Maya Lin’s dismantled “ghost forest” will be reborn as boats

Maya Lin’s famous “Ghost Forest” – her installation in New York’s Madison Square Park – was being cut, and the artist couldn’t have been happier: a group of teenagers had seen the harvest timber on November 19 and were sawing it on Monday, to make boats which they plan to sail next year.

“I was thrilled because otherwise the trees were going to be mulched or turned into shingles,” Lin said in an interview. “The boats are attractive and part of a new life for the artwork.”

Lin had planted 49 trees last spring for the exposure, which opened in May and drew crowds and critical acclaim with its haunting evocation of environmental apocalypse. The trees, Atlantic white cedars, were from a dying grove that needed to be cleared as part of a restoration project in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, where climate change has caused the death of a large part of the forest, and with the installation Lin was making a statement about climate change and environmental sustainability.

Lin knew she wanted to save a portion of each log for future projects, including an outdoor arrangement in Colorado and a virtual artwork that would coincide with the facility’s anniversary next year. But we didn’t know where the rest of the wood would go.

On Monday, the remains of the artwork lay on the chopping block of a Bronx carpentry shop, where teenagers were calling the shots and shaping the boards for boats.

The teenagers acquired the wood by chance. New York City Fire Department programming manager Carla Murphy was running in Madison Square Park in October when “Ghost Forest” caught her eye. She stopped short and started listening to the soundscape that accompanied the exhibit. It reminded him of the nature tours that students undertake near the South Bronx with a non-profit organization – Rock the boat — of which it is a trustee.

Inspiration struck just as Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the park’s assistant superintendent and chief curator of conservation, passed by.

“Hello, I know this is crazy,” Murphy recalled. “But I would like to take your trees.”

Rock the boat is a non-profit organization that teaches Hunts Point students about the great outdoors by building wooden boats and sailing them. The organization often sources wood through donations, and after Murphy asked the Madison Square Park Conservation to take the trees, Rapaport and the artist agreed.

The conservatory has devoted part of its budget to hiring Tri-Lox, a Brooklyn workshop specializing in wood. On Friday, a team of carpenters arrived at the park with a mobile sawmill. As they felled the trees and debarked, nearly a dozen students involved in Rocking the Boat watched and learned.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen how the trees are harvested,” said Mouctar Barry, 16, of the Bronx’s Hunts Point neighborhood. He joined the group three years ago for an after-school program and learned to love working on boats. Like many students, he was unfamiliar with Lin’s work until he learned of her gift. Then he embarked on research on other monuments and sculptures by the artist.

“It’s interesting how she harvested trees, and now we’re using them,” Barry said. “We give trees new life and meaning.”

The situation was certainly unusual for the Madison Square Park Conservancy. “This is the first time an artwork hasn’t left the park in one piece,” said Tom Reidy, the conservation employee who organized the removal.

As the lumber passed through the mobile sawmill in the park, Rapaport reflected on his long journey and his final destination. “Atlantic white cedars have great resilience,” she said. “They came from a dying forest. They stood in Madison Square Park as symbols and signs for six months to demonstrate the physical materiality of climate change. And now they are repurposed with a new meaning.

On Monday, the teenagers were at the workshop.

“We don’t want it to sink,” Joshua Garcia, 17, said as he described how he added wood to the 28ft boat in front of him. The teenagers had to carve and rivet the wood, carefully angle each plank, and seal the frame with paint. Completion of the boat – the first of five using Lin’s handiwork timber – will take around a year and will have been crafted by around 20 teenagers.

Rocking the Boat began as a volunteer project in 1995 when its founder, Adam Green, began working with students at an East Harlem high school. After migrating to the Bronx a year later, Rocking the Boat has developed after-school and summer programs that often take students out into nature. The organization also provides social services, academic tutoring and career planning; some participants have pursued careers in carpentry and marine biology, or earned degrees in environmental engineering.

Green said students start by building the spine of the boat. Cedar planks are individually shaped and attached to this type of skeleton until the hull is complete. Reinforcement of the bow and stern comes next with external oak trims and a ribbed frame providing support. (The rest of the boat is cedar.) The interior is then fitted with floors and seating; students also make their oars by hand and complete the project by naming their boat and decorating it with paint.

By next summer, the boat containing elements of Lin’s work will make its maiden voyage, pushed past the shores of salt marshes near its launch pad and into the Bronx River where herons and egrets glide over the water. “The South Bronx is a deeply underfunded community but has a huge natural resource in the river that can improve people’s lives,” Green said. “Our role is to connect the neighborhood to the water.

The teenagers working on the boat this week intend to stay for this first descent of the river.

“When I’m working on boats, I’m in my happy place,” said Deborah Simmons, 17, an apprentice in the carpentry shop as she sanded another plank. “I’m going, I’m going. I let myself sink through the wood. I’m in the zone.

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