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Urban wood used in local art exhibit

Urban wood used in local art exhibit

Tuesday, August 1, 2017
The cabinets in your kitchen, your dining room table, floors in your office, and even the paper you write on are all products made from wood. Usually rural wood is used to make the products, but over the past several years a shift has been made, introducing the use of wood from urban areas to make these, and other, products. For example, urban wood has successfully been used in architecture, creating bowls, staircases, tables and now art.

The urban wood used in these projects most would disregard, but the craftsman and artists behind urban wood utilization view urban wood destined for removal as an opportunity to create new life out of something others would reject.

There are several factors that are considered when trees are marked for removal. Trees are considered hazardous because of where they are located, how tall they are, dead portions, or entirely dead trees. In Milwaukee, many trees were, and continue to be, removed because of a wide spread pest, EAB. Milwaukee is currently an EAB confirmed area in a quarantined county. According to the Wisconsin Emerald Ash Borer Information Source, the larva (the immature stage of EAB) spends its life inside ash trees, feeding on the inner bark where we cannot see it. This feeding disrupts the trees’ ability to move water and nutrients back and forth from the roots to the rest of the tree. The tree starves and eventually dies.

Local artists in Milwaukee, as part of the Fresh Perspective Art Collective, have found a use for the ash wood removed from their urban area due to EAB, beautiful and meaningful artwork. Minister William Harrell, an artist in the Collective, said, “the exhibit is dedicated to black leaders that have passed, it is only enhanced by using wood from trees who have also passed on in Wisconsin, making a beautiful combination.”

Tim John, of the Fresh Perspective Art Collective, explained that the Collective is comprised of artists of the African Diaspora who stage and curate art shows. The Collective provides a platform for men and women to share their spirit of self-expression and build careers as professional artists. About 100 artists, from throughout Wisconsin, have participated in their shows, which have been staged in Madison, Milwaukee and Racine. While many of the artists have had extensive experiences with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, others have not had any and are career professionals or own their own businesses.

For this exhibition, Dwayne Sperber, a member of Wisconsin Urban Wood and owner of Wudeward Urban Forest Products, designed the wooden panels and supplied the lumber. Then, two Fresh Perspective artists worked with Milwaukee woodworker, Mark Cergol, to create the panels based on Dwayne’s design. Finally, David Herrewig, a Milwaukee historian, created a list of African Americans from Milwaukee’s history who made a positive impact on the community, from which the artists chose or determined their own subject for depiction. Fresh Perspective Art Collective titled this instillation “Urban Heroes, Urban Wood.”

Dwayne stated, “The reason for the connection is that there is immense beauty in our urban communities. Urban wood is a product of these communities and therefore a natural medium that shares the story of the beauty, a beauty that is often overlooked.” He also commented that he, and the other members of Wisconsin Urban Wood that partnered with Fresh Perspective Art Collective, were proud of this connection.

Several of the artists noted how nice the wood was to work with. One artist, Alicia Christina, said she had worked with wood previously and loves how the paint can be manipulated and blends better on wood than on canvas. Luther Hall expressed he was surprised to learn about the quantity of urban wood that goes wasted and unused. He followed up by saying, “being able to make something out of what most individuals see as nothing, or waste, is the goal of many artists, using urban wood helped accomplish this goal.”

This exhibition, Urban Heroes, Urban Wood, brought communities together by combining urban wood and art. Wood that came from the community was utilized in a new way by its members to make art emphasizing individuals that built the community. This full circle exhibition is one of the many ways urban wood is being utilized and providing value.

To learn more about this exhibition and the artists and people behind it watch this video.

This article was written in partnership with members of the Fresh Perspective Art Collective and Ellen Clark, Communication Specialist for the Urban Forestry Program.
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Pennsylvania state law requires municipalities to compost or otherwise recycle woody waste rather than to landfill or incinerate it. In isolated incidences, arrangements are made to have logs sawn to lumber, but most often woody debris is ground into mulch. Cities are required to establish a wood waste recycling facility or to contract with a neighboring community that has one. Still, sometimes a community may resort to stockpiling large woody material on an illegal city site, or to burning residential yard waste collected along with other refuse, also illegal. In 2016 the City of Harrisburg initiated the process of securing a site on which to establish a wood waste recycling facility.

In the summer of 2016, the USFS Forest Products Lab offered instruction on milling urban wood to Philadelphia parks and recreation staff. The Bureau of Forestry engaged Forest Products Lab staff in September to offer a similar workshop in the Harrisburg area, as a way to begin the conversation to link suppliers of urban logs to those interested in better utilizing them. Invitations went out to arborists, foresters, tree services, sawmill owners, craftsmen, cabinetmakers, and educators. A total of 60 people attended, with representation from all groups. The workshop provided an overview of urban wood use in other parts of the country; and presentations on assessing the quality of a log to determine its highest use, constructing a simple dry kiln, and producing biochar from scrap wood. Field demonstrations on milling and air drying wood, and on the small scale production of charcoal were included. A number of beneficial connections resulted from the workshop: the City began furnishing logs to a small specialty sawmill, and a regional vo-tech school began manufacturing charcoal with waste wood from its carpentry program.

The school contacted the Bureau of Forestry to discuss the possibility of initiating an urban wood processing curriculum at the school including sawmilling, kiln drying the wood, producing charcoal on a larger scale, and possibly using the charcoal in the horticulture program. We worked with them to apply for a Landscape Scale Restoration Grant in November to help fund the initiative, and received word in July that the project had been approved for funding. With the combination of school and grant funds, a portable sawmill will be purchased, a dry kiln will be constructed, and a charcoal retort will be manufactured. A curriculum will be developed to instruct the students in milling and drying the wood, and possibly selling the material to further the program. Construction and welding students will be involved in building the dry kiln and charcoal retort, and the production of charcoal will be introduced as a means of better utilizing waste wood. The horticulture program will utilize charcoal to enrich and loosen the soil, and will experiment with raising and providing bare root trees in the mix for use in community tree planting efforts.

The City of Harrisburg, meanwhile, finally acquired use of the site that had been selected to establish its wood waste recycling facility; designing the facility is currently underway. The Bureau of Forestry is working with them to try to ensure that sufficient space will be allocated for milling and air drying lumber, and eventually to also manufacture charcoal for biochar. In Philadelphia, the City Parks Department has begun contracting with a portable sawmill owner to mill city logs to lumber. The lumber has been used internally for raised garden beds and small bridges, as well as for shelving and cubbies in city buildings. In recent months, the City has also provided lumber to an operation that works with homeless people to build and repair homes. A recent contact has also been made to provide material to an organization that teaches basic carpentry skills to prisoners soon to be released. At the same time, the Bureau of Forestry has introduced the City Parks Department to the process of manufacturing charcoal, and the possible uses for growing out bare root trees and for enhancing soil in street tree plantings. A commercial recycling firm has expressed interest in the large scale manufacture of charcoal if markets are developed.
Currently the Bureau of Forestry is exploring options for creating an online database to link urban log suppliers with potential users. Municipal and commercial tree crews, as well as property owners removing shade trees, will be able to locate portable sawmills interested in purchasing logs or willing to process logs for a fee; or in finding firewood vendors or biochar manufacturers who may be interested. Woodworkers will be able to locate a source of rough lumber from urban trees, possibly with the address of the source as an added point of interest. Job training facilities like vo-tech schools, prison re-entry programs, and summer youth programs will also find sources of local wood through the network. Recycled materials outlets, such as Habitat for Humanity Restores, interested in selling urban wood will also be linked in to provide for homeowners, hobbyists, or other occasional users wishing to purchase small quantities. Much work remains to be done, but beginning at the local level with regional networks, and building out from there, seems to be the best approach for Pennsylvania. 

For more information contact:

Ellen Roane
TreeVitalize Technical Assistance & Urban Wood Use Coordinator
DCNR Bureau of Forestry
PO Box 8552
Harrisburg, PA 17105-8552
(717) 705-2825

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