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"Transformed: Looking at the Age of Edison Through the Witness Trees of Glenmont" Exhibit to Debut Aug. 28 at ValleyArts Firehouse Gallery

Cynthia Cumming

Sunday, August 24, 2014 • 5:50pm

WEST ORANGE, NJ - Trees at Thomas Edison's Glenmont Estate felled by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 have received new life in the hands of students from the Rhode Island School of Design. Once standing tall and majestic on Edison's stately West Orange homesite, they have been transformed into works of art and will be on display beginning August 28 at the ValleyArts Firehouse Gallery in "Transformed: Looking at the Age of Edison Through the Witness Trees of Glenmont."   

"This exhibition, the result of a unique collaboration between the Rhode Island School of Design, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, and ValleyArts, is a perfect fit for the Firehouse Gallery," said Richard T. Bryant, executive director of ValleyArts.  "Thomas Edison's estate and laboratories, integral parts of our local history, are less than two miles away from the gallery, and this is our own National Historical Park."

The Exhibition will open on Thursday, August 28 and run through October 5. The Gallery is located at 580 Forest Street in Orange and is open Thursdays 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sundays 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment.  Admission is free, and all works are available for sale. 

Special exhibition events have been scheduled beginning with a Preview Opening on Thursday, August 28 from 5 pm to 7:30 pm. The opening will feature a short talk by National Park Service Curator Beth Miller on Thomas Edison and his family home at Glenmont.   

In the Gallery's Opening celebration on September 6 at 3 pm, Charlie Pepper (horticulturist, senior project manager, preservation maintenance and education, Olmstead Center for Landscape Preservation), Susanna Bohme (lecturer in history, philosophy and social sciences, RISD), Dale Broholm (senior critic, Department of Furniture Design, RISD), and student artists from RISD will hold a Gallery Talk, followed by an Artists' Reception from 4:30 - 7:30 pm.

Another Gallery Talk on Saturday, September 20 at 3 pm will feature Michael Commisso, historical landscape architect and co-author of the Cultural Landscape Report for Glenmont (2012), who will discuss the development of Llewellyn Park and Glenmont from a landscape perspective.

The National Park Service has given the designation "Witness Trees" to trees that have stood for over 100 years on National Park Service properties. Dave Broholm, a furniture design teacher at RISD, conceived the collaboration five years ago while visiting Gettysburg. Hearing that several of the trees were to be cut down to restore the look of the battlefield to 1863, he was hit with an inspiration.

"A light bulb went off," Broholm said.  "I could envision an interdisciplinary model of linked courses, both history-related and art- and design-related, that could evoke the past and examine historical practice." 

As a result, The ValleyArts exhibition took form after RISD extended their original program into a series of courses to rescue and recycle the wood of historic trees into works of art that speak not only of the past, but also the present and future. 

Says Daniel Cavicchi, RISD's dean of liberal arts and professor of history, philosophy and the social sciences, "Witness trees have stood for a century or more, while around them battles have been waged, presidents have been born and died, and whole industries have been established, peaked and declined. So each tree serves as an axis from which students can expand the scope of their thinking outward, from specific events to more complex questions about time and place, nature and culture."

The daily lives, hopes and dreams of factory workers at the Edison Complex in West Orange were the inspiration for RISD student-created designs. One student mixed bark dust with flour to create wooden fortune cookies with messages that speak to the 19th-century Chinese immigrant experience.  Another student designed an unbalanced dining table to reflect the juxtaposition of Edison's new technologies with the traditional hand-made work of skilled artisans of the period. A mini-croquet course in the shape of Coney Island highlights the transforming influence of the six-day workweek on American workers, and wooden spoons and a wooden "Faberge Egg" point to social hierarchies of the time.
 
For more information, contact ValleyArts Executive Director Richard Bryant at 973-886-5118.

 

 

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