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The Elm Tree Project
Brown’s once-mighty “Elmo” is preserved through artists’ project
“Elmo,” the majestic American elm tree that once defined the Thayer Street entrance to the Watson Institute, succumbed last year to an advanced case of Dutch elm disease and was taken down to prevent the disease from spreading. Now, in an innovative exercise in recycling and preservation, wood from the tree is providing inspiration for The Elm Tree Project and a series of courses at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Preservation and recycling are reaching a new level at Brown University, where students in visual art are turning what was once a campus icon into works of art.
Wood from “Elmo,” the majestic American elm tree that once defined the Thayer Street entrance to Brown’s new Watson Institute for International Studies, is being used for The Elm Tree Project, a collaborative effort between Brown and Rhode Island School of Design. The Elm Tree Project is designed to “document, reflect upon and work to continue Elmo’s legacy,” according to Richard Fishman, chair of the Department of Visual Art. The project will encompass a series of courses, exhibitions, performances and events inspired by Brown’s elm in particular and by the larger issues of nature, ecology and the environment.
“The tree invokes ideas and feelings that extend throughout history, culture, science and the arts,” said Fishman. “This is an opportunity to examine these issues in a multidisciplinary approach with a diverse group of students and faculty from the two institutions.”
The first of several planned courses, dubbed the Elm Tree Class, was offered at Brown this spring through the Department of Visual Art. Using a former University storage facility on Tockwotten Street as a studio, 17 students “explored the tree as material and metaphor, within topics such as environmental studies, biology and the arts,” Fishman said. Students in the class have used wood from Elmo to produce works in varied mediums, ranging from sculpture and furniture-making, to photography, video and even fashion projects. Two new courses will be offered next fall and taught jointly by faculty from Brown and RISD; another course incorporating environmental science is in the development stage at Brown. Fishman estimates the elm tree yielded approximately 30,000 pounds of wood, enough to sustain numerous related classes.
Elmo, which was thought to have been between 80 and 100 years old, was taken down in December 2003 because it had been ravaged by Dutch elm disease. Once the tree was divided into manageable pieces, most of its wood was moved to the Providence Steel Mill for storage; the remainder was transported to Berkshire Products Inc., a specialized sawmill in Sheffield, Mass. On May 8, 2004, some 15,000 pounds was milled at the western Massachusetts plant, where it will be stored and seasoned until next winter. Fishman said his students will be able to confirm the tree’s precise age by counting the tree’s rings once the milled wood is dried.
The elm tree was among the largest in the University’s collection and was a dominant feature of the Watson Institute’s new Thayer Street home, a dramatic building designed by Rafael Viñoly and dedicated in May 2002. University grounds staff first noticed the tell-tale symptoms of Dutch elm disease – yellowed and curling leaves in the crown – when the tree leafed out in May 2003. The grounds staff immediately pruned out the diseased areas, injected the tree with medication and sent samples to a lab for testing, but found it could not be saved. The Providence city forester examined the tree and agreed that it should be removed as soon as possible.
Dutch elm is a vascular disease carried by the tree’s circulatory system; it moves rapidly and has no cure. Brown University is home to more than 80 American elms, one of the largest institutional collections left in North America. Each of the trees is treated twice a year and monitored closely in the spring for any signs of disease in the crown. Since Dutch elm disease is principally transmitted by a bark beetle, the pruning of deadwood and careful removal of fallen branches are important parts of the management program.