Most summers I try to visit Chesterwood, the former country home and studio of the sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), most famous for his monumental statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington, DC’s Lincoln Memorial. The National Trust for Historic Preservation maintains the period buildings, collections, and 122 acres of designed and wooded landscape as a museum for the public. Located in idyllic Stockbridge, Massachusetts, each year the estate hosts a contemporary sculpture exhibition installed throughout the property.
This year’s show is titled “One Impulse from a Vernal Wood,” a series of nine large-scale works by husband-and-wife artists Laura and Rick Brown. Set amidst the estate’s extensive natural woodlands, each of the Browns’ sculptures is made from distressed or standing dead trees (mostly hemlocks) that were slated to be removed to ensure the safety and health of the forest. The idea behind the works was not to make something and then insert it in the landscape but to create pieces from the natural setting and place them back in their original environment.
The idea for the exhibition took root two years ago when the Browns were artists-in-residence at Chesterwood. For a month the couple walked the paths and climbed the wooded trails of the dense forest. They became intensely familiar with the curves and slopes of the terrain along with the oaks, hemlocks, and other trees that rose out of it. They snapped photographs, drew dozens of sketches, talked philosophy and nature, and fed off each other’s ideas. Back in their studio, they made multiple models of the envisioned sculptures. Then they worked with a logger at Chesterwood, milling the timber to meet their exacting artistic standards and to retain elements of the trees’ authenticity.
The Browns say each sculpture has been inspired by the scientific work of botanist Suzanne Simard, who has determined trees communicate underground through a complex network of root systems and fungal matter, that they “talk” to each other. To suggest this interconnectedness, a work like Veer uses fallen sections of hemlock trees to make a 50-foot-long web of interlocking screens that bob and weave back and forth between standing trees. Made from another hemlock destroyed in a storm, Dreaming comprises a series of 16-foot-tall loops that connect with live ash trees to represent a kind of botanical cooperative system. And a standing dead hemlock is reconfigured in Rouse to evoke a tree send out warning signals when sensing dangers such as the invasion of harmful insects.
“One Impulse from a Vernal Wood: Sculpture by Rick and Laura Brown,” now through October 27, 2020
4 Williamsville Road