Woodland Sculptures – An artist couple gives life to dead trees
Three days before the opening of “One Impulse From a Vernal Wood,” this year’s contemporary sculpture exhibit at Chesterwood, I stepped into the woods and followed the sounds of machines to find artists Rick and Laura Brown. They were in a lift about 20 feet up a dying hemlock, attaching slats one by one to the nearly complete sculpture called Rouse. It had been raining all day, but now the sun was beaming through the feathery slats that fanned out from either side of the trunk. When forester Billy Markham cut the machines, the sounds of winter wrens and hermit thrushes reverberated through the old New England forest. “Looks kind of small when you get on the ground!” said Laura. She explained that Rouse is meant to express urgency. When trees are attacked by insects, they send out warnings to their neighbors to defend themselves, hence, “rousing” the forest. Other trees create chemicals that then repel the insects, in this case the woody adelgid, which has taken a toll on hemlocks at Chesterwood, and across America.
Rick describes the emerging sculpture as poised, but nervous, “similar to a peacock opening all its feathers, saying ‘watch out!’” Rick and Laura, partners since they met in art school in 1970, had been putting in 12-hour days to complete the eight installations, all of which speak to the idea put forth by botanist Suzanne Simard that trees communicate with each other through their root systems and fungal matter.
Last June, the Browns were invited to the Meadowlark, Daniel Chester French’s second studio that he built to escape from everyone. There they lived for a month, getting to know the woods, the trees. They sketched and built models. This year, “they’ve been working night and day, they’ve become one with the woods,” says Margaret Cherin, Chesterwood’s business manager.
Rick is 70, the same age as Daniel Chester French when he built the Lincoln Memorial. The Browns’s environmental installations have appeared in many group shows here, but Rick felt a cosmic alignment on this 50th anniversary of Chesterwood being open to the public and thought, “we’ve got to do something grand.” Because French found joy working in nature and placing his art outdoors, the Browns felt part of a continuum. The project honors the legacy of French and the forest he loved by reclaiming damaged forest material and repurposing it as large-scale art, extending the life of the trees. Aside from Mother Tree, which is a healthy white pine, all of the sculptures use dead, fallen, or storm-damaged trees that would have been removed for safety.
With a sawmill on site, they reconfigured the wood with local sawyer Will Conklin, of Greenagers. If possible, they reattached the sculpture to the same distressed tree it was removed from. The logistics of constructing on site, in rain and mud, not knowing if the ideas could match up with the terrain, has added to the dynamic of the process, Rick says. “You feel more alive.”
“And tired!” adds Laura. She acknowledges their crew, “the silent artists behind the artists,” including Chesterwood land manager Gerry Blache, who “knew every tree,” and Billy Markham, who “wouldn’t leave until dark.”
The sculptures embody the notion of working with nature rather than rising above it. They reflect the similar notions that trees in the forest community are cooperating and communicating even after they appear dead.
Wisdom Tree is adorned with ceramic symbols to represent how “even in an advanced state of decay it’s still serving the forest,” says Rick, supplying nutrients or communicating other information. “The symbols make reference to language, knowledge, mystery, without being specific. Mystery is better than knowing.”
Singing Tree looks like a spontaneous outburst of sound, like the trees are singing to each other. Siblings, two hemlocks felled side by side in a storm, says Rick, “references the idea that trees in the forest are related. They might not be from the same mother, but they could be.”
“Each piece has its own moment,” says Laura. It catches different light at different times of day and in different weather. The curves of Dreaming link a fallen hemlock to its stump and to a healthy ash. “Putting it up was a nightmare!” jokes Rick. Behind it, the Ledges Trail French laid out starts up the mountain.
“He designed the property. Nothing was random,” says Cherin. Visitors to Chesterwood wanted to see more sculpture in the woods. And so they are. This, says Cherin, is “not just in the woods, but of the woods.”
One Impulse from a Vernal Wood is Chesterwood’s 41st annual outdoor contemporary sculpture exhibition. The following programs are presented by Rick and Laura Browns’s Handshouse Studio.
—Sunday, August 25, 10 a.m. to noon, “Toadstool Walks,” a guided forest walk led by certified forest therapy guide Tam Willey (free, limited space, registration required at toadstoolwalks.com)
—Sunday, September 8, 1 to 3 p.m. “One Impulse/One Wood”: A living sculpture walk with hands-on collaboration led by Marie Brown, daughter of Rick and Laura Brown and one of the directors of Handshouse Studio, with her parents (free, registration at rickandlaurabrownsculpture.
—October 20, Session 1 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Session 2 from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. “Woven Word in the Woods,” a creative writing workshop led by poet Lynn Bowmaster (limited participants, registration required by email to email@example.com)