Art Show Intro

This piece was to have been the introduction to the exhibition catalogue for a contemporary art show themed around wood reclaimed from so called “witness trees”. The exhibition debuted at the Architectural Digest Home Design Show in New York City, but the catalogue never materialized.

The Secret Sits

We dance round in a ring and suppose,

But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

—Robert Frost

A Witness Tree

For all of its evocative mystery, the term “witness tree” is actually of technical origin. Trees, along with rocks, fissures and other geographic landmarks, serve to witness the location of monuments on land surveys. Robert Frost, whose work had deep ties to the quiet retrospection of rural life, would have known this when he used it as the title of his Pulitzer Prize winning collection of verse in 1942. Since that time, the term has taken on a more symbolic and spiritual connotation – one of connecting a people or culture to the Earth.

In 1977, Elvis Presley died at the relatively young age of 43. He was widely considered to have been one of the most influential forces in the history of Rock and Roll (which was at the time also comparatively young). In a year that also counted Charlie Chaplin, Vladimir Nabokov, and Francis Gary Powers among the departed, another name appeared on the rolls. A name so obscure that very few people would have even taken notice: Hanako. No film star, novelist, or spy-plane pilot was she. Nor was Hanako an artist hiding behind a cryptic singular name. Hanako was a fish.

Specifically, Hanako was a red koi – a type of domesticated Japanese carp prized for their beauty. While it’s true that koi are sociable creatures – they will happily feed from your hand – they are also curiously long lived and with the traditional Japanese reverence for nature, are passed down from one generation to the next. It is this fact that made Hanako particularly special. At the time of her death, Hanako was 226 years old.

Unlike Elvis – a mover and shaker who created history – Hanako was a silent observer, watching history unfold from the stillness of her pond. While sportsmen revel in the telling of fish stories, I’ve often wondered what kinds of stories a 226 year old fish could tell.

To give her life a context meaningful to Americans, Hanako was born 25 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and she died eight years after we put a man on the moon. When the lifespan of a living creature exceeds the entire existence of your country (at the time), it tends to give one pause. Things like that just don’t happen here. If there are two hundred year old fish in the United States, it’s simply by luck or coincidence. Any place where something could survive unmolested by time or predator must be so highly remote that no one would ever bother going. But there is another witness of natural history – one that exists in plain sight. If a fish in a pond can be described as a passive observer, it’s difficult to imagine a more passive observer than a tree.

There’s a scene in Vertigo, where Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak visit Muir Woods with its monumental timeline made from the cross-section of a giant Sequoia, the annular growth rings labeled here and there with significant events from that year. Playing a finger over one of the more recent sections, Novak’s character observes, “Somewhere in here, I was born. And there I died. It was only a moment for you. You took no notice...” With seeming indifference, trees sink their roots into the earth. Expecting to last, they sink them deep. And then they sit, as the world passes them by. But in many ways, it’s the world that relates to trees.

The connection we have to these silent guardians is intensely personal. If we climbed them as children, lounged beneath them in the arms of a lover, or took our families to visit these places of personal significance, who’s to know when we’re all gone? Without human confirmation, we’ll never know if they were watered as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “by the blood of patriots and tyrants”, or if they spent their days in relative tranquility, their boughs giving refuge to creatures of all kinds. We can only speculate – and the trees are strangely reticent.

Like the murdered ghost in Rashomon, the trees are mute. If they are to speak at all, they are dependent on others to do so for them. Like a spirit medium, it is the artist that gives voice to the mute witness, insuring that the collected experience not only persists, but continues forward through time. Anomalies of their growth – grain structure, cracks, spalting, crotch figure, etc. – celebrated for the appreciation of museum visitors and private collectors. Without such advocates, they might otherwise meet an ignominious end as mulch or firewood.

Through his background as a professional woodworker and builder, and a fortuitous twist of fate, Bill Jewell found himself in a unique and fortunate position to partner with a number of historic sites to remove trees that were no longer viable and to insure that they would live on, if only metaphorically. As curator of the National Treasures exhibition he has brought together twenty world-renowned artists working from a base of wood reclaimed from such culturally significant sites as Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier; from the estates of Patrick Henry and James Monroe; and from the grave site of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

It is an unprecedented collaboration between historical woods and contemporary artists. After centuries of stillness, the trees are silent no longer.

This then, is their voice.

—Michael J. Venables

February 2010