour of the old school, he learned from the guide, his former history teacher, that there was no plan for including the sculpture in the new high school. Keith decided to take on the project to rescue, conserve and restore the half-century-old “Tree of Knowledge” and find it a new home.
Keith worked with friends and groups in the community to raise awareness of the sculpture and met with like-minded individuals who raised a petition listing thousands of names of people who supported saving the sculpture. He secured press coverage to raise the alarm of the sculpture’s imminent plight, after which the Berea City School District asked Keith to become their point person for the Tree. Keith also partnered with the Berea Alumni Association and the School District’s Assistant Superintendent, forming an alliance of supporters.
The first price quotes for the conservation and re-installation of the sculpture were financially out of reach so Keith contacted David Smith of the Austin Finishing Company to see if he might be interested in coordinating the project with a team of his choice.
Dave Smith accepted, and the fund-raising began. Keith then pitched the idea to the school district’s Assistant Superintendent of having a team of the high school’s art students work with Dave Smith to learn the crafts of conservation and restoration. This idea won support and Keith connected with high school art-teacher Jim Byzinski, who formed a student “Dream Team.” This team carefully worked on the historic sculpture, learning the conservation and restoration crafts along the way, and they can now claim ownership of a part of the Tree’s legacy.
Articles about this project, a labor of love on many levels, have been published in the Collective Arts Network Journal, and by Stephen Litt, the arts and architecture journalist at Cleveland.com. The restored “Tree of Knowledge” sculpture has been installed and re-dedicated outside of the new Performing Arts Center at the Berea-Midpark High School. It is located in a prime site for the public and future generations to enjoy and celebrate.