Fourteen local artists are paying homage to trees in the exhibit, “Phoenix from the Ashes,” in which the majority of the works are made from Madison ash trees taken down in the city’s fight against the emerald ash borer infestation.
“It’s a major impact on our community when you lose this many trees in such a short period of time,” said Paul Morrison, who owns The Wood Cycle of Wisconsin, which milled the trees.
“And it’s a feel-good moment from the standpoint of, we don’t have to entirely say goodbye to these trees. We can use them in our daily activities in a variety of different ways that bring us joy.”
Morrison and his town of Oregon business supplied the wood for most of the pieces in the exhibit, and he also contributed to it with chairs titled “Branchairs.”
The Overture Center exhibit has its opening reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday and runs through Oct. 27 in the Playhouse Gallery.
Visitors who enter the downstairs gallery at Overture from the main entrance are greeted by an image of the luminous green beetle responsible for the devastation.
In the form of a vibrant emerald watercolor, it looks beautiful and harmless, not as though it’s behind the loss of a huge swath of Madison’s tree canopy.
But it is.
The painting, by science illustrator and entomologist Jacquelyn Whisenant, is simply titled “Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis).” Whisenant provides information detailing how the invasive species arrived in the United States in 2002, laying waste to ash trees by eating “across the grain of the nutrient-transporting system of the tree, effectively cutting off the tree from vital nutrients and killing it quickly.”
The main reason this insect is so devastating, she said, is that North American ash trees haven’t evolved the same chemical defenses as those in its native range in Asia.
Changing urban forest
Six years ago, ash trees made up 22 percent of Madison’s street trees. That number is now about 10 percent, said Parks Division spokeswoman Ann Shea.
Soon after the emerald ash borer was first confirmed in Madison at Warner Park in late 2013, city officials began treating some ash trees with insecticide and removing others.
As of December 2018, approximately 8,630 trees had been preemptively removed because of emerald ash borer. New numbers will be available at the end of the year, Shea said.
The ones that came down didn’t meet the plan’s treatment criteria because they were already too damaged to save. They were replaced by different tree varieties.
More than 25 types of trees create a diverse and more resilient urban tree canopy along the streets, Shea said.
Emerald ash borer is everywhere, she said. Any ash tree that hasn’t been treated in the last five years is highly likely to be infested.
From 2014 to 2018, the city spent more than $10 million to treat, remove and replace trees with emerald ash borer.
A report from the Madison Urban Forestry Task Force that calls the emerald ash borer epidemic “the single most influential force on the current composition of our urban forest” goes before the Park Commission on Wednesday and is scheduled to go to the City Council Sept. 17.
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The final report with recommendations, which has been reviewed by seven city boards, commissions and committees, calls trees “a foundation for Madison’s community and ecosystem health, sustainability and resilience.”
“Our urban forest plays a vital role in stormwater management, protecting our drinking water, and reducing energy costs and human stress. With this in mind, our urban forest must be managed holistically and urgently as a potentially fragile resource,” the report said.
“Poets write elegies to trees, not stoplights and sidewalks,” the authors note.
Last year, when “Phoenix from the Ashes” put out a call for artists, people in the community were experiencing a lot of grief about seeing so many trees felled, said Karin Wolf, the city’s arts program administrator.
“I think it has subsided a little bit,” she said. “It’s just not happening with the same speed and shock that it was a year ago.”
Many people were having a hard time and didn’t understand why the trees had to come down, Wolf said.
“Some of them look healthy, unless you’re an arborist and you know how to look for indications of the ash borer. So some people were confused and just distraught. I think we’re very connected to the trees around us and our urban canopy.”
She said the art project “was a way to positively transform the mass exodus of our tree friends.”
Contributing to the exhibit has been an emotional experience for Aaron Laux, who’s been a woodworker for almost 25 years and whose tables have been a fixture at the Downtown restaurant Osteria Papavero since 2013.
Laux, who has another exhibit at Overture showing simultaneously, wanted to use his success as an artist to speak about the ash borer infestation and, by extension, climate change and other environmental stresses.
His show, “Swept Away,” with artist Katherine Steichen Rosing, who also has two pieces in “Phoenix from the Ashes,” focuses on climate change. It runs Sept. 10 through Dec. 1 in Promenade Lounge.
“There are so many things that we can do, ranging from renewable energy sources — solar is just so obvious, as is wind, and there’s so many ways that we can make changes in our lives that will create a better world for the earth and other life forms as well as us,” he said.
His piece for “Phoenix from the Ashes,” listed at $9,000, has already been sold to UW Hospital and Clinics. “Their Story Our Story,” a collage made of thinly shaved wooden pieces, depicts a big wave washing over human hands. Laux said the hands are reminiscent of cave paintings. “I think that when we look at that ancient part of ourselves, it gives us perspective to understand who we are ... Once you understand who you are, you can look forward.”
The wave represents “Mother Earth or however you want to say it, the Gaia idea,” he said. “We’re all swept together in one great organism in some sense. So it’s about relationships and about how we all connect together in this giant, great living mass that we are.”
Sylvie Rosenthal’s piece in the exhibit, “Ions Stowaways Stardust,” represents a hollow bird skull with its beak broken in half. It incorporated another invasive species, zebra mussels, and batteries. Before devices became rechargeable, batteries were a far more common sight “in the detritus that we create,” Rosenthal said.
Under the bird skull are plastic palm fronds since she couldn’t use live plants in the gallery. “The date palm is where the Phoenix rises from,” she said. “The bird rises from the ashes.”
Using ash wood for a project in her city appealed to her, Rosenthal said. “I liked the idea of raising awareness about these trees and the urban infrastructure story arc.”