Look At The Lincoln Oak Now

New Haven MuseumThe mighty old Lincoln Oak that toppled on the Green during Superstorm Sandy not only yielded historical finds—it has now spawned a bevy of original artworks.

Those works, using actual wood from the massive tree downed two years ago in October in Superstorm Sandy, filled a second-floor gallery at the New Haven Museum along with 100 visitors for the opening reception the other night for Nothing Is Set In Stone: The Lincoln Oak and the New Haven Green, an innovative exhibition of mixed media, sculpture, and video.

The exhibition paired a display of the scientific data on the skeletal remains unearthed in the tree’s powerful roots with the work of seven artists.

Click here for a story about the tree, the two 1909 time capsules unearthed, and the 18th century human remains entangled with them as interpreted last October in a panel held at the museum.

New Haven MuseumAfter the storm, the the time capsule contents and the tree were given to the museum by the Committee of the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Lands of New Haven.

Museum staffers put the time capsule contents on display—including grapeshot from Gettysburg—and commissioned local artists to use branches, limbs, or pieces of the trunk of the oak to interpret the history of the tree and the discovery of the bones beneath.

The genesis of a show pairing science and art was a question that the exhibition’s coordinator and the director of the museum’s photo archives, Jason Bischoff-Wurstle, put to himself: “What can we do to continue the life of the tree?”

The answer was to make new art, even as the research about the remains proceeds. A panel offering new scientific information on the bones is scheduled for October, near the anniversary of the storm.

About 15 artists submitted proposals for the new exhibit. Eight were selected, including Erich Davis, Michael Quirk, Jeff Slomba, Rachael A. Vaters-Carr, Alison Walsh, Susan Clinard—all sculptors—and one video artist, Lani Asuncion.

The white-clad dancers in Asuncion’s two-minute video bring the dead limbs of the tree to life with their own limbs. That is, they dance with the branches.

Her piece will be expanded as part of a show on public space and our Green, scheduled for Artspace in late July, said Artspace staffer Sarah Fritche.

Slomba’s take on the oak was to try “to reconstruct the viability of this branch. It’s not going to germinate [any more] naturally, so I’m using technology to bring it back to life,” he said.

New Haven MuseumSlomba, a veteran teacher of sculpture at Southern Connecticut State University, said he used the opportunity to learn how to use the Makebot 3-D printer at his school’s studio. The printer produced a plastic copy of the branch as well as the acorns.

“What could be more a symbol of regeneration [especially for an oak] than an acorn?” he asked rhetorically. That a 3-D printer, the technology of the future, did it, even gives a new wrinkle to the idea of regeneration.

Allan Appel PhotoHamden sculptor Susan Clinard’s work—a bust of Lincoln emerging from one long branch (pictured) and another of a family of Civil War era faces inspired by period photos—seemed the most traditional of the works, and deeply felt.

Art Complements Science

Davis works in big units and large quantities . An example: his maze made of eight cords of wood shown last year at Citywide Open Studios at the Goffe Street Armory. He asked for the biggest chunks of the Lincoln Oak with which to create a sculpture.

He fashioned shortened logs—shall we call them Lincoln logs?—building upwards so that they rose almost to Abe Lincoln’s reported height, or, as Davis put it, “within half an inch” of six-feet-four.

Yale University anthropologist Gary Aronsen (pictured), who is leading the research team, said Davis’s sculpture reminded him precisely of the vertebrae of one of the individuals unearthed.

“For me this is very evocative,” he said.

Davis’s title and his sense of backbone derive not so much from the spinal shape but from what you would miss if you didn’t look closely: stenciled on two sides of his sculpture dead center, as if a bull’s eye on the face of each log, are lines from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Of all the Lincolnesque prose he might have printed on the wood, Davis chose the famous address because it form the “backbone” of what our country’s aim should always be, he said.

“I don’t think science and art should be disconnected, because they’re both creative and require discipline. They’re [the artists] seeing things I don’t,” said Aronsen.

In October, at the tail end of the exhibition, Aronsen and his colleagues at Quinnipiac University, along with his main assistant, Yale undergrad Kylie Williamson, will present updated findings of their research into the bones discovered when the tree fell.

If extraction of information from amplified DNA and isotope studies is successful, the evidence might be able to tell us the hair and eye color of the specimens, more about diet, possibly geographic origin, and even ethnicity, said Aronsen.

Alas, he reported “nothing to tie to lineal descent.” For that you would need to do extensive matching with living New Haveners, which is neither practical nor warranted, he said.

Still, the question, like some of the old branches, gnarls: Just who were those people who have surfaced again? Why them and why now and what can we know of them, as individuals?

Maybe for a question like that you need art.

The exhibition will run through October.

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