Rochester-based artist Jason Tennant has worked in a variety of styles and media over the course of his career. At present, he most frequently creates wooden sculptures depicting North American animals. For the past two-plus years, he has taken a particular interest in a material that a century ago was ubiquitous, but today is relatively rare: American chestnut. The trees were hit by a blight introduced to the country in 1904, and you would have to look very hard to find mature specimens today. “[The blight] kills very quickly and efficiently, so by the 1930s we had billions of what were called ‘gray ghosts,’ dead standing chestnut trees. You can occasionally still find one. I used to think they were old dead pines, but they’re actually chestnuts,” the artist explained.
It was through the sessions in the woods that he became aware of the plight of the American chestnut tree. He said, “I noticed some shoots coming up from old rootstock on my property. They will grow a few years before blight destroys them, so I identified them and realized that chestnuts had once been there. Also, for 25 years I have foraged for edible wild plants … Though I’m good at taxonomy, and I’ve had the parcel for about 11 years, I didn’t realize until just a few years ago that a lot of the downed logs were remnants of large chestnut trees.”
Obtaining the chestnut isn’t always easy. Tennant usually takes it off of very steep hillsides where trucks can’t go. Using a winch is out of the question because he doesn’t want to ruin the “nice, oxidized surface” of the wood. Instead, he carries it out in a specially designed backpack with an armature that distributes the load to his waist, not his shoulders.
Working with wood so old means Tennant must take extra precautions not to breathe the dust, which could contain mold. Other than that, “The wood itself is actually quite easy to work with. It’s lighter than oak in that it has a greater tensile strength,” he noted. He also touts its rot-resistance, and “sinewy” and attractive grain.
As it happens, grain is critical to what the artist wants to accomplish through his art: “The technique I employ on birds, mammals and masks involves using exposed wood grains, as well as a ‘push-and-pull’ of paint pigments to make it resemble plumage or the patterns in fur. I’m interested in capturing a gesture, an accent or an expression. I like to focus on something unique without denying the qualities of the wood to come through in the piece.”
To learn more, visit www.jasontennant.com.
by Anya Harris