Creative Learning: Forensic Botany Class Goes from Science to Sculpture

In the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) Department of Botany’s Forensic Botany class, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) research botanist Alex Wiedenhoeft gives his students full creative license when it comes to their final projects.

“They could even do an interpretive dance.” said Wiedenhoeft, “Although they’d have to interpret it for me, since I’m a botanist.”

Undergraduate student Jennifer Baccam appreciated the freedom of the assignment and chose an interesting medium to demonstrate what she had learned in Wiedenhoeft’s class: sculpture.

Jennifer Baccam’s sculpture of FPL’s Arthur Koehler.

Baccam is majoring in plant biology and when she heard about Wiedenhoeft’s forensic botany class, her curiosity was piqued.

“I love botany and have done lots of field work,” said Baccam. “This class seemed like an interesting way to meet the requirement of taking a laboratory class.”

In giving thought to her final project, Baccam wanted to know how forensic botany came about. When she began to research the topic, Baccam discovered it all began with a scientist named Arthur Koehler from none other than the Forest Products Laboratory.

Koehler was the chief wood technologist at FPL in 1932 when Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped and a wooden ladder was nearly the only evidence at the scene of the crime. Koehler was asked to participate in the investigation and eventually testified in the trial. Based partly on Koehler’s testimony, Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of the crime, and subsequently executed.

At the time, no one had heard of an expert witness in wood. In fact, one of Hauptmann’s lawyers stated the following in objection to a question posed to Koehler: “We say that there is no such animal known among men as an expert on wood; that it is not a science that has been recognized by the courts; that it is not in a class with handwriting experts or with ballistic experts. But this is no science, this is merely a man who has had a lot of experience in examining trees, who knows the barks on trees and a few things like that.”

Koehler of course balked at this statement, and it was stricken from the record as the court deemed Koehler was indeed “qualified as an expert upon the subject matter.”

As Baccam read Koehler’s testimony, she found it plenty apparent that he was confident in his skills and abilities as a wood expert, and he stood behind what he had learned in examining the ladder as evidence.

Forensic Botany student Jennifer Baccam.

“Koehler came across as a larger-than-life personality,” said Baccam. This observation is apparent in her sculpture, in which Koehler’s bust is looming over the other aspects of the case that are represented, including the ladder itself.

Baccam’s curiosity about forensic botany continues to lead her down a new path, as she is set to begin working in FPL’s Center for Wood Anatomy Research with Wiedenhoeft soon, and will complete her senior thesis at FPL beginning in the fall.

“I’m lucky to have Alex as my mentor,” says Baccam. “Since the beginning of the Forensic Botany course he has helped me further realize that research is truly my passion. My perspective of my future is much less uncertain now.”

To learn more about Wiedenheoft’s forensic botany course, which he co-teaches with UW Professor Sara Hotchkiss, see this feature story from UW-Madison.

“A Miniature Forest of All the World’s Forests”: FPL Contributes to University of Bristol Art Installation

The United Kingdom’s University of Bristol recently premiered an exhibit by artist Katie Paterson with help from the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL). Contributions from FPL and numerous xylaria, herbaria, arboretums, and collectors from around the world were gathered to create Hollow, which is made of more than 10,000 unique tree species.

hollowSpanning millions of years, Hollow is a miniature forest of all the world’s forests. The exterior cluster structure reflects a forest canopy’s ecosystem, the forms of the Douglas fir posts reflecting the varying heights of trees. The interior of Hollow tells the history of the planet, from petrified wood fossils from the earliest forests that emerged 390 million years ago to the most recent emergent species.

As the home of the world’s largest research wood collection, which contains more than 103,000 samples, FPL was a natural source for Paterson’s project. FPL contributed cherry, ash, yellow poplar, red oak, white oak, sugar maple, myrtlewood, tan oak, Pacific madrone, Eastern white pine, Eastern hemlock, spruce, Northern white cedar, and Douglas fir to help Paterson breathe life into the installation.

Paterson gathered fossilized samples as well, including the Indian Banyan Tree, which accompanied Buddha on his journey to enlightenment.  Even the Japanese Ginko tree, a species that survived the bombing of Hiroshima, makes an appearance.

“Some samples are incredibly rare,” Paterson said. “Fossils of unfathomable age and fantastical trees such as Cedar of Lebanon, the Phoenix Palm, and the Methuselah tree, thought to be one of the oldest trees in the world, at 4,487 years of age” are featured.

The artist also incorporated pieces of recent history with the addition of segments from the Atlantic City Boardwalk, which was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Hollow is the result of three years of collaboration among Paterson, architectural firm Zeller & Moye, and Bristol-based art producers Situations. Commissioned by the University of Bristol, the artwork premiered in honor of the university’s multi-million dollar Life Sciences building, opened by British broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough in late 2014.

To learn more about Hollow and Paterson’s other projects, visit

Blog post by Francesca Yracheta

LOGJAM: Art Exhibit Inspired by Forests

Logjam_slideA new art exhibit at the Overture Center’s James Watrous Gallery in Madison, Wis., brings prints and sculptures together to a magical place where art, science, and history collide.

LOGJAM features the work of three artists: Brenda Baker, Kevin Giese, and Mark Iwinski. According to the Gallery’s website, the artists’ “sculpture and prints inspire reflection on environmental restoration and the health of our forests. Through photographs, artifacts, and text, the exhibition also considers the legacy of the Wisconsin cutover, the rise of industrial forestry, and the development of more sustainable forestry practices.”

“Interpretive sections will include images, artifacts, and texts that evoke the logging era and the subsequent rise of ‘industrial forestry.’ A group of folk art objects and photographs that represent early Wisconsin loggers, logging equipment, and lumber operations will be on view, along with samples from the USDA Forest Products Lab’s (FPL) renowned wood anatomy collection. Objects that reflect today’s interest in sustainable forestry, urban wood products, and ‘whole tree’ lumber will also point to current issues in forestry and timber usage.”

If you’re in the Madison area, a visit to the gallery is worth your time. If you’re afar, the exhibit’s flickr site is a great way to catch a glimpse of these talented artists’ fine work. FPL’s contribution can be seen in this flickr gallery from the exhibit’s opening night. Can you find it? (Hint: It looks like an interesting variation on the classic card catalog, if you’re old enough to know what that is!)

The Art of “Best Opening Face” Sawmill Technology

Shout out to Chuck Ray and his Go Wood blog for pointing out both some great art and it’s connection to some revolutionary FPL technology.


Computerized sawmill technology helped sawmills maximize lumber production from small log resources.

Swiss artist Vincent Kohler created an artistic representation  of a log cut using Best Opening Face technology, a computerized sawmill program that saves roughly one billion board feet of lumber annually from going to waste. Kohler’s piece, made with styrene, resin, and paint, is appropriately titled “Billion.”

Best Opening Face technology was developed at FPL in the early 1970’s. It helped optimize and automate softwood dimension sawmills and, in part, prevented an industry collapse when sawmills shifted from old-growth to second-growth timber resources.

Today, most softwood lumber used for construction purposes in the United States and around the world is processed using Best Opening Face technology.


Beyond the Board Artists Get Creative with FPL-Developed Product

A San Francisco art exhibition titled “By-Product Becomes Product” is the latest installment in a series of projects stemming from an unlikely partnership between art and science.

Barbara Holmes, "feed/rest/nest" 2013 (Photo Credit: Scott Chernis)

Barbara Holmes, “feed/rest/nest” 2013 (Photo Credit: Scott Chernis)

California-based artist and designer Christine Lee and Forest Products Laboratory engineer John Hunt have worked together since 2010, when Lee was an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin. Hunt’s research focuses on developing composite materials, and Lee was interested in turning waste materials into new products without the use of toxic additives.

Their collaboration resulted in the development of a composite board made from sawdust and recycled paper that contains no adhesives and is fully recyclable and biodegradable. To see how the material performed for artists who use wood in their work, Lee recruited five artists to create pieces using the product she and Hunt developed.

Christine Lee, "Interwoven" (Photo by Scott Chernis)

Christine Lee, “Interwoven” (Photo by Scott Chernis)

The resulting art is on display at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco through March 30, 2013. Visit the California College of the Arts website for a photo gallery of the projects and to learn more about the participating artists and the inspiration behind their works.

Learn more about the collaborative work of Lee and Hunt in this Lab Notes post.