A 140-year-old hemlock was lost. Now it has new life as art.

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A 140-year-old hemlock was lost. Now it has new life as art.
Frederic Church, "Trunks of Chestnut and Hemlock Trees, New York," May 1845, oil on cardboard. The sculptor Jean Shin gravitates to castoff objects, including a threatened tree at Olana, the former estate of Frederic Church. Via Olana State Historic Site New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation via The New York Times.

by Meredith Mendelsohn

HUDSON (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Earlier this year, an ailing 140-year-old hemlock tree died at the Olana State Historic Site, the idyllic former estate of Frederic Edwin Church, a leading figure of the 19th-century Hudson River School. It was a significant loss, for reasons ecological, aesthetic and sentimental. Having stood sentinel on the lawn right outside Church’s fabled Persian-inspired villa, the hemlock was a living artifact of his artistic ambition, as well as his lesser-known proto-conservationist efforts, and was planted at a time when his attention had turned from painting detailed landscapes to designing them.

But as one chapter in the tree’s distinguished life ended, a vital new one began in the hands of a contemporary artist, Jean Shin, who is known for her large-scale installations made from society’s discards. Shin spent the early spring working on the green lawn of Church’s house-museum, where she transformed the once-majestic conifer into a site-specific sculpture. The muscular 40-foot trunk now lies atop two small boulders and has been meticulously fit with a patchwork of leather in shades of lemon yellow and sky blue. Shin arranged its bark in delicate piles beneath it, as though the specimen had shed its shell and undergone a magnificent metamorphosis.

Titled “Fallen,” the work might call to mind a body being prepared for burial, and not only because our perceptions have been colored by a year of grief and loss. “It’s a custom-made shroud, to honor and protect it,” Shin said, as she inspected one of the hemlock’s thin leather-clad limbs — a test run in her studio, which occupies a renovated barn southwest of Olana. “It’s a bit like an open casket. I want people to see the tree up close, to feel it and remember it. We’ve all been missing that tactility this past year.”

Visitors are indeed invited to touch the work, on public view at Olana through Oct. 31. The installation was commissioned as part of an exhibition called “Cross Pollination: Martin Johnson Heade, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, and Our Contemporary Moment,” which opens at Olana and the Thomas Cole National Historic Site on June 12.

But “Fallen” is far more than a memorial. Shin’s project also draws attention outward, bringing awareness to the impact of human intervention on the landscape around Olana in the past, present and future. “I think about everything this tree saw during its 140 years,” Shin said. “It’s trying to tell us a story.”

As she often does, Shin communicates that story through her materials — in this case, the poignant union of leather and hemlock by the artist. “This leather and this tree should never have found each other,” Shin said. Millions of hemlock trees died at the hand of the leather-tanning industry in first half of the 19th century, when the Catskill region prospered as its epicenter. Hemlock bark contains rich tannins used in the hide-curing process at the time, and tanners cleared nearly every grove of the conifer.

“I was so struck that this desire for leather goods led to mass deforestation,” Shin said. Church was also struck. “We picture the Church family looking out from the hilltop site of the main house at Olana, and they would have absolutely seen clear-cut swaths on the front range of the Catskills,” said Will Coleman, director of collections and exhibitions of the Olana Partnership, which manages the site with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Church responded by reforesting Olana, which is now understood as a large-scale environmental work of art. “People think he was removing trees to open views but he was actually planting them by the thousand,” said Mark Prezorski, senior vice president and longtime landscape curator of the Olana Partnership, and the co-curator of “Fallen.”

“It’s really significant that he chose to plant a hemlock right next to the main house,” Coleman added. “This was a species that was much in threat in the period, and he brings it back and he gives it this place of honor.”

That tree, now enshrouded in leather, died of natural causes well before its time. (Hemlocks can live for 600 years or more.) But even if it had survived, it would have been staring down the barrel of another foe, the tiny sap-sucking woolly adelgid, an invasive aphid-like insect that has been killing hemlocks along the East Coast for several decades. Its presence can also be traced to human intervention. It arrived by way of Japan in ornamental trees imported to beautify American gardens.

Shin and Church share a certain tenderness for dead trees. Church, who traveled the world collecting views of its natural riches, which he rendered in extraordinarily detailed, often idealized paintings, frequently depicted broken tree trunks and limbs. For her part, Shin, who was born in South Korea and grew up outside Washington, D.C., has risked splinters before. In 2019, when Storm King Art Center had to cut down two dozen declining maple trees, she salvaged pieces of the wood to make a massive, communal picnic table at the sculpture park. (That work, “Allée Gathering,” will be installed this summer at Art Omi in nearby Ghent, New York.

“Jean is able to imbue her materials with this expansive other meaning, without physically transforming them into something else, so they are still recognizable. That is a big strength of her work,” said Marc Mayer, who organized Shin’s show “Pause” at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco last year. It consisted of a shimmering meditative rock landscape created from hundreds of castoff cellphones and computer cords.

“I’m curious how things become undesired and lose value,” said the artist, who has also made eloquent sculptures from accumulations of losing Lotto scratchers, worn military uniforms, empty soda bottles, and shards of Korean celadon pottery. For a mural installed in the MTA’s Lexington-63rd Street subway station, she used archival photos to depict the largely forgotten elevated train tracks that once ran along Second and Third avenues in Manhattan.

The unwanted and forgotten are deeply woven into “Fallen.” To create its bespoke covering, Shin used leather offcuts discarded by such fashion companies as Marc Jacobs and Chloé. She attached them to the wood with brass upholstery tacks. “I was thinking of it as a second skin,” she said, but added, “it’s appearing more armor-like. A protection, a defense against further injury.” Fine upholstery also comes to mind, but hemlock is too soft for furniture and tanners often abandoned it.

The tanning industry collapsed when the hemlock groves vanished, and the towns that had developed around tanneries were largely abandoned, too.

The fraught associations of debarking the hemlock were not lost on Shin. She approached the laborious process as a kind of historical reenactment, using hand-forged implements from the 19th century borrowed from a collector.

As Shin poetically evokes the past, her project is also eyeing the future. As part of “Fallen,” she initiated a public mapping project to identify the remaining hemlocks at Olana. So far, volunteers have found more than 500 trees, which they’ve tagged with leather swatches that Shin provided.

One sunny afternoon in April, the leather tags could be spotted in a shady stand of hemlocks, twirling in the breeze. “It’s like entering a fairyland, walking into a hemlock grove — the moss, the quietness,” Shin said, referring to the cooler, damper atmosphere that hemlocks create in their shade-loving ecosystems. “I want the public to experience how lovely that feels so they can see this is worth fighting for.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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