Witness Trees

March 31 - July 8, 2012

“Witness trees,” designated as such by the National Park Service, are venerable specimens on Park Service properties, trees that have “witnessed” key events and people in American history. These might be a Civil War battle, a president, or a runaway slave. When witness trees are so old they’re on the verge of collapse and have to be felled, they’re sometimes turned into wood chips — an ignominious end for something once so proud. The Park Service is legally bound not to sell wood from the trees.

Enter Dale Broholm and Louis Hutchins, friends who were visiting Gettysburg a few years ago. Broholm teaches furniture making at RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design. Hutchins is a historian with the Park Service. “We were walking the battlefield and [Hutchins] was talking about plans to return its look to the time of the battle,” Broholm recalls. “He talked about trees being cut down… the light bulb went on.”

Thus was born the Witness Tree Project, an innovative collaboration between RISD and the Park Service. Broholm worked with Daniel Cavicchi, chair of RISD’s Department of History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences, to create a new course. Charles Pepper, the manager of Preservation, Maintenance and Education at the Park Service’s Olmsted Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, enthusiastically agreed to find wood harvested from historic trees and have it shipped to RISD, where the students would create objects with it.

The resulting course is really a double one. One morning a week students study history with Cavicchi; in the afternoon they make objects with Broholm. “I thought it was a great opportunity to teach history to RISD students, who aren’t predisposed to that kind of studying. They’re at an art school, after all,” Cavicchi says. “They’re great in working with their hands; they love materials and objects. Why not have them learn history through making things?” Not all the students are furniture makers. “One student, a ceramics major, actually burned the wood and used it as a glaze,” Cavicchi notes, adding that he and Broholm were initially taken aback by this unusual approach to wood some regarded as quasi-sacred.

In 2009, the first year of the course, Pepper led Broholm and Cavicchi to the Hampton National Historic Site, a former plantation outside Baltimore, where they selected wood from a pecan tree that had stood on the site for 150 years. The students made a field trip to the plantation to get a sense of what life was like in the era of slavery. There they could witness the wealth and refinement of the plantation owners’ lives in contrast to the circumscribed and miserable lives of the slaves.

One student used her ration of the pecan for stays in a corset. “Corsets,” says Broholm, “were a reflection of women trying to bring European fashion into the colonial lifestyle.” The visit to Hampton prompted Cavicchi and Broholm to make their own piece — a bench inscribed with an 1853 Baltimore Sun notice offering a $100 reward for “the apprehension and delivery” of a Hampton slave named Henry Jones. The legs of the bench refer to an urn motif that recurs throughout the Hampton mansion. The bench and its inscription provide a stark contrast: while the planters who owned the mansion sat and contemplated their gardens, the slaves they also owned risked their lives to escape.

Following the first year’s success, in 2010 materials came from two places associated with iconic presidents: the George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Northern Neck, Virginia, supplied boxwood cuttings and hackberry wood. The Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, Theodore Roosevelt’s homestead in Oyster Bay, New York, offered black cherry, pin oak, and silver maple. Cavicchi built his part of the course around “the way we think about presidents,” he says. “It created questions about government, leadership, and iconic figures. Is history iconic figures or ordinary people?” The objects the students made ranged from a stool that Roosevelt, a celebrated outdoorsman, might have carried into the forest, to a surveyor’s level, referring to Washington’s early career as a surveyor.

An elm tree from the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts, provided the fodder for the 2011 edition of the course. Olmsted (1822–1903), the father of landscape architecture in America, designed New York’s Central Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, and dozens of other major projects across the country. Among the rich themes the students explored were urban planning, use of public space, and recreation. As usual, some of the students’ objects were unexpected. The creative minds and hands of students produced cross-country skis, representing a healthy use of urban parks; and a large camera, recalling the Western landscape photos Olmsted had taken for publication in the Eastern press, to show people the West’s natural beauty and convince them to support its preservation. To bring the discussion of public space into the present, Cavicchi even talked about the Occupy movement, showing how “we construct history.”

In some ways the witness trees are like “The Giving Tree” of Shel Silverstein’s children’s book. But unlike that tree, which had nothing left to give by the end of the story, at least some of the Park Service’s trees can be reborn, thanks to modern science. They’re propagated through genetic cloning, and the clones are replanted where their parents once stood. The Olmsted elm is being cloned at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum. In twenty to thirty years it will reach maturity, looking as it did in Olmsted’s day. Those RISD students are young enough to be around to see it.

— Christine Temin, Curator

Witness Trees is one of six concurrent exhibits that explore our physical and metaphorical relationship with trees — seen for millennia as botanical analogues for human life, spiritual touchstones, and expressions of family connectivity.


March 31 – Members’ Opening Reception & Champagne Brunch