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Trees Live on in Wood Art

Into the Wind

One of the objects by Cliff Lounsbury featured in UMMA’s 2004 exhibition Nature Transformed: Wood Art from the Bohlen Collection. Cliff Lounsbury, Into the Wind, 2001, chokecherry burl, UMMA, Gift of Robert M. and Lillian Montalto Bohlen, 2002/2.158

As part of a unique recycling initiative, wood felled at the construction site of UMMA’s $41.9 million landmark expansion and restoration project in the fall of 2006 is now being transformed into extraordinary works of art.

Although twenty-six trees were removed from the site to provide for the addition of the Museum’s new Frankel Wing, the beauty of each will live on forever in the form of nearly 1,000 objects of art to be created by eighty master woodturners from Michigan and around the country. Each woodturner will make pieces in his or her own signature style.

The objects—including vessels, platters, pens, teapots, bowls, pepper grinders, wine stoppers, and tables—will be sold exclusively at the UMMA Museum Shop when it reopens its doors in the expanded Museum in 2009.

From tree to teapot, none of this would have been possible without UMMA Museum Shop Manager Suzanne Witthoff, who planted the seed for this novel undertaking in the summer of 2005. Not surprisingly, the concept gained rapid approval from UMMA Director James Steward and Chief Administrative Officer Kathryn Huss, and within a matter of weeks initial planning meetings were underway.

“We kept thinking, what if we took the trees and transformed them into something of lasting beauty,” said Witthoff.

Beginning with the selection of wood—from grain to color to texture—woodturners chose from trees such as red maple, above: Museumwhite oak, honey locust, eastern redbud, burr oak, crabapple, sycamore maple, silver maple, and ginkgo. “Many of the turners actually cut and opened up the tree trunks themselves using chainsaws,” said Witthoff. “They knew exactly where they wanted to cut the piece, and what type of object they saw in it.”

Lending a national level of expertise to the project is noted woodturner Cliff Lounsbury of Tawas, Michigan, whose unique style can be seen in numerous museum collections throughout the U.S. and whose work was recently exhibited by the University of Michigan Health System Gifts of Art program. “The idea of saving these trees was really appealing to me,” said Lounsbury. “I’ve recruited nearly thirty museum-quality woodturners from across the country to get on board. I’m really glad to have been able to coordinate a group of artists that should be seen at this level.”

To complete the regional dimension of the project, Witthoff worked with five Michigan chapters of the American Association of Woodturners to enlist local and regional artists.

Along the way, Ann Arbor woodturner Russ Clinard coordinated the cutting of the trees and secured donated space at B&B Hardwoods, Ann Arbor, for the storage and drying of large sections of tree trunks and limbs. “I enjoyed the whole process,” said Clinard. “What is important is that these trees will live on forever.” Depending on the piece at hand, turners used wood from either green, freshly cut logs or from logs that had been cut and left to dry for months.

From concept to actual creation on the woodturner’s lathe, the project is slated for completion in early 2009 when the last of the turners puts the finishing touches on his or her piece and ships it to the UMMA Museum Shop for inventory, pricing, and display. In a gesture of generosity, the artists will donate all pieces, along with 100% of profits from the initial round of sales, to the Museum. To commemorate the project, each object of art will be imprinted with a special Museum logo.

“This amazing project really started with some trees coming down around the Museum,” said Brighton, Michigan, resident Robert M. Bohlen, one of the most important collectors of wood art in the country. “These artists wanted to show their appreciation to the University.” In 2004, Bohlen’s collection of 82 works of art, Nature Transformed: Wood Art from the Bohlen Collection, brought record numbers of visitors to UMMA.

“What makes this project most unique is that people will now be able to buy a piece of the University of Michigan campus,” said Witthoff. “The process has been meaningful and inspiring for all of us.”

Making its mark as a model recycling effort, UMMA’s wood art project complements UMMA’s tree replanting initiative, in which one caliper inch is replanted for every one caliper inch felled, reinforcing the longstanding University policy that, “for every tree removed, one is planted.”

Barbara Wylan Sefton
Contributing Writer