For over a century, an oak willow has graced the lawn of the historic Ware-Lyndon House, towering over the garden like a staunch sentry. Since the Lyndon House Arts Center was established in 1973, the magnificent plant has served as a muse and model for artists plying their trade.
After reaching the end of its estimated lifespan of 150 years – 120, if you count by its rings – the tree was removed from the property in 2016. Fittingly, the “Willow Oak Tree” exhibit now returns tribute through the talents of 14 local artists who have been tasked with the challenge of reusing reclaimed wood from the tree into works that reflect the tree’s connection to the arts center and the broader arts community.
“The wood is beautiful. It comes in different colors, grain patterns and character-generating ‘flaws’, ”says guest curator Abraham Tesser. “Wood is hard enough to stand for centuries, but plastic enough to be easily shaped with affordable hand tools and machines. It can be brought to a silky smooth finish and has a warmth that few other materials exhibit. I love how it feels and smells… should I continue?
Unfortunately, the wood had not been stored properly; the logs were left uncovered in a field for several years, and much of what was originally harvested was poached. Damaged by weather and fungus, the wood was considerably rotten and unusable for many traditional applications. While a few guest artists chose to walk away from this reveal, others have reframed the damage in the form of flourishes of character, texture, and color that could be worked around or incorporated into their designs.
What distinguishes this exhibition from others which also shed light on carpenters is the diversity of the artists’ approaches to transform compromised materials. On one side of the spectrum is Jim Talley, a wood turner who found the most perfect 2-inch cubes possible to create a set of miniature craft turned to the scale of 1/12-inch. Representing the other side of the spectrum, Martijn van Wagtendonk simply converted his wood into charcoal which he then used to draw a wall mural depicting the oak willow. Most fall somewhere in between, responding to natural imperfections and finding solutions to preserve the integrity of the wood as best they can. Richard Shrader’s elegant “Willow Oak Coffee Table”, for example, uses an epoxy finish to stabilize the book-shaped table top, which is supported by metal oaks for the legs.
While the physical quality (and the resulting limitations) of the wood was ultimately the most significant influence on every artist’s design, the artists also demonstrate a wide range of ideas on how to visually convey meaning to through their work. By commemorating the willow oak with its own wood, the willow survives and lives efficiently, passing from organism to object, while remaining present in everyday life.
Having a deep respect for trees, some artists present works of a more spiritual nature. “Duane Paxson just assumes that the tree we worked on is to be worshiped, and he built a reliquary to do so,” says Tesser. Inspired by its design in the ancient tradition of containers used to display and protect the sacred remains of a holy person, Paxson’s hanging sculpture, “Willow Tree Reliquary,” encloses an unchanged slab of wood within an ornate welded steel cocoon. Teaser says, “Larry Millard’s piece with the golden interior makes us very aware of the tree’s inner glow.” Millard’s sculpture, “ROUGH”, invites viewers to seek out the beauty inherent within; sturdy and faulty on the outside, the log opens to reveal a golden center.
Other artists reflect on the passage of time and allude to how the willow oak has acted as a constant over the decades. “Homage to Willow Oak Tree (circa 1900-2016)” by Tad Gloeckler is a complex alternative architectural project that traces a historical timeline using miniature artefacts and fictional accounts from six generations of families who interacted with the tree. Jim Underwood’s “Turning Time” is a classic, utilitarian and beautifully shot hourglass. Reid McCallister’s wall assembly, “Time Machine,” juxtaposes various artifacts to symbolize the life of the tree, which the artist points out was marked by “the first electric lights and chariot, two world wars, the voting rights, the creation of Lay Park and the formation of the Lyndon House Arts Center.
The “Willow Oak Tree” exhibit, which is accompanied by a publication full of interviews and biographical details, will remain on view until November 18. While at the arts center, be sure to also visit Shannon Williams’ Willow Oak Portrait Series. photographed over the seasons. As part of 3Thurs, the gallery will host a virtual conference with artists Cal Logue, McCallister, Leonard Piha and Shrader on October 21 at 6 p.m. Tesser will lead a virtual Willow Oak Tree Symposium on October 30 from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. pm where Peter Bull will discuss wood preparation, Gloeckler will explore storytelling in sculpture and Millard will discuss the creation and consumption of public art.
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