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 (traditional homeland of the Pocumtuck 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 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 woodworker, in a way that is directly engaged with both the forest and the furniture making process. As we work at the forest site, I am also studying the history of chair-making in North America, and learning the traditional art of greenwood chair construction in red oak. The project challenges me to form a 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.
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 resource extraction. This ongoing, process-based project has yielded many new questions and new understandings, and will continue to evolve for the foreseeable future.
All images and text copyright 2006-2021 Gina Siepel. All rights reserved.