There are exhibitions galore on at the moment in ACT galleries great and small but none of them can be as sweetly perfumed as the ACT Witness Tree Project exhibition at the Gallery of Australian Design (GAD).
To step off the Kingston pavement and into the GAD is to be surrounded by that complex woodworking aroma of wood itself and of the oiling and polishing potions that workers in wood use. It is, with the smell of baking bread, one of the official World's Ten Best Smells.
The exhibition has this heady and even mildly aphrodisiacal aroma because it is an exhibition of things made from wood, by selected artists, craftspeople and furniture makers.
"Witness trees" are venerable trees that have grown old in places where they have witnessed a great deal and sometimes even key events in history. Canberra has an abundance of such trees because, of course, the federal capital site, bare at first, has been systematically upholstered with massive plantings of trees.
Then, as well, some of us who live in old and middle-aged Canberra live close to a very few giant native "witness" trees left standing (too bothersomely big to argue with) left when our suburbs' sites were prepared. A giant eucalypt in this reporter's Garran Street has witnessed everything (all the scandal and the vice that Garran is notorious for) that has ever happened in our neighbourhood.
Usually, as these witness trees come to the ends of their useful lives as street trees, they are felled and then mulched. But the ACT Witness Tree Project arranged, after some complex negotiations, to keep the timber of a few of the felled emeritus witnesses and to distribute that timber to a few of the aforementioned selected artists, craftspeople and furniture makers.
Negotiations were a bit complicated, major Witness Tree dreamer and mover the ANU's Ashley Eriksmoen explains, "because in the ACT there are federal trees [requiring negotiations with the NCA] and then there are Territory trees [requiring pow wows with the ACT government.]."
The GAD exhibition is of the first fruits of the project. So, for example, there is Myles Gostelow's wooden wheelbarrow (its praises sung in a previous column but before I was able to see it, touch it and interview it in depth at GAD on Friday) made from the timber of three witnesses. One was a Silky Oak that was once a witness on Hargraves Crescent in Ainslie, another was an Elm at Weston Park at Yarralumla and the third a Claret Ash that stickybeaked for decades at the goings on that went on in Hayes Crescent in Griffith. The wheelbarrow/artwork A Barrow To Push is a tribute to Charles Weston the giant of the early ACT's tree-upholsterings.
Another star piece of the exhibition is an abstract, somehow kite-like sculpture, Birdman, made by Matthew Harding from the aforementioned Silky Oak in Ainslie. It pays tribute to the genius of pioneering aeronautical inventor Lawrence Hargraves (1850-1915).
Ashley Eriksmoen is head of Wood/Furniture at the ANU School of Art and explains that between the felling of a street-tree "witness" and the transforming of its timbers into a work of art there's a two-year rigmarole. There is milling and then "curing" (drying and sealing) of the wood by experts in this craft. When first felled the timber of a living tree is almost wringing wet, like a sponge, and has to be patiently dried. A grant from the ACT Heritage Office has made the project possible.
Eriksmoen hopes that there will one day be further chapters of the project. She is excited by word of some Canberra trees that have witnessed truly historical comings and goings. There is one tree, at an embassy, beneath which one of the greatest men who ever lived is said to have taken afternoon tea. She may even have vague designs on a tree or trees of Northbourne Avenue where trees are soon to be removed to make way for the popular light rail development.
She enjoys the idea of the transformation of ACT witness trees into attractive objects as an unusual way, a way in some senses better than books, of telling the history of our famously tree-rich federal capital city. She thinks too that Canberrans may, as we go about our hectic lives, be understandably likely to take our leafy city's trees and their special timbers "a bit for granted". She'll rejoice if the Witness Tree Project nudges Canberrans into giving our city's special boskiness some appreciative thought.
The sweet-smelling ACT Witness Tree Project exhibition continues at the Gallery of Australian Design, 47 Jardine Street Kingston, until 30 April.
Walking from a Kingston car park to the GAD we gambolled across what appeared to be one of our government's official zebra crossings. And yet, after coming across a witty street art zebra crossing in the spirited humanslikeme street art blog http://humanslikeme.tumblr.com/post/143161964307/street-art-well-placed-graffitis-that-make-sens we will never be quite so sure about these facilities. Like all of the best street art this work plays with the mind.
This column continues to praise fine street art and to run street masterpieces like this one in support of this subversive art form.
Alas nothing at humanslikeme explains who the artist is or where in the world this work is giving joy.