Chestnuts, future and past: the silkscreen prints of Laura Weaver Huff

“Summer Chestnut Leaves,”
silkscreen

Two weeks ago, the New York Times reported on efforts by two groups of plant breeders and geneticists to create an American chestnut that can withstand the blight that wiped out the tree by the billions in the first half of the 20th century. As it turns out, one artist here at the Torpedo Factory is passionate about the restoration of the chestnut—and her story is a reminder that we learn as much from the interests of our visitors as you learn from us about art.

“I got interested in the restoration of the American chestnut tree from an article I saw in the Gaithersburg Gazette several years ago,” says silkscreen printmaker Laura Weaver Huff. “I recognized the face of the Maryland chapter president in the newspaper photo as a customer who came to Cindy Brandt’s studio and bought something when I was subletting there. I sent her a letter, and she graciously wrote back, telling me where I could find a chestnut tree research farm near Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland.”

“The American Chestnut Tree – Past and Future,”
silkscreen and colored pencil

Fascinated by a book published by the American Chestnut Foundation, Huff began creating a series of silkscreen prints, and she even visited the farm to pick chestnut leaves to transform into stencils. Much of this work formed the basis of “Old Chestnuts,” a recent exhibition of her prints at Wonder Graphics in downtown D.C., and if you stop by studio 325 to chat with Huff, you’ll come away impressed by the background research that informs her art.

“I learned a lot about the beauty, enormous size, and importance of the tree, especially to people living in Appalachia, where the trees once covered all the mountains,” Huff says. “They depended on lumber from the trees for buildings and fences and the nuts for trading for shoes, school supplies, sugar, and more. The nuts were roasted and sold from carts in New York and other major cities. Currently they are being cross-bred with an Asian variety of chestnut trees which are resistant to the blight that killed most of the trees here beginning in 1905.”

“Rising Moon”

According to the New York Times, both groups involved in restoring the chestnut “appear to be on the verge of breakthroughs” but “neither is willing to express more than cautious optimism for now.” In the meantime, Huff is using her art to foster hopefulness about the chestnut—and provide possible glimpses of future joy.

“I know I won’t see the trees return to forests in large numbers during my lifetime,” she says, “but eventually they will be restored for all to enjoy.”

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