In 1923, a 48-foot Balsam fir was erected by the District of Columbia Public Schools to the south of the White House. The tree was decorated, lit, and named the “National Christmas Tree.” Though the trees have varied, the National Christmas Tree still stands, 94 years later. Surrounding the National Christmas Tree is the America Celebrates display where smaller evergreen trees are decorated with handmade ornaments to represent the unique history, culture, and heritage of each of the nation’s 56 states and territories.
This year, the Maryland State Arts Council selected YA roster artist Katherine Dilworth to design the ornaments for the Maryland state tree for the America Celebrates display. The artist has been integrating fabrics and felted fibers into her art for more than 20 years. Her work is shown in galleries throughout the U.S. and was included in two books. In her school residencies, Katherine teaches students how to sculpt loose wool into solid shapes and colorful, textured murals. For this project, however, her materials were quite different.
The artist worked with Ewell Elementary School students on Smith Island to make the ornaments for the 2017 Maryland state tree. Smith Island, Maryland’s only inhabited Chesapeake Bay Island, has about 250 residents and can only be reached by boat. Ewell, the largest of the communities on Smith, is home to the island’s sole elementary school (the K-7 Ewell Elementary School serves a total of 11 students).
The Chesapeake Bay is integral to the lives of the island’s inhabitants where watermen collect fish and shellfish, like oysters and Blue crabs from its waters. Katherine chose to craft the ornaments from oyster shells to bring attention to the Bay’s endangered species. “I wanted to highlight the Chesapeake Bay on the Maryland tree, particularly focusing on animals and plants that have been threatened or endangered,” said the artist. She and the students looked at animals like the American Bald Eagle, once threatened by human behavior, but whose populations have since been revitalized.
“I contacted the Ewell Elementary School on Smith Island because the kids there would have an intimate knowledge of life on the bay,” Katherine explained. The students painted the smooth, concave surfaces of the sea creatures’ shells with wildlife native to the region: Baltimore checkerspot butterflies, Blue crabs, Seagulls, Geese, Rockfish, and of course, oysters. The decorated mollusks awash in the blues of the Chesapeake hang proudly on the Maryland State tree this year, reminding us of our relationship with the natural world and representing a way of life only found in Maryland.
The America Celebrates display is free and open to visitors throughout the month. Learn about last year’s ornaments here.
Katherine Dilworth introduces students to the centuries-old art form of felting. Learn how you can bring her programs into your school today by visiting her artist page.