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An Artful Vision of Repurposing Damaged Urban Trees

Dwayne Sperber handcrafts furniture from damaged urban trees. He envisions an industry that uses the wood that normally ends up in landfills.

This weekend, as people by the dozens – hundreds, if local businesses have their way – will stroll downtown Delafield this weekend as artisans and musicians display their talents during the city’s Fall Art Walk. Sperber will attempt to draw traffic inside the Delafield Arts Center to check out what he describes as an “environmentally conscious exhibit.”

We get a sneak peak of the show and Sperber’s vision.

He imposed strict standards for the 20-some artists whose work is being installed in this sun-filled gallery.

“Each participant was required to verify and provide documentation of where they purchased their wood.”

But it doesn’t take long for the Kansas City Missouri transplant to soften his message.

“Sometimes it was a yard tree, and we’re on the honor system there but everybody’s heart is in the right place.”

However, the salt and pepper haired 49 year old is adamant about his big picture mission – starting with the City of Milwaukee. Every year, it weeds out several thousand dead or damaged trees. Milwaukee used to chip or dump them into landfills. Now it sends the limbs and trunks off to a mill north of here.

"Milwaukee is referring to their wood diversion - instead of waste management, it’s resource management."

Sperber calls that progress but he’s out to see every bit of possible plank be put back into the marketplace. This exhibit is a step toward Sperber’s end goal. It begins with an artful collection of planks – elm, maple and ash.

“I thought it would be a good idea to show the viewer that wood from trees makes lumber. It’s as simple as that. I wanted to paint that picture. This wood came from trees that had to come down. This is what can be made from it and then the next step they get to see something beautiful that’s made from there. “

Sperber drew from a collection of veteran and novice crafters to drive home his point. Wayne Green’s sleek rocking chair fashioned of walnut and white oak tips to the seasoned craftsman's end.

So too, is Mike Jarvi’s contribution – a steam-bent bench of “urban” white oak. He’s hot stuff in the furniture crafting world. A 15-minute video titled “Making a Jarvi Bench” has almost 300,00 views.

No matter how impressive, Sperber acknowledges a gallery chocked full of exquisite hand-crafted furniture can only do so much.

“This exhibit will hopefully reach the public, but furniture makers are not going to DRIVE the industry and use the abundance of wood out there. I am looking for higher volume uses. The other important point beyond this exhibit, it was judged.”

Sperber handpicked the judges. They included a renowned architect in the LEED green movement and an interior designer to choose best of show.

“That’s all strategic. Those people can help drive this industry.”

We drift toward a table by an artist based south of Madison - Paul Morrison's Stacked Table.

"And when I first saw it I must admit, I thought, what’s the big deal,” Sperber says.

He later learned the stack of 19 by 13 inch slabs of various wood – including red elm and ash – is not only a huge seller; its components are cutoffs, discards from other projects. Sperber says Morrison could have dumped the leftovers. Instead, he found an artful use for them.

The thought of “ash” circles Sperber back to his mission – to convince architects and builders that urban wood could fit into their construction schemes. He’s thinking about the potential of milling trees struck by Emerald ash borer.

“Once the bark or the first layer of wood is removed, which is a typical part of the milling process, the rest of the wood is completely unaffected. We can use it.”

Sperber sold the idea to a developer building in Milwaukee’s Walker Point neighborhood. Five flights of urban ash now spiral inside a commercial building.

Sperber ushers me into the innermost room of the exhibit. It holds the work of MIAD student Aaron Malinwoski. “This is an evolution of a student’s chair. I critiqued his class. These pieces are his mockups. This is his first chair; he was experimenting. Here’s the next stage and his final results.”
Three chairs – maple and steel.

Sperber sees great promise in Malinowski. “I encouraged him to use urban wood.”

If you happen to meet Dwayne Sperber and experience the hushed urgency of message, he’s likely to find a way you fit into his “using wood from trees salvaged from urban landscapes."

“It supports local economies, sequesters carbon and reduces our carbon emissions and reduces waste disposal volumes and their negative impacts. I could tell people a lot more, but I just want to hit the highlights of why we’re doing it. We’re doing it because we love it and it’s beautiful, but guess what, there’s another story to the wood.”

Dwayne Sperber is the furniture maker and the creator of Urban[wood]Encounter 2013. It’s on display at the Delafield Arts Center through September 30, 2013.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.