“One of the aspects that I love about the work that I do is being able to extend the life of a tree,” Matt Moulthrop told PBS in a 2011 documentary.
He should really love his next big gig.
Yep, when The War Eagle Reader reported last week that Auburn University was planning to commission “a “very well-known” (but as yet unnamed) woodturning artist to create an item—possibly a bowl—with wood from the soon to be cut down Toomer’s Oaks” to be placed in the Auburn’s art museum permanent collection, the artist’s identity was probably pretty obvious. At least to those familiar with woodturning. Because if you want a beloved, sacred tree made into a museum-worthy bowl, you go straight to Atlanta-based artist Matt Moulthrop, whose work (along with the woodwork of his equally famous father and grandfather) is, you know, in the permanent collection at the American Museum at the Smithsonian Institution.
So that’s what Auburn did. Moulthrop was hoping they would.
“I was put in touch with Auburn through Jim Gorrie (AU ’84) in Birmingham, he’s a collector of my family’s work. He’s the one who reached out to (Jule Collins Smith Art Museum of Fine Art Director) Marilyn Laufer,” Moultrhop says. “I had an expressed an interest to him about wanting to get involved, because it was an unusually sad story about something that was essentially irreplaceable.”
Moulthrop says he has followed the oaks’ saga from the beginning.
“It obviously received a lot of attention and there were several articles about the amount of herbicide he (Harvey Updyke) had used,” he says. “It’s just not survivable. That herbicide I think is what railroads use (to kill vegetation) near tracks. So two trees in a planter? They didn’t have a chance. I knew they would be dying.”
But whatever decay may be present in the oaks’ won’t be an issue for Moulthrop.
“I typically work with wood that is diseased or dying. We rarely use clean, healthy timber.”
Moulthrop drove to Auburn to take photos of the Toomer’s Oaks in January. He says he may possibly be on hand for the trees’ removal on April 23 in order to personally select the ideal piece.
“I’m going to try. If I can’t, and if I can’t successfully identify one from pictures, I’m going to drive down and pick it out,” he says. “It’s quite the sad excitement because everyone really wants a piece of it. But what I’ve asked for is just a solid trunk section in the 25-30 inch diameter range and about 30 inches high.”
In addition to working with decayed wood, the Moulthrop’s have experience working with wood imbued with historical, and emotional significance.
“I’ve done some I’m not really allowed to name,” Moulthrop says. “But my grandfather created a piece from a tree that Thomas Jefferson planted. That’s the one that’s really publicly known.”
So what will the bowl—and it will be one of the Moulthrop’s bowls—look like?
“I’m envisioning a classic form of my family’s work, a globe shaped hollow form with a small opening at the top,” he says. “It has one of the best ways of revealing the grain of the wood, you can basically see the growth rings. I uncover what’s already there. I don’t enhance anything.”
Moulthrop says he hopes to actually tell the oaks’ story in the sculpture.
“What the trees have been through at Auburn will all be revealed. You’ll be able to see years of drought, years of great rain—all these things turn up. People who know the properties of wood science will be able to identify it.”
But it will take him a while to tell it. Moulthrop estimates the piece will be ready in about a year. And he’s eager to begin.
“It’s been fun starting to talk about this, to hear it spread amongst some of the alumni,” he says. “It’s very encouraging to hear the excitement people have around creating this piece.
“There is something special about this tree. It has an iconic status for the university and for the students and alumni and I am honored to work with it.”
You can learn more about Moulthrop’s work on the Moulthrop Studio’s website.
More on the the Toomer’s Oaks: Toomer’s Oaks souvenirs will be branded ‘Auburn Oaks’ / Woodturned item made from Toomer’s Oaks will be on permanent display in Auburn art museum / Toomer’s Corner rollings didn’t start with Punt, Bama, Punt, says History / Did Auburn students celebrate Bear Bryant’s death by rolling Toomer’s Corner?
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