Haskell stands beside his sculpture garden at the Design Group Collaborative Permasculpture Garden in Ellsworth. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROBERT HASKELL

Dead wood becomes a centerpiece of nature, and art

By Ezra Sassaman

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BAR HARBOR — Man-made structures often disturb ecosystems and displace natural habitats. Robert Haskell, a 30-year-old master’s student at College of the Atlantic, wants to change that. His master’s thesis explores how sculptures can exist in harmony with nature and even create new and unique habitats for insects and other animals. 

Originally from southern Maine, Haskell moved to Mount Desert Island at age 10, where he attended Mount Desert Island High School. Following graduation, he attended Southern Maine Community College. After two years there, he transferred to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, inspired in part by his art teachers at SMCC. 

After working primarily with oil, acrylic and watercolor paints during college, Haskell branched out into sculpture and other three-dimensional pieces. Now, he creates “interdisciplinary art,” which he describes as a combination of sculpture, two-dimensional and three-dimensional art, and video. 

Since 2019, Haskell has been studying at College of the Atlantic. He is currently working in the metal shop on the property of Sweet Pea’s Farm on his latest sculpture, which focuses on dead wood ecology. 

Haskell plans to center the sculpture around a large dead tree, which will be located across from the Dorr Museum of Natural History on the COA campus. Around the decaying wood will be a steel spiral with metallic birds and insects. As Haskell explains, these animals rely on dying trees as part of their ecosystem. In the natural world, a decomposing tree will become the centerpiece of a food web. Birds nest in the soft wood, insects feed off the tree and birds feed off the insects. 

Haskell says his project focuses in part on changing the negative perceptions around dead wood.  

Pictured here is a concept sketch for the dead wood food network sculpture at the Dorr Museum.

Written as a single word, “deadwood” can mean useless personnel or material, but in nature, it is the exact opposite: a vital part of an ecological network. As Haskell puts it, dead wood is “a valuable natural resource… currently under threat from habitat destruction and selective removal. A lack of awareness of its ecological value, negative aesthetic attitudes, and safety concerns are thought to be the main impediments to dead wood conservation. This installation is trying to tackle these challenges in a novel way using sculpture.” 

In addition to the metal birds and insects encircling the tree, Haskell hopes their real-life counterparts will become part of his art as well. His artistic vision entails creating structures that animals will turn into part of their habitat. As explained on his website, “The interactions these pieces have with the living systems around them add layers of meaning to the work, and often change the physical form of the work itself through natural processes.” 

Haskell says he hopes his sculptures can change the ecologies of cities and other developed areas, bringing a sense of nature into urban landscapes. He understands “Bar Harbor is not going to revert to forest anytime soon.” That being said, Haskell hopes his sculptures can bring a piece of the natural world into man-made environments. 

Urban areas, full of freshly mown lawns and structures such as telephone poles, favor types of animals called “generalists,” like squirrels, crows and coyotes. These generalists are willing to eat a wide variety of foods and can adapt to many different types of habitats. Through his sculptures, Haskell hopes to create spaces where other types of animals can feel at home as well. 

Haskell’s work does not stop when the sculptures are complete. He understands his creations not as fixed projects, but as fluid areas of observation: organic spaces where his art and the natural world converge. He says he is excited to see which species are drawn to the structures. “Maybe I’ll realize that turtles really like a certain sculpture,” he says, “or maybe I’ll have to make some changes to better accommodate the kinds of animals I’m trying to attract.” 

Haskell will install three total exhibits: the tree at the Dorr Museum of Natural History, a sculpture garden in the Design Group Collaborative Permasculpture Garden in Ellsworth, and a piece in a yet-to-be-determined site in Philadelphia, Pa. 

Additionally, he will hold an exhibition of his work on the College of the Atlantic campus in September.  

To view Haskell’s work, visit www.robertjameshaskell.com. 

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