On a recent Saturday morning, artists from around the region gathered at Homewood Cemetery to turn chopped-down trees into mushrooms.
State College artist Ed Crow and his wife Janise sculpted a small morel mushroom and transformed a large three-pronged piece of wood into three morel mushrooms. This was one of several public events surrounding the so-called reGenerations project.
“ReGenerations is really the cemetery engaging with the arts community here in Pittsburgh to make arts and crafts from the trees we’re salvaging,” said project director Kenn Thomas.
Restoring the Landscape
At just under 200 acres, the 135-year-old Homewood Cemetery is expansive. It’s a lawn park cemetery, meaning it features several open areas that will never be sold or have plots on them, and it’s not meant to be heavily wooded.
But over the years, some areas have become more wooded than intended, and groups of trees need to be thinned. Trees also suffer from damage from storms or illness.
“That poses a risk to either the monuments or stones around them or the people who come through here," said Homewood Cemetery arborist Ashley Allen. "We get a lot of joggers or people walking their dogs, so anything that’s at risk of falling on its own or in the near future, we took down ourselves.”
Taking down the troubled trees is one part of an ongoing landscape restoration project at the cemetery.
“Last year we took down 40 trees and we planted over 100," Allen said. "So we didn’t lose; we gained over half the trees."
Wood for the Taking
The wood from those cut-down trees is being given away to artists and woodworkers from around the region.
“Without making art with the wood it would either be mulched or landfilled or used for firewood, and I’m sure most people agree, making fine works of art from it is much better use,” Thomas said.
The project currently has about 12 active artists. One of them is Earl Johnson, a Swissvale woodworker who makes fine art furniture.
“Wood should tell you a story – where it comes from and what it’s about," he said. "This is art and it lasts forever."
Johnson said the furniture he creates will be his legacy.
“Trees were a living thing at one time, just like you and I," he said. "They were alive.”
When trees are cut down at the cemetery, an inventory of the wood is taken, and artists are informed about what types of wood is available for pickup. Johnson said it’s a unique program because it provides real wood, which can be quite costly and sometimes of questionable quality when obtained elsewhere.
“Wood is a hot item in this economy that we live in,” he said. “You got compressed board with glues and formaldehyde and all sorts of crazy stuff that catches on fire. But you want some good, solid, exotic woods like the oak trees they’re cutting down here, walnut, and different varieties of wood – you can make things that outlive you.”
The raw nature of the Homewood Cemetery tree wood also presents some challenges.
“There’s no guarantee that as you cut any of a piece of wood, whether the piece of wood is above ground or below ground, you’re not guaranteed anything,” said project artist Edric Florence, who makes artistic wood turnings including artisan bowls, from the wood and root balls. “You can cut it open and it’ll be a total waste. You don’t know if it’s cracked, dry-rotted or has a bug infestation or just falls apart. So hopefully as we harvest these different things it’ll come to fruition, but sometimes that’s not a guarantee.”
Plus, these trees have been around for decades.
“You’ll find things in the wood the tree has grown around: insulators, wire, nails, bullets," Florence said. "This is raw wood that you’ve taken before the Lowe’s and Home Depots.”
The reGenerations project is a chance to give the trees a sort of second life, which is important for the many plantings at the cemetery that are often more than what they seem.
“A lot of these trees were planted by family members of people who were buried here, so they’re not just a random tree that grew in the park," said cemetery arborist Ashley Allen. "That tree meant a lot to somebody when it was planted, so this way they get a chance to live on and be more important. They can really make a difference instead of just disappearing.”
The works created from Homewood Cemetery trees will be showcased this spring and summer through public exhibitions and auctions, private sales and events such as the early-May mushroom carving. The finished products from that will be on display at various businesses in the East End, and plans are underway to open a public arboretum in the future.