To Understand a Tree is a multi-disciplinary project that focuses on the dignity of a living tree, its network of eco-systemic relationships, and the ubiquity of the material of wood in design and daily life. The project is hosted by the Arts Afield program 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), where I am an Artist-in-Residence.
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 crisis, and more-than-human relationships. My project-research collaborator (naturalist Kate Wellspring) and I have been working with an approximately 100-year old northern red oak tree and its immediate forest habitat since June 2019, spending time observing, contemplating, and documenting the tree, the surrounding ecosystem, and other life forms at the site. Site-visits with guest artists, environmentalists, students, and scientists have been an integral part of the project. As we work at the forest site, I am also learning the traditional art of greenwood chair construction. I alternate between contemplating the tree in the forest, and splitting, hewing, and shaving fallen red oak logs into chair parts. I am reflecting on my role in the ecosystem as a human, as a white descendent of European immigrants in North America, as a queer-identified artist, and as a maker of wooden objects. This long-term durational project centers individual and communal learning as both a process and an outcome.
To Understand a Tree draws upon contemporary scientific understandings of forest interconnection, the philosophical underpinnings that create the current paradigm of unsustainable and extractive resource use, and the thinkers who offer alternatives. The writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, along with the work of other indigenous thinkers and practitioners, have deeply influenced how I think about the harvest of trees for wood. Ilink this learning to my actions throughout the project, cultivating a queer, ecofeminist, and disability-justice informed ethic of care related to woodworking. This project has moved me toward a consideration of the tree as a subject rather than simply an object, a fundamental shift in my thinking. This constitutes a move away from the alienation inherent in the current system of extraction and sale of lumber, and toward a relationship of respect and reciprocity toward trees, plants, and other more-than-human beings.
To Understand a Tree is in-process and will exhibit at the Museum for Art in Wood (Philadelphia) in 2024.
All images and text copyright 2006-2023 Gina Siepel. All rights reserved.