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Witness Trees Exhibit Ends August 19

Now on view at the The Koenig Center, this National Park Service traveling show focuses on transforming history into art

Witness Trees, opened on July 15, at the Oyster Bay Historical Society’s Koenig Center as its summer exhibition, in partnership with Sagamore Hill National Historic Site (SHNHS) and runs now through Aug. 19. The items on display are the work of students from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), using wood reclaimed from trees on four National Historic Sites.

SHNHS Superintendent Thomas Ross was very happy to see the works created by RISD students using wood reclaimed from trees on the National Historic Sites, In addition to Sagamore Hill, the contributing sites include Hampton Plantation in Maryland, the George Washington Birthplace in Virginia, and the Frederic Law Olmstead site in Massachusetts.

Superintendent Ross said of the traveling NPS show, that its being shown here was a demonstration of the partnership between the NPS and the OBHS. He said, “This great partnership adds to the emerging art scene here in Oyster Bay. We look forward to more collaboration in the future. I encourage people to come and see the show, it not only displays amazing wood craftsmanship from one of the best design schools in the country but it also gives the public an opportunity to learn more about our nation’s history through our exhibits of their work.

“The NPS is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016 and one of the initiatives is to promote the arts through a unit called Art Afire. Exhibits like this and the plein art contest at Sagamore Hill the last two days, (on July 14 and 15) were an example of the way Sagamore Hill is promoting the arts.”

Meet the Artist

A special pleasure of the exhibit is that each piece is accompanied by an explanatory card written by the artist. One of the RISD students attending the opening was Colette Bazirgan who designed a love seat and a corset. She graduated in 2011 with a degree in industrial design and is currently working with her own company Ravel Studio, located in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. She designed a corset with pecan wood ribs for the stays that was inspired by the Hampton National Historic Site. She called the corset a “container” such as Eliza, a woman who lived in the house following the styles of the 17th and 18th century would have worn.

Hampton National Historic Site in Baltimore, Maryland, shows the story of people — enslaved African Americans, European indentured servants, industrial and agricultural workers, and owners. It is also the story of the economic and moral changes that made this kind of life obsolete. In 1828 John Carnan Ridgely married Eliza Eichelberger Ridgely (no relation), the woman who inspired the corset. Her husband John inherited the house and 4,500 acres in 1829, the remainder of the Hampton estate property was split among other heirs. His father, the Governor Charles Ridgely, Jr.’s will also freed most of his 300-plus slaves at that time, according to their website.

The buckle in the center of the corset/belt was inspired by a morning glory flower in the garden. Ms. Bazirgan also designed a split bench inspired by what was called at the time a “courting couch.” It was a wide sofa, long enough for four people to sit on, with each seat divided by arms. The parents sat in the end seats and the courting couple in the middle – with no physical contact. Her Lady Slipper Chair covered in modern fabric references that time period. In her piece, a small divided stool, she said, “I am forcing interaction between the couple.”  

With her was Laurence Almango, a Rugby League player. Ms. Bazirgan has designed items for the team’s fans.

A View of Slavery

Other fascinating items in the exhibit include: a wooden camera and a folk doll with a pecan wood body. The folk doll was created by Brittany Bennett. In her commentary on her work inspired by a tour of the Hampton Historical Site, she said, “I was dismayed at how racism still manages to permeate the plantation. The juxtaposition of the painstakingly curated Ridgley Mansion and the relatively deserted slave quarters (which were presented in a way that was both deeply unsettling and borderline distasteful — far too idyllic, pristine, and heavily renovated to be historically accurate) was particularly jarring.

“For the Witness Tree Project, I sought to tell the stories that I felt Hampton had neglected through these objects: a doll (reminiscent of its porcelain cousins on display in the mansion) for a little girl with the misfortune of an enslaved childhood; a sturdy set of handmade, hand-dyed work baskets and a stool woven together with handmade fabric scraps.” She said, “They are tributes to the massive, skilled workforce that Hampton built itself upon.”

A Polyrhythmic Stool

Also inspired by the Hampton plantation site, Rebecca Manson created a polyrhythmic stool of pecan. She wrote, “My stool is intended to impart to the sitter a symbolic notion of slave life. It has 13 legs, an asymmetrical seat, and eight bells hanging at different lengths from the bottom of the seat. The legs are each cut to a different length and angled. The seat rocks between the legs, creating a polyrhythmic motion as the bells make polyrhythmic sound. In order to create the rhythms the sitter must work, moving the body and getting physical with the chair. This is inspired by songs of slaves while they worked.

“The stool is also difficult to sit on. The sitter must be aware of balance and use the feet to avoid falling off. This is similar to the awareness that slaves must have felt around their masters. The seat also has points in certain areas that make it difficult to place the legs comfortably. Even relaxation for a slave could have been difficult. As soon as the slave tried to sit down, relax, a bell could sound and he or she would be called back to duty.”

TR Remembered

Athena Lo created a necklace of cherry, copper wire and reed to honor Theodore Roosevelt of Sagamore Hill, called Beginning and End 2010.

She wrote, “Teddy Roosevelt has always been portrayed as a pillar of strength. He was born with serious asthma, which drove him to work harder and become the strong figure that has gone down in history as a ‘Rough Rider.’ Nevertheless, he was brought down by an affliction of his lungs. The knots in the wood from which this necklace was made represents the blood clot in his lungs that caused his death. The necklace commemorates Roosevelt’s life and how one can overcome weakness to find strength.”

Koenig Center Installation

The exhibit at the Koenig Center was installed by Nicole Menchise, Oyster Bay Historical Society librarian/archivist as well as Jacqueline and Philip Blocklyn, OBHS executive director.

Ms. Menchise said, “The exhibit material came in from the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center on Tuesday, July 10, and on Thursday we all started working on it. The exhibit included pieces on shelves, as well as a commentary from the artist. It was easy to install them. Normally we don’t want to mark up the walls, but we know for the next exhibit after this one, we will paint and fill up any markings.”

The benefit was that they could display things and bring them up to eye level. A side benefit was that they could save money on pedestals. “Most objects were lightweight so there was no problem about damaging the walls,” she said.

Installing exhibits is always a challenge they try to meet without having to go out and purchase more display stands. “We put our heads together and used items we have here. We never really have big budgets so it requires all of our ingenuity to showcase items, safely, not at risk of damage or being stolen.”

The Koenig Center is open to the public and the OBHS maintains security while providing access to its collection.

Ms. Menchise said, “We have volunteers on the weekends and someone is always at the desk. The doors are always locked, to maintain security.

“There is a doorbell to ring, and we can let people in and be there to answer questions. So the exhibits are always chaperoned by staff and volunteers. It’s good for people to know they can feel comfortable in the security of the building. If they want to donate something to the center, they know it will be secure while on display. That is something we take seriously,” she said.

Witness Trees, curated by Christine Temin, appeared previously at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center this spring before traveling to Oyster Bay for the summer. The Witness Trees Project was originally developed as a partnership between Dale Broholm and David Cavicchi of RISD and Louis Hutchins, a National Park Service historian, from the concept of ancient trees on historic sites as “witnesses” to American history. Such trees, at the end of their lives, and needing to be cut down, become the substance of works of art that reflect on and interpret the history of the sites on which they grew.

For further information on the exhibition, please call the Oyster Bay Historical Society at 922-5032 or visit them online, where the art and the artists’ explanations are on view at oysterbayhistorical.org.