Unearthing the Past

Unearthing the Past

Wilson Cusack created these wooden spoons in response to the story of the Chickasaw people.

Young Hun Chung 16 ID holds up a large wooden map of the US with transparent plastic overlays. One sheet charts the progression of the country’s earliest railroads, while another depicts high concentrations of air pollution hovering over densely populated cities.

“I’m interested in the relationship between the genesis of cross-continental rail transport and the health of our environment today,” Chung explains. “Hopefully viewers can come to their own conclusions about how 1800s industrialization has affected the modern American landscape.”

Chung created the tactile map in The Witness Tree Project: National Identity in Van Buren's America, an interdisciplinary spring studio co-taught by Furniture Design Senior Critic Dale Broholm and Dean of Liberal Arts Dan Cavicchi. Her work is among a couple dozen pieces on view this summer in a Witness Tree Project exhibition that opens this Saturday, June 27 at the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, NY.

With the help of Cavicchi, Broholm first developed the course in 2009 after visiting a historic battleground in Gettysburg, PA, where he learned that the National Park Service (NPS) routinely cuts down ailing trees from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since many of these grand old hardwoods have “witnessed” major events in America’s history, he recognized the potential of having furniture design and other students study the past while making meaningful objects from the harvested wood.

“RISD students are so good at making objects that are both beautiful and steeped in layered meaning,” Broholm notes. “This class enhances the ability of students to generate ideas and understand the important role history plays in making storied creations.”

The mulberry trees selected for this year's studio stood strong in 1837 when Martin Van Buren first became president of the United States, attempting to unify a country bitterly divided over the question of slavery, among other contentious political issues of the day. In creating fascinating works, students used pieces of dried timbers harvested and shipped from the Van Buren National Historic Site, a 125-acre parcel of land.

In March the class visited the NPS site in order to get a feel for its bucolic setting and to explore Lindenwald, Van Buren’s Federal-style home—now a museum brimming with antiques. “We used the historic site as a jumping off point to understand the economics of the typical American household, early US immigration patterns and modes of industrialization that occurred during Van Buren’s lifetime,” says Broholm. “Through intensive research and writing—and hands-on studio work that tested the materiality of this lovely wood—students came to a deep understanding of some of the struggles and divisions that were common in the years leading up to the Civil War.”

For instance, Tracy [Ran] Zheng 17 IL created a small table that represents the complexity and often explosive nature of US race relations. The boxy piece incorporates an unfinished slab of mulberry fit snugly into its center—a symbolic representation of the historic role of African Americans in the US. “The table doesn’t stand on its own without it,” Zheng explains. “The structure would collapse if it suddenly disappeared. But the pieces are far from a perfect, harmonious fit.”

For one of his pieces, Brown student Wilson Cusack (a Computer Science major) also focused on race relations, building a small box that holds wooden spoons inspired by the history of the Chickasaw people, a Native American tribe forced to relocate on the Trail of Tears. Inspired by the transcendentalist essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he also made a solid wooden rocking chair that sits low to the ground.

“The user has to work incredibly hard to lift himself out of the [chair] to stand on his own two feet,” Cusack explains. “To me this piece encapsulates the value of self-reliance in Van Buren’s era of mechanization, exploitation and profound exploration.”

Related stories

Witnessing History

Twenty objects made by students as part of last spring's Witness Tree Project are on view through October 5 in an exhibition in New Jersey.

Carving Out a New Identity

Students in this year’s Witness Tree Project studio reflect on immigration by creating objects from a fallen elm that stood in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for 150 years.

SURF Fellows Promote Conservation

Through an NSF-funded summer internship at the Nature Lab, students from RISD and Roger Williams University create a website to help kids better understand the value of marine life.