Trees as art at Festival of Trees in Berkshire Museum

Friday November 16, 2012


This year, 150 trees will mingle in with the artwork in the Berkshire Museum's galleries. They will stand among the plant life in "Orchids," and the whimsical pairings in "Wink," paintings, photographs and objects from the museum's collections. Groves will reappear around the Hudson River School landscapes and the art and tools of Northeastern native peoples, beside a wigwam with a sweet scent of ash wood.

From Saturday until Jan. 2, the annual Festival of Trees will return with a theme of "Myth and Magic."

The people who create this year's trees will think about the different galleries as they make their designs, said Elizabeth Sherman, chairwoman of this year's Festival of Trees Committee.

"Think about orchids," she said, "about the stories you know about forests."

As she stood surrounded by paintings of ladies' slippers, she imagined trees with the colors of petals, and trees made around stories like "Green Mansions," a children's book about a bird woman who lives in the Amazon.

Myth, from the Greek, simply meant a story. It has come to mean a story that helps people understand their family, their community or their faith -- a story about how people move each other or the world.

"People's lives revolve around myths," Sherman said. "We have our family stories passed down."

The Berkshires are rich in traditions of storytelling, agreed Lesley Beck, Berkshire Museum's director of communications. She pointed to Mohican stories about Bash Bish Falls and Wahconah.

Out of respect, she said, the museum plans not to have trees in the "Rethink!" exhibit, which continues until Jan. 6, but they will have trees in the new exhibit dedicated to Northeastern people.

"Winter was also the time of teaching. Storytellers told the children how life came to be, how the earth was created," Dorothy Davids writes in "A Brief History of the Mohican Nation," (published by the Stockbridge Munsee Histori cal Committee and found in the Berkshires in places linked to the Mohicans). "Children learned ... how to live with respect and peace in their community. They also learned that they had responsibilities, so they learned skills."

Beck agreed with her: A holiday is a time when something needs paying attention to.

The county today has its own myths and magic. Imagine decorating a tree with a winter sunset or the schuss of a sled on new snow, or singing by candlelight.

"Jodie Josephs at Berkshire Creative is asking people for quotes about what's magical in the Berkshires," Sherman said.

Laura Wolf, director of operations and marketing at Hancock Shaker Village, designed the village's tree from two Gift drawings -- drawings the Shakers thought of as divine inspirations -- "An Emblem of the Heavenly Sphere" and "Wreath Brought by Mother's Little Dove," made by Sister Polly Collins of the Hancock community.

The Shakers celebrated Christmas, Wolf said. They decorated with pine boughs, wreaths and handmade ornaments, and they exchanged gifts. Each gift, she said, meant something to the one who gave and the one who received it -- as though each gift told a story.

On her tree, a trio of wooden stands with Shaker pegs form a cone to hold concentric circles of wreathes. Each wreath shows something the Shakers made, a craft or good: sheep and balls of wool, apples, seed packets, a chain of wooden oval bands from Shaker boxes. At the peak, she set a yarn swift for a star.

Contemporary artists and crafters will offer their own trees and their own understanding of myths and magic. Brittney Gable from 413 Glassworks and woodcarver Colleen Curley will have work in the exhibit, Sherman said. And Berkshire sculptor War ren Barber, a longtime supporter of the Alchemy Initi ative, has designed and built a tree for the sustainability and art group.

Barber works with metal and locally harvested trees, with natural and recycled materials, explained the Alchemy Initi ative's executive director, Jess Conzo. His tree will have the feel of a castle, she said.

It is appropriate to the festival's theme that this year, the museum is partnering with the Alchemy Initiative. The word magic comes from old Persian and Greek, and originally it meant knowledge, especially of the stars and of potions. And Barber's castle of a tree will have alchemy in its branches.

The Alchemy Initiative's annual Handmade Holiday Festival will take place this year across the street from the museum, at the Masonic Lodge on South Street, on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 1 and 2. During the festival, children can cross to the museum to make ornaments for the Alchemy Initiative tree.

Craig Langlois, Berkshire Museum's Public Programs Coordinator, said the children will use some a friendly home alchemy to make "density ornaments." In clear tubes, they will layer liquids that don't mix, to form bright translucent stripes. Hold them up to the light, and they will glow.

"Magic resonates with people," Sherman said.


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