That Old Chestnut

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.

Tennant has been incorporating pieces of the wood he salvages from vintage stands into some of his recent works. The experience has led him to learn a lot about the history and significance of the trees, but this artist has long taken an interest in conservation issues because the natural world – and his ability to interact with it – is integral to the way he creates his art. He lives outside Rochester with his wife, Terri, and frequently works at his studio in the city, but he takes a lot of inspiration from time spent at cabins on the couple’s two wooded parcels, one in Naples and another in South Bristol. “The simplicity of living with no electricity, and in the winter, of skiing in with all my supplies and chopping wood to feed the stove, keeps me grounded. Without technological distractions, I stay focused on immediate things. I think it cleanses me and clears my mind,” he said.

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.”

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by Anya Harris

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