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This Couple Turns A Forest's Dead Trees Into Art

Laura and Rick Brown at Handshouse Studio, next to a small scale model of "Singing Tree," one of the planned sculptures for the Chesterwood exhibit. In the lower left is a model of "Mother Tree." (Penny Schwartz for WBUR)
Laura and Rick Brown at Handshouse Studio, next to a small scale model of "Singing Tree," one of the planned sculptures for the Chesterwood exhibit. In the lower left is a model of "Mother Tree." (Penny Schwartz for WBUR)

A curved log wraps around the base of "Mother Tree," a towering sculpture with hand-like wooden planks extending outward. "Siblings" is a pair of related sculptures with rough hewn wooden slats that fan out like an accordion from pieces of bark-covered logs. "Wisdom" stands tall, knowing and resolute.

The trio of sculptures are part of "One Impulse From Vernal Wood," a series of nine planned works being created this month by Laura and Rick Brown in the woods of Chesterwood, a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in Stockbridge. The solo exhibition for Chesterwood's annual contemporary sculpture show opens June 28, with a reception and artists' talk, and runs through Oct. 27.

The Chesterwood house was the summer home of sculptor Daniel Chester French. (Courtesy Chesterwood)
The Chesterwood house was the summer home of sculptor Daniel Chester French. (Courtesy Chesterwood)

Chesterwood, a 122-acre property, was the summer home, studios and gardens of Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), the preeminent American sculptor whose works include the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the bronze Minute Man in Concord. Drawn to the natural beauty of the Berkshire Hills, French designed a formal garden and a natural woodlands forest with paths and trails.

Each of the Browns' sculptures is made from distressed or standing dead trees from Chesterwood that were slated to be removed to ensure the safety and health of the forest. The pieces are being installed on-site this month, emerging anew in their original environment.

The Browns are a Norwell-based couple and faculty members at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. They also founded Handshouse Studio, a nonprofit educational organization globally recognized for recreating large historic objects made using traditional methods and materials. Handshouse projects involve extensive collaborations with artisans, other scholars and scores of students.

In contrast, their practice as sculptors over the past five decades has been more personal.

"It's our precious thing. It's our own," said Rick, in a recent conversation with the couple at their home. "It's our personal and creative act," Laura said.

The idea for this solo sculpture exhibition took root last June, when the Browns were invited to be artists-in-residence at Chesterwood. Their environmental sculptures have been included in five previous exhibits of contemporary sculpture there.

Laura and Rick Brown's "Housatonic at Stockbridge" sculpture created for Chesterwood's 2013 contemporary sculpture exhibit. Like the pieces for their large-scale solo exhibition this season, the sculpture was composed from a standing dead tree from the grounds of Chesterwood. (Courtesy Cary Wolinsky/Trillium Studios)
Laura and Rick Brown's "Housatonic at Stockbridge" sculpture created for Chesterwood's 2013 contemporary sculpture exhibit. Like the pieces for their large-scale solo exhibition this season, the sculpture was composed from a standing dead tree from the grounds of Chesterwood. (Courtesy Cary Wolinsky/Trillium Studios)

"I felt they would really be inspired by the landscape," said Donna Hassler, director of Chesterwood for the past 11 years. She said the opportunity presented the Browns with a challenge to create a solo exhibit in the woods using materials from the property's landscape.

"It's not making something and bringing it out there," but rather, creating something from the natural setting and placing it back within its original environment, Laura said.

For a month last June, the Browns walked the paths and climbed the wooded trails of the dense forest, often with Gerard Blache, Chesterwood's supervisor of building and grounds. They became intensely familiar with the oaks, hemlocks and pines and the curves and slopes of the terrain. They snapped photographs, drew dozens of sketches, talked philosophy and nature, and fed off each other's ideas.

The woods echoed with a palpable life force, they said.

At Chesterwood and back in their Norwell studio, they made multiple models of the envisioned sculptures. As experienced makers, they strategized how to bring the sculptures to life in the woods, and skillfully crafted solutions to vexing structural challenges.

In the last month, they worked with a sawyer at Chesterwood, milling the logs to meet their exacting artistic standards and to retain elements of the trees' authenticity.

The title of the show is a line from "The Tables Turned," a late 18th-century poem by Henry Wordsworth, a favorite of Rick's since his teens, he said. The poem speaks to the power and importance of nature and reflects the Browns' passion for working in consort with the environment.

The Browns also took inspiration from the book "The Hidden Life of Trees," by Peter Wohlleben, and the scientific work of Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology, whose research reveals that trees within a forest communicate through their roots systems.

Laura and Rick Brown work on "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" on the grounds of Chesterwood in 2013. (Courtesy Cary Wolinsky/Trillium Studios)
Laura and Rick Brown work on "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" on the grounds of Chesterwood in 2013. (Courtesy Cary Wolinsky/Trillium Studios)

They are giving voice to the trees, Laura suggested, a theme that reverberates in "Singing Tree," a crisscross of dozens of wooden spikes boldly jutting out of the side of a log. "It's singing, yelling, talking," bursting with the sound of energy, Laura said.

In mid-June, as Hassler observed the Browns at work in the woods, she marveled at how the creative process is still unfolding. "That is what I love," she said.

Hassler and the Browns all noted that the work is transitory. It will wear under the elements and will have to be taken down at some point.

For visitors, the enormous size of the sculptures is "going to be kind of shocking," Hassler acknowledged. "They need to be large to stand out in the very dense forest."

To "work there in that special forest, in the continuity of Daniel Chester French, makes it a very special place," Rick reflected. "It's a perfect opportunity for us to go out and work in a beautiful and natural environment and push our artist selves as far as we can."

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