April 10, 2019

Trees Cut Down Transformed into Works of Art

Time had taken its toll on quite a few trees at the Atlanta Botanical Garden (ABG), and several others were in need of removal to make way for other projects. There were only a few people, however, that knew something special was planned for the afterlife of these trees.

In early 2018, it became clear that they had to come down. Huge Red Oaks and Tulip Poplars were earmarked for removal as diseased and/or potential hazards should they fail. Even a couple of old specimens in the Garden: a Japanese Maple tree and a Giant Dogwood tree (Cornus controversa) had outlived their useful lives, or had insect infestations or other problems that necessitated removal. Cranes, lifts, and a large assemblage of the Downey Trees staff and equipment arsenal was assembled, mostly on Mondays when the Garden is closed, during February, March, and April of 2018. Traffic lanes and sidewalks were closed. Logistics of take-downs and sequence of removals were carefully planned. While these tricky operations and demanding timetables are part of the daily routine at Downey Trees (and at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, for that matter!), the interesting twist to this story is what would happen to a portion of the wood from these trees once they were removed. Downey Trees was asked NOT to recycle certain pieces of wood from these trees, but to hold them at our Norcross facility pending further instructions.

Enter into our story Philip Moulthrop. The Moulthrop family has been transforming cut trees into beautiful wooden bowls for 3 generations. After a successful showcase of their art at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, some time back, Philip’s son Matt approached the Atlanta Botanical Garden with the idea of doing the same here. Given the pending tree removal project, it seemed like a natural fit to incorporate an assortment of bowls crafted from trees culled from the Garden. It therefore became clear why we were holding the wood from the Botanical Garden- it was delivered to the Moulthrop shop in the early summer of 2018. The stage was set. Over the next several months, the wood would be stored outside and then the Moulthrop family would get busy creating works in wood for the ABG exhibition.

The display opened at the Garden on February 9th and continues through April 27th. On the wall in the exhibition hall is a placard that briefly explains the process that the Moulthrop’s follow to produce the beautiful wood bowls. In a conversation with Philip, some additional insight into the process was gleaned. There are degrees of difficulty associated with different species of wood. Red Maple, Tulip Polar, Magnolia, and Boxelder are the easiest to craft. The most difficult are Dogwood trees, Osage Orange, and some species of Oak. Once the logs are aged following cutting of the trees, a process that may take months or years, a section is cut to the appropriate length and the bark is trimmed away. One would think that the orientation for the bowl would always be the same as the tree itself, from bottom to top. However, this is not always the case: an artful representation of each tree can be achieved by not only featuring the characteristics of the individual tree species, but also the character of the particular piece of wood. This goes beyond the grain of the wood to such things a branch attachment, wounds, flaws, discoloration, even damage from insect larvae. Interesting to note that something which might kill a tree can be a source of lasting beauty and interest after it dies! The “Wormy Japanese Maple” bowl in the display is just such an example. To achieve the best artful expression, the bowl may wind up being oriented sideways to the original direction of growth. If a burl is encountered, the entire approach may change. A burl is rampant growth and deformation of the wood grain caused by some form of stress, such as a virus, fungus, or injury. It is manifested by rampant and uncontrolled cell growth, not unlike cancer in humans. All of these conditions of the wood are considered in their transformation to bowls or other works of art.

The next step in the process is shaping the outside of the bowl. A metal plate mounted to the bottom of the log once it has been trimmed allows the wood to be attached to the lathe. When the outside has been shaped, the interior is hollowed out with special tools. This seems one of the most precarious steps in the process, because the bowl could easily be ruined by scraping the inside too thin and penetrating the wall to the outside of the bowl. A photo here shows the tools used to complete this step. The rough bowls are then soaked in a bath of water and polyethylene glycol for 2-4 months to cure the wood and prevent cracking. The bowls are then dried, turned one last time, and sanded several times. The final step is the finish – a process that gives the bowls the “signature Moulthrop shine”!

The few sample photos of the art produced by Philip and Matt Moulthrop shown here do little justice to portray the real beauty and intricacy of the pieces – they simply have to be witnessed in person to be fully appreciated. Bowls display the grains and patterns endemic to their species, or perhaps evidence of a pest infestation as in the “Wormy Japanese Maple”. Other creations include mosaics of one or more species of tree. One of the most stunning pieces is the “Dawn Redwood Open Chalice”, boggling the mind that a piece with such symmetry, geometry, and graceful curves could have been created from a single piece of wood!

The family Patriarch, Ed Moulthrop, who passed away in 2003, is considered the “father of modern woodturning” and he ceded his legacy of excellence on to his son Philip and grandson Matt. Their art is displayed in permanent collections at the Smithsonian, the American Craft Museum of New York, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the High Museum.

Downey Trees is privileged to have played a small part in this endeavor in assisting to provide the raw materials for the creation of the works of art that were exhibited. Plan your next visit to the Atlanta Botanical Garden soon – the Moulthrop exhibition is scheduled to end on April 27th! I like what Matt Moulthrop says about his creations, and end with his statement: “Each tree has a story to tell… My bowls tell the story of the tree, lengthening the life of the tree rather than ending it.”

April 10, 2019