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Tom Zetterstrom | American, 1945 -

Speaking for Itself

Early settlers couldn’t but notice the American elm. Its graceful and heroic proportion was immediately apparent, arching high above agricultural bottomlands tended by Native Americans, not unlike the elm in this image. New Englanders anointed the elm as the “Liberty Tree”, symbol of an emerging nation. But the reality of the species, Ulmus americana with its high broad canopy, adaptability and vigor, provided a fast growing compliment to our early classical architecture. The precious shade of Elm Streets spawned and spread from Boston to Sacramento. The elm’s physical stature spoke for itself. Emblematic elms defined visible points on the landscape and often carried names from our history. An enthusiastic dialogue ensued between men with shovels and elm transplants, yanked from the swamps to populate our streets.

So profuse was our attention to this tree that when the shock and awe of the invasive fungus, Dutch elm disease struck home, all our best intentions were lost. Monoculture streetscapes collapsed like dominoes, and from the 1930’s to the present, one hundred million elms disappeared from our neighborhoods.

During that time, plant geneticists tested many of the few surviving elms. Not until 2001, did test results from the National Arboretum allow reliable American elm replanting of the varieties named Princeton, Valley Forge, New Harmony, and Jefferson. Thus the dialogue begins again, but now we recognize it must be in the context of a more diverse treescape design.

For forty years, I have photographed elms repeatedly and numerous others species as “Portraits of American Trees.” I also design and plant streetscapes, arboreta, parking lots, school yards, historic sites and scenic byways. I use the American elm as the keystone tree in a diverse mix. I speak for trees in my Elm Watch lectures, and reintroduce Americans to their once rich heritage of public trees, encouraging the concepts of a sustainable community forest. If well chosen and well planted, public trees, given time, can again become a remarkable presence in the places where we live.

Public Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art
The Baltimore Museum of Art
Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Boston Public Library
Bowdoin College Museum of Art
Corcoran Gallery of Art
Everson Museum
Farnsworth Museum of Art
Florence Griswold Museum
Fogg Art Museum
Georgia Art Museum
J. Paul Getty Museum
The High Museum of Art
Hood Museum of Art
International Center of Photography
International Museum of Photography at Eastman House
The Library of Congress
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Minneapolis Institute of Art
The Museum of Fine Art, Houston
The Museum of Modern Art
National Museum of American Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Rose Museum, Brandeis University
The St. Louis Art Museum
Smith College Museum of Art
Yale University Art Gallery
Vassar Art Gallery
Wesleyan University, Davison Art Center
Williams College Museum of Art