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Witness Tree Project Exhibit Opens

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

National Park News

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site is currently exhibiting artwork from the Rhode Island School of Design’s Witness Tree Project.

The exhibit, entitled “Echoes of the Olmsted Elm,” presents student works created from the wood of the Olmsted Elm, a tree that for nearly 200 years graced the landscape of Fairsted, the home and office of renowned landscape architect and urban park designer Frederick Law Olmsted.

Rhode Island School of Design's Witness Tree Project was developed in 2009 as a partnership with the National Park Service. This collaborative venture,  led by faculty members Dale Broholm and Dan Cavicchi, works each year with one or more National Park Service sites that have  removed historic “witness trees” from their landscapes. Students taking the Witness Tree Project course are given wood from the removed tree or trees for the purpose of creating art objects. At the same time that they make these wooden objects, the students study the history and significance of the historic sites where the trees once stood.  

In past years, the course worked with trees from Hampton National Historic Site in Maryland, Sagamore Hill National Historic Site in New York, and George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Virginia.

During the fall of 2011, the Witness Tree Project focused on Olmsted’s historic American elm. That tree during its lifetime “witnessed” Olmsted’s residency from 1883 to 1895, the development and growth of the nation’s first full-scale professional landscape architecture practice, the work of Olmsted’s influential sons John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and acquisition of the site in 1980 by the National Park Service. It was a key feature on the Olmsted-designed South Lawn at Olmsted NHS until it fell victim to Dutch elm disease and general old age and had to be cut down in March 2011.

School of Design students in their course learned about Frederick Law Olmsted's life and work, the accomplishments of his firm, and related historical trends and movements in the United States such as urbanization and urban reform. They also took field trips to Olmsted NHS and the Arnold Arboretum, which Olmsted designed as part of the “Emerald Necklace” park system that extends through Boston and parts of adjacent Brookline.

In a studio component of the course, the students produced works from the elm wood illustrating Olmsted's many occupations during his life, the history of recreation in the United States, and contemporary issues related to use of public spaces, including those associated with the 2011 Occupy movements.

The exhibit opened on Friday, August 31st, and runs through this month. It is free and open to the public, with drop-in hours Thursdays from 5:00 to 8:00 pm and weekends from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. In addition, visitors going on the site’s regularly-scheduled Wednesday through Sunday tours are visiting the exhibit at the conclusion of their tours. 

Further information on Echoes of the Olmsted Elm is available at the exhibit web page or on Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site's Facebook page.



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