Campus Trees Turn to Campus Benches
Art has mixed with sustainability and practical purpose in the production of seven wooden benches for campus.
Soon to be scattered across the SUNY Brockport campus are seven homemade benches made from trees that once stood on the lawn in front of Hartwell Hall, adjacent to Alumni House.
Through the efforts of the Division of Advancement, Professor of Social Work Jason Dauenhauer, and the Art Placement Committee, the removed trees are serving a new and practical purpose.
As plans developed to create a multipurpose community garden at the backside of Alumni House, about eight trees were marked to come down. The trees had been overgrowing and causing damage to the house.
"The trees were beautiful, but we wanted to take that space and make it more of a community space," said Director of Alumni Engagement Kerry Gotham. "And even though we took the trees down, we were able to preserve the history."
About two years ago, Dauenhauer was walking to campus from College Street when he noticed markings on the trees. He reached out to the Alumni Association to inquire about their fate.
The Alumni Association shared Dauenhauer’s hope that the trees could be repurposed, so he suggested an idea that was executed once before. Years back, as the Liberal Arts Building came to be, its halls grew filled with uniquely crafted benches using the wood from trees removed from the building site.
Dauenhauer worked with Chair of the Art Placement Committee Jennifer Hecker, who's also a professor in the Department of Art, to put together an investment fund grant proposal. The awarded grant of about $35,000 mostly served as stipends for selected artists.
Twenty different artists submitted proposals for the nine-person Art Placement Committee to consider.
"The most important factor, or most heavily weighted criteria, was the strength of the design," Hecker said. The team compared the artists' portfolios, résumés, and proposed use of the material.
The seven artists chosen were: David Bohnhoff, B.R. Delaney, John P Dodd, Chara Dow, Seema Pandya, Michael Puryear, and Laura Smith.
The wood was sent to a sawmill in Warsaw, NY, to be cut and prepared to the artists’ specifications. Then the wood came back to Brockport.
"It takes a village," Dauenhauer said. "It took a lot of work from a lot of different people to bring the project to fruition."
Rosie La Sorte Rich, a professor emeritus who helped bring the community garden to life, suggested something be done to preserve the history, such as a crosscut of one of the older trees.
A crosscut that dates the tree to be about 128 to 131 years old is now on display in Drake Memorial Library.
The benches and artists are expected to be highlighted at a First Friday event inside Alumni House. (The April First Friday has been tentatively postponed to October, due to Brockport's COVID-19 response.)
Dauenhauer says he is looking forward to when the benches are installed across campus.
"It is important to have art on campus, and not just in our galleries, because it enhances and enriches our environment," Hecker said. "In support of our college goals, art helps make Brockport a great place to learn and a great place to work. These benches offer both beauty and respite."
Meet the Artists
David Bohnhoff is a Virginia-based furniture artist who grew up outside of Rochester, NY. "I have some very fond memories from that time, like visits to Powder Mills Park, the Finger Lakes, skiing at Bristol Mountain and, of course, the canal system," Bohnhoff said. The Erie Canal is what inspired his bench for Brockport. "The color and look of the trusses I found interesting and would lend themselves to make a strong and sturdy bench structure," he said. His maple tree bench is painted green with copper rivets, just like the Erie Canal bridge in Brockport.
BR Delaney operates Fieldstone Artistry, creating contemporary furniture out of Wurtsboro, NY. "My goal was to create a bench that presented the material in an honorable way, while providing a comfortable, stable surface for repose," Delaney said. The self-taught artist specializes in locally harvested, solid-wood furniture. His bench for Brockport was designed to have a maple top with a steel base.
John Dodd is a designer furniture maker based out of Canandaigua, NY. According to the John Dodd Studio website, he creates furniture to be "functional objects that enhance the rituals of everyday life." Dodd created a bench for Brockport with a curved seat that floats on a wedge-shaped beam that is fitted into two concrete bases.
Chara Dow is a rustic furniture artist based out of Penfield, NY. Her exposure to woodworking started at a young age, as her father taught a small woodshop class. Dow says she loves to work alone in her shop, just her and the materials. In addition to Brockport wood, her bench includes a multitude of legs made from wood she collected herself from the side of the road. Dow considers ample time the key to quality — and she’s never satisfied until it's finished.
Seema Pandya is a multidisciplinary artist and a sustainability consultant based out of Brooklyn, NY. Using repurposed materials has been a pillar in her work, which nods to organic shapes, nature, and sustainability. The bench she designed for Brockport is based off her series the "Amoebic Void" that explores the form and boundaries between negative and positive space.
Michael Puryear is a furniture maker working out of his property in the Catskill Mountains. Based on an idea he had in his sketch, the bench he made for Brockport is called "The Wave." "Often, when one has an idea, it takes a while to understand its origins. The title for the bench came to me as I was actually working on it," he said. "The base reminds me of piers found on ocean beaches in California, and the seat has a wave shape." According to his website, his attraction to creating furniture stemmed from an early appreciation for the clarity in Shaker and Scandinavian designs.
Laura Smith and her husband Florent Moisan created a bench inspired by the Painted Desert of Arizona and Colorado. Smith is a visual artist, and her husband works with sustainable architecture. Their life together bounces between New York and France. "The bench is completely solid. Planks of maple wood were stacked atop each other and then carved to loosely mimic land formations weathered by wind and water," Smith said. "We stained the bench with black and herbal tea, as well as a dye created from the skin of red and yellow onion skins. The bench was finished with boiled linseed oil."