Artist’s reclaimed wood pieces enliven empty Middletown stores

Artist’s reclaimed wood pieces enliven empty Middletown stores

MIDDLETOWN — Folks walking or driving by the former Irreplaceable Artifacts building at 428 Main St. can catch a glimpse of an enormous exhibit of trees reclaimed from the streets of municipalities across Connecticut.

Haddam artist Ted Esselstyn, who runs City Bench, upended the furniture he has crafted from trees otherwise headed for the trash, he said.

They sit among long, giant slabs of raw wood, which hearken back to the trees’ original state, each with a marker designating which city they’re from, such as a slippery elm from Yale, red oak from Elizabeth Park in Hartford, and black walnut from Windsor.

Passersby can window gaze at the display inside the vacant former Woolworth’s building, though it’s not open to the public.

“Furniture was a great idea, especially since it’s a nice, big space,” the artist explained. The “enormous trees,” he said, “look terrific” in the large, 16-foot ceiling space.

Esselstyn, who operates the business with his brother Zeb, was the original exhibit builder for Kidcity Museum on Washington Street, something he did for six years. Downtown Business District Chairwoman Jennifer Alexander founded the facility.

The DBD has use of the building’s bottom-floor showcase until 428 Main St. is fully renovated by developer Dominick DeMartino, Alexander noted. 

“We use enormous slabs that we reclaim from urban trees; our whole business is based on building furniture from the urban forest,” Esselstyn pointed out. He has a mill in New Haven, and works with New Haven, Hartford, and other municipalities to harvest dead trees.

City Bench pieces show the trees’ age rings and grains.

“For us, it’s all about storytelling,” Esselstyn explained. “The reason we’ve been successful is working with everyone — from a neighbor who’s in construction and heavy excavation work to the president of Yale (University).”

Once he saw the space, the artist jumped at the chance to fill it with his work.

“When you have the chance to stand them up like that — it’s just as powerful to see them upright — they take on the form of the trees that they were,” Esselstyn noted. “With the opportunity of that size and space, the idea came that we should stand all these magnificent slabs upright, and try to create a forest and put our pieces among them,” he added.

The sign inside says “all this furniture was headed for the dump.”

Esselstyn has a knack for “building something beautiful out of them,” according to Alexander. “Everything he creates is so imaginative and wonderfully built.”

His work can also be seen at ION Restaurant at 606 Main St., and City Bench creates pieces for the Paul Newman Foundation of Westport, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, public libraries and elsewhere.

“His  mission with City Bench is not just to make things out of old trees, but to get people to appreciate the beauty that’s right in front of them,” Alexander said, “especially for those who are the custodians of these trees to have a way, when it’s time for them to come down, to remember them and give them a new life.”

Esselstyn’s artwork and furniture “makes us think differently about the trees we go by every day and don’t notice,” she added.

New Haven has even changed the way the city cuts street trees so City Bench can reclaim a portion of them, the artist said. “Most of them go into the waste stream or are made into mulch.

“All of them have wonderful stories, many heartfelt,” he added. “People are so connected to trees.”

The exhibit is part of the DBD’s program to fill empty downtown storefronts with temporary displays. 

These are funded through a $100,000 grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development Office of the Arts.

“We’re trying to enliven the sidewalks and make it an experience to walk up and down Main Street,” Alexander said.

The last show, created by Middletown resident and Hartford research scientist Kat Owens, incorporated a full-size fabric replica of a sperm whale using plastic making its way into oceans and endangering marine animals.

The current display is imposing for those who’ve been inside the building. “These giant slabs of wood that are towering over your head, and how interesting they are,” Alexander said.

The back wall is entirely mirrored so onlookers can see a reflection of each piece, she pointed out. “It’s a moment to appreciate the grain and how interesting and beautiful the raw wood is.

“You see the transformation that happens in the pieces that he’s created out of this local wood,” the chairwoman said.

Alexander called the furniture “delicate” with a “modern-inspired, whimsical feel to it.”  

The transformations are remarkable, the chairwoman said. “He built a career out of making beautiful things out of the resources we have here,” Alexander said.

The show runs through mid-February.