Some old trees meet an undignified end in a wood chipper, yet since 2009 the Witness Tree Project has transformed historic arbors into design objects. The collaborative project between the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and the National Park Service (NPS) involves students who use wood from trees that have “witnessed” US history, crafting pieces inspired by that heritage.
“In the first year of the project, we worked with a 150-year-old pecan from the Hampton National Historic Site, an 18th-century plantation outside of Baltimore, Maryland,” Daniel Cavicchi, associate provost for Research|Global|Practice at RISD, told Hyperallergic. “We didn’t know what to expect, but quickly realized the potential of aligning liberal arts and studio learning.”
In following years, they worked with the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation to identify fallen trees on National Historic Sites, and focused courses on the presidential homesteads of the Roosevelts and Martin Van Buren, as well as Thomas Edison’s factories and Frederick Law Olmsted’s design office. “Each year is similar in structure, but the topic is completely different,” Cavicchi explained. “Part of the fun, for me, is conceiving of the overarching seminar theme, which depends on what a given tree may have witnessed.”
This year’s iteration, presented with the Prospect Park Alliance, is now on view at the Lefferts Historic House in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Cavicchi taught a course with RISD Senior Critic of Furniture Design Dale Broholm entitled “The Politics of Belonging: Race, Diversity and the Immigrant Experience in Brooklyn and Beyond,” through which students crafted design objects reflecting on immigration. The resulting pieces range from a wooden turntable by Isabel Andrews inspired by the mixing of African American, Caribbean, and Latino influences in hip-hop, to wooden kaleidoscopes by Danny Icaza that remix the text of Trump’s travel ban. All of their material was sourced from an over 150-year-old fallen elm that once stood at the Prospect Park Parade Ground.
Before students used the harvested wood, it was cut and dried by the Brooklyn-based RE-CO BKLYN. “Witness trees” are designated by NPS, and those involved into the project have fallen due to age, weather, disease, or other ecological trauma. As Prospect Park is marking its 150th anniversary, the elm had witnessed the evolution of the area over the years, from Dutch farm villages to Caribbean communities, but always enduring as a home for immigrants. The RISD students come from across disciplines, from architecture to textiles, so they also brought a diverse approach to woodworking in their pieces.
“Overall, the circumstance of working with the actual material of a historic tree is a powerful means for understanding the past,” Cavicchi said. “Students learn not only about the events radiating from a tree’s location — the rise of slave labor in antebellum America, for example, or Theodore Roosevelt’s reshaping of presidential power — but also about how a given tree poses questions of interpretation. To what extent can a tree serve as material evidence for American history? How might one assess the significance of place in historical thought?”
The finished objects from the Prospect Park elm are all gathered in one period room of the Lefferts Historic House, itself a structure built by a Dutch family in the 18th century. The warm light from the windows gives each wooden form a soft glow, with Kara Fan’s “Altar Table for the First-Generation” inspired by Chinese home altars in a corner, and Andrew Nota’s rifle installed over the fireplace, its slim wooden body inspired by the M1903 used in the two world wars, carried by soldiers both born in the US and who immigrated here. Many of the objects consider the changing meaning of home for immigrants. Brian Skalaski made a series of pieces on Polish identity, including a kitchen table that responds to the shift from farming communities to American life; one side is rustic and dark and balances a plate, the other is lighter and is topped with a worker’s lunchbox. Some students embraced the wavy, warped quality of the weathered wood, such as Stephanie Tan, who used its qualities in an elm stool, representing a traditional Chinese design, while exploring what “Chinese culture” means post-Mao and having absorbed Western influence.
“When I first heard that New York City Parks had one of the original elms from the Prospect Park Parade Ground, one thing that immediately came to mind was the role of the Park in the rich social history of Brooklyn,” Cavicchi stated. “In the late 19th century, nearly half of Brooklyn’s population over 20 years of age was foreign-born, and Prospect Park served as a common site for diverse kinds of leisure, gathering, and ritual. Today, Brooklyn is the most densely populated of New York City’s five boroughs, home to many new generations of immigrant groups, and Prospect Park remains a rich lens for study the dynamics of social identity in public space.”
Witness Tree Project continues through September 30 at the Lefferts Historic House (452 Flatbush Avenue, Prospect Park, Brooklyn).