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The Witness Tree Project is an elective class organized between the Department of Furniture Design at RISD and the National Park Service. Witness trees, as designated by the National Park Service, are long-standing trees that have “witnessed” key events, trends, and people in American history. The Project arranges for fallen witness trees to be shipped from a national historic site to RISD, where students, enrolled in a joint history seminar and furniture studio, interpret the history the tree witnessed make relevant objects from the tree’s wood.

Topsy’s Foot

In Thomas Edison’s DC current marketing campaign against George Westinghouse and AC current, an opportunity to execute a man-killing circus elephant presented itself. After numerous instances of blatant animal abuse, Topsy aggressively took out a few trainers who had struck her with pitchforks and burned her trunk with cigars. Edison proposed electrocution would be the more humane execution after a hanging was protested and then used footage of his execution as propaganda to deem AC current as unsafe. Of course, the type of current would not have mattered as 6,600 volts were used in the execution. On January 4th, 1903, 1500 people gathered to watch the public execution.

The unsettling nature of this scorched elephant foot is very direct in its engagement with the audience. It isn’t something that today’s audience would particularly want to see, but the warm Edisonian light creates an attraction to the spectacle of Topsy’s death. In a way, the audience becomes no different from the 1500 that were so intrigued to watch an elephant’s electrocution.

Feeding Point

With the industrialization of the American working class, many skilled artisans and craftsmen were found without jobs, or massively over-qualified in an ever-growing assembly line based industry. Without proper labor laws and unions in place for children and workers, many skilled craftspeople were left looking for jobs on a daily basis. As long as families had income, they were able to pay for food and other living expenses. Unfortunately, when a child became ill, or a parent was unable to work for a day, it became nearly impossible to feed a family – sometimes for days on end.

After reading about the lifestyle of a mule spinner looking for work, it became clear that day-to-day life was precarious. When he was incapable of working, he would take his wife and two infants to the shoreline in search of clams, which involves wading and digging through mud. Sometimes they’d be lucky, other times, they wouldn’t eat.

Feeding Point demonstrates the precarious nature of the working class life style at the dawn of the 20th century by creating a kitchen table defined by the vernacular of the era, but purposefully off balance. It cannot hold itself up without dishes acting as a counter-weight. When the plates are removed to serve food, the table will fall over. This potential for an energetic disaster creates a strong visual representation of the difficulties involved with feeding a family on a limited budget, especially when something goes wrong.

 

Spring 2014

Red Oak and Maple from Thomas Edison’s home and lab in Orange, NJ

Shown at:

  • Transformed: Looking at the Age of Edison Through the Witness Trees of Glenmont, ValleyArts Firehouse Gallery – Orange, NJ
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