A beautiful 140-year-old hemlock at the artist Frederic Church’s estate and museum, Olana, in Hudson, New York, died a few months ago of natural causes. Jean Shin, a sculptor who specializes in using cast-off objects to create art installations, has turned the trunk of the tree into a mammoth sculpture covered with brightly-colored leather. She used antique bark-peeling tools to remove the bark before outfitting the tree with its new leather coat, which she fastened to the trunk with upholstery nails. The trunk now rests horizontally between two large boulders, and the original bark lies in pieces, like a flowing river of wood, beneath it.
The irony of this installation is that hemlock forests in the mid-Hudson Valley, where Olana is located, were decimated in the 19th century by the leather tanning industry. Frederic Church was deeply attached to hemlocks and dismayed at their destruction. He made numerous drawings of these trees, and planted thousands of hemlocks on his 250-acre estate. In the latter half of the 19th century he likely looked out on huge empty swaths of clear-cut once-hemlock forests in the Catskill Mountains across the river.
Hemlocks in the area are now threatened again, this time by the tiny sap-sucking woolly adelgid, an invasive aphid-like insect that has been killing this species along the East Coast for several decades. Visitors to the museum receive little pieces of colored leather for a “mapping project” to identify remaining hemlocks on the Olana estate.
Jean Shin’s passion for making art from cast-off or discarded items is deeply aligned with the mission of Radical Joy for Hard Times: to make and find beauty in wounded places.
This installation, “Fallen,” will be at Olana through October 31.