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Witnessing History

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.

For her Witness Tree piece, Laura Casanas 16 FD created model train cars symbolizing the historic divide between the wealthy and the working poor.

Wearing an apron caked with flour and shop dust, Fallon Wong 14 JM cracks open the door of an industrial oven to check on her latest batch of fortune cookies. To her delight, they’re baked to a perfect golden-brown—the exact color of the popular cookie typically wrapped around words of wisdom or a telling prophecy.

As soon as she pulls them out, Wong waves off fellow students hungry for a taste, reminding them that her “cookies” are mostly made of red oak. They’re part of her final assignment for an interdisciplinary studio called The Witness Tree Project: Makers and Markets, a course Furniture Design Senior Critic Dale Broholm both conceived of and co-teaches. Now Wong’s work is part of a new exhibition that just opened at the ValleyArts Firehouse Gallery in Orange NJ, just two miles from the home where legendary inventor Thomas Edison worked in the early 20th century. Called Transformed: Looking at the Age of Edison through the Witness Trees of Glenmont, the show features 20 objects made by students who participated in the studio last spring and is on view through October 5.

Students enrolled in The Witness Tree Project – jointly offered through Liberal Arts and Furniture Design—research, discuss and make objects inspired by the storied past of seasoned hardwoods designated as “witness trees” by the National Park Service. The idea for the course first hit Broholm during a visit to the historic battlefield in Gettysburg, VA, where he learned that the Park Service routinely cuts down old and ailing trees. Realizing that “trees are markers of time [like] calendars,” as he recently told a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, he began to think about “an interdisciplinary model of linked courses—both history-related and art- and design-related—that could evoke the past and examine historical practice.”

During the most recent iteration of the course last spring, students made intriguing works using grand old red oak and maple trees that had fallen during superstorm Sandy and were shipped to RISD from the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ. At the beginning of the semester, they traveled to the park, which houses the 19th-century inventor’s home, along with the lab complex “where modern America was invented,” as the Park Service puts it.

“We used the park as a starting point to investigate the development of new manufacturing and marketing practices that occurred in the late 1800s through the early 1900s—a time when capitalist industrialization was remaking daily life in the United States,” explains Susanna Bohme, a faculty member in History, Philosophy and the Social Sciences (HPSS) who co-taught the course with Broholm. “Through reading and writing – and intensive studio work exploring the materiality of the wood—students came to an intimate understanding of the lives of influential inventors and the factory workers that made their products.”

For example, Wong was originally inspired to make her fortune cookies-with-a-twist after reading primary source documents outlining the inhumane conditions endured by Chinese-American detainees at Angel Island, an immigrant processing facility in San Francisco Bay. To communicate, they would hide notes in their food—which inspired the Jewelry + Metalsmithing major to insert slips of paper with encouraging Chinese sayings inside each of her baked wood-fiber cookies.

“I wanted to put myself in the shoes of the subjects I read about in class,” Wong says. “They helped build the US economy by building the country’s farms, mining camps and railroads—but didn't get much respect from American laborers at the time. And they worked for lower wages.”

Cory Lambert 14 ID also drew inspiration from stories of early 20th-century Chinese-American immigrants, many of whom ran laundry businesses out of their homes. Given that history, the industrial designer was interested in creating domestic objects that could feasibly be used for both work and leisure. In the end, he says, he “made a bucket that can be used for washing clothes. But when it’s turned upside down, it functions as a table.” He then bleached, sandblasted, ebonized and whitewashed the piece “to make it look old and overused.”

For her Witness Tree piece, Laura Casanas 16 FD created a series of model train cars filled with female figurines surrounded by luxury objects. Made of maple, it represents the new financial freedom middle-class Americans enjoyed after workers finally gained long-overdue legal rights and a bit of leisure time. “I wanted to make a statement about how women worked to accumulate fancy items with their disposable income in an attempt to act like the wealthy,” she explains.

In summing up the value of the annual Witness Tree Project, Dean of Liberal Arts Dan Cavicchi, who helped develop the concept with Broholm six years ago, notes that “witness trees have stood for a century or more, while around them battles have been waged, presidents have been born and died, and whole industries have been established, peaked and declined. Now each of these trees serves as an axis from which students can expand the scope of their thinking outward, from specific events to more complex questions about time and place, nature and culture.”

Abigail Crocker + Liisa Silander

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