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Jan 06, 2022

Beloved Tulip Tree Sprouts Collaborative Art Project at The Rumson Country Day School

Pieces of the iconic tulip tree that grew on the east side of The Rumson Country Day School campus for nearly 300 years, have been repurposed for a new art installation titled “Rooted.” The 7 by 3-foot piece, which will be displayed near the entrance to the RCDS auditorium, is a compilation of wood ringed circles that were cut and dried from the branches of the tulip tree, and then made into artwork by Lower School students in first through fourth grade.

Head of the Art Department Melissa Petersen wanted to embark on the reclaimed art project ever since the tulip tree unexpectedly uprooted after a storm on Feb. 25, 2019. “The tulip tree was beloved,” she said. “It was a tradition for the eighth grade to take a picture on the tree every year. It was a really big deal when the tree fell down because it was part of the fabric of the school, and then it was suddenly gone.” 

Branches were salvaged and set to dry in the furnace room. Petersen planned a multiple-grade art project for 2019-20, but then COVID-19 hit. Even when RCDS returned to on-site learning full-time in 2020-21, group project work was still not feasible. “I thought a lot about how the wood could be used to bring the community together after COVID-19,” said Petersen, the force behind other collaborative art projects at RCDS like The Four Pillars mosaic displayed next to the entrance of the school courtyard. 

Students began by examining the work of contemporary artist Lea Anderson, whose art is inspired by nature, cellular structure and radial symmetry. They looked for elements in nature, and then each student painted a wood ringed circle from their observations of colors, patterns and cellular forms. 

“I chose to paint the earth because it is peaceful,” said fourth grader Ella Day. “Earth couldn’t be Earth without trees. That’s the beauty of it. This is made out of tree wood, so it’s kind of convenient.” 

Art Teacher Megan Peter wasn’t a member of the RCDS faculty when the tulip tree fell in 2019, but she remembers it well. “I live in the area and would drive by, so I knew that tree,” she said. “It was so tragic seeing it had fallen. There’s something about history and things being around for a long time that make them part of the greater community outside the school.” 

As a new faculty member, Peter said she learned a lot about RCDS through the collaborative art project. “RCDS is so rooted in tradition, and it’s been wonderful to learn about the traditions of the school and be a part of the community. I’m also happy we’re able to do something collaborative to repurpose the tree, honor its nature, and help our students see, we don’t just discard things. We can find beauty in something, even if it’s not its original purpose.” 

Remnants of the tulip tree were also used in other ways over the past two years. Science classes studied a cross section of the tree to document the effects of climate, drought and insect infestations. Discs were created for the Early Childhood Center for Gators to stack, and a log was used in Wood Shop to demonstrate milling a piece of lumber. Plaques were also created from remnants, including the one honoring Beginners teacher Ginger Kolb on her retirement from teaching in 2021 after 45 years of dedicated service to RCDS and its students.