I am currently working as a Visiting Artist at the Macleish Field Station of Smith College, a 260-acre forested research site in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts (land of the Pocumtuc, Nipmuc, and Abenaki people). Together with my research collaborator, naturalist Kate Wellspring, I am studying a living northern red oak tree (Quercus rubra) and its immediate forest habitat. We have been working at the site since June 2019, integrating artistic and scientific methodologies to experience, observe and document life within a defined area of forest whose radius is eighty-five feet, equal to the height of our tree.
To Understand a Tree was inspired by a desire to contemplate a living forest tree and its immediate habitat from the perspective of a queer-identified woodworker, in a way that challenges and provokes an often-assumed binary between living tree and dead wood. The project calls upon me to form a deeper personal relationship to the tree and its environment, as well as deepen my relationship to the material of wood—essentially to close the gap between forest and furniture, or between nature and culture. In addition, doing this work in collaboration with others has led me toward a less individuated conception of my relationship to nature, challenging Euro-American environmental legacies of the previous century.
Northern red oak is an ecologically important species in the forests of New England, as well as a premiere material for furniture construction, and it is this dual eco-historical identity that “To Understand a Tree” hinges upon. As we work at the forest site, I am also studying the history of chairs and chair making in North America, and learning the traditional art of greenwood chair construction in red oak. As I alternate between contemplating a live red oak tree in the forest, and splitting, hewing, and shaving green red oak logs into chair parts, I reflect on the complexity of issues raised by my role in the ecosystem as a human, and as a white descendent of European immigrants on North American soil.
This work links legacies of 19th-century transcendentalism with contemporary biological understandings of forest interconnection, ecofeminism, queer ecology, eco-philosophy, and Indigenous teachings about human-nature relationships. These studies, along with many hours spent in the forest, have moved me toward a consideration of the tree as a subject rather than simply an object, a fundamental shift in my thinking with expansive and challenging impacts on my woodworking practice and on my understanding of the ecological role of humans.
Involving collaboration, public engagement, site-based study and contemplation, video documentation, and woodworking, To Understand a Tree functions as a small-scale way of exploring big questions about the place of humans in the environment, the scale and speed at which we consume natural resources, and which organisms are included or excluded in a definition of “community.” Forests are complex, interconnected systems, and in that spirit, To Understand a Tree connects material practice and object making to questions of forest ecology, climate change, and more-than-human personhood.
To Understand a Tree is in-process and will exhibit at the Center for Art in Wood (Philadelphia) in 2023.
All images and text copyright 2006-2022 Gina Siepel. All rights reserved.