New Life for a Dying Tree
By Katie Vloet
Photography by Leisa Thompson and U-M Photo Services, Scott Galvin
Greg Smith is working in his basement studio, holding a bowl gouge steadily on the lathe as he smooths the inside curve of a roughed-out bowl. The clunk clunk clunk of metal on wood and the 600 RPM whir of machinery are his soundtrack. Wood shavings fly everywhere, coating Smith's arm and forming a dusty shag rug at his feet.
When the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) made plans to add a new wing several years ago, Museum Store Manager Suzanne Witthoff thought about the 26 trees that would have to be cut down to make room for the building. Already, U-M has a policy of planting new trees of the same size whenever a tree is removed from campus. But some of the UMMA trees had been part of the landscape of the campus for many decades, and Witthoff thought that even more should be done with them.
Inspired by UMMA's renowned Bohlen Wood Art Collection, in 2005 she contacted woodturners in the area and learned about the process of wood being turned into elegant vases, shelves, and lamp bases. Why not ask the woodturners to create pieces from U-M's felled trees, Witthoff thought, and sell the items in the Museum Store?
And so began an innovative—and beautiful—recycling project. Witthoff worked with Michigan chapters of the American Association of Woodturners, and turners such as Cliff Lounsbury of Tawas, Michigan, and Russ Clinard of Ann Arbor. They enlisted local and regional artists for the project, and, with the help of U-M Grounds Services, the project has continued around campus throughout the past several years.
"This has been such a rewarding project, to see the trees turned into beautiful pieces of art," Witthoff says. "Some of the people who come to the Museum Store become really attached to a particular piece, and I love that they take these objects into their own homes. It's hard to see them go, though; some of these pieces are like my children."
The woodturners have created elm pepper mills, honey locust bowls, and white oak clocks. One item, a handwoven Nantucket basket with maple rims and lid, was U-M President Mary Sue Coleman's gift to President Obama when he spoke at U-M's 2010 spring commencement.
The artists also have made many objects from an elm tree—in particular, an elm that stood just east of Hutchins Hall and south of the Legal Research Building.
The elm tree had to be removed in July 2009 to make room for the Robert B. Aikens Commons, the new two-story, 16,000-square-foot, glass-roofed space that will include gathering spots and studying spaces for faculty and students. But it also needed to be cut down for another reason: It was overrun with sprawling colonies of carpenter ants. "The tree was dying and would have become dangerous if it hadn't been taken down," says Michele Frasier- Wing, '98, director of finance and planning for the Law School.
Much of the usable wood then was taken to the Freier Forestry, one of the few mills in the area that accepts urban lumber, which is usually covered in blade-destroying objects such as nails and bolts. It was dried, then taken by U-M Moving and Trucking to a storage facility at the University's Willow Run property.
From there, wood turners picked out the pieces they wanted to work with, and they set about making lamps, pens, shelves, pepper mills, vases, and at least one piece that clearly identifies the wood's U-M link.
Back in Greg Smith's studio at his Troy, Michigan, home, he has removed his protective glasses and brushed the wood shavings off his arms. Now, he is giving a tour of many of the other pieces that line the walls of the studio: roughed-out bowls and vases, nearly completed ring holders, and several ornaments.
The ornaments are among the pieces he has made from the Law Quad elm. He started with one, and he, Witthoff, and Law School staffers liked it so much that he made several more. They feature finials on each end of a hollowed-out sphere, with a small Block M inside the globe.
The M is a small, delicate piece of elm that Smith carved by hand. It doesn't take him very long, he says—just half an hour or so. But then he corrects himself, remembering how much time and energy has gone into learning his trade. "Fifteen years," he says, "plus half an hour."
View images of the projects and process of the Law Quad elm.
For more about the UMMA Museum Store, visit www.umma.umich. edu/visiting/shop.html or call 734.647.0521.