ATLANTA (AP) — Matt Moulthrop was as horrified as anyone when news broke in 2010 that a University of Alabama fan had poisoned Auburn University's landmark oak trees after a football defeat.
But unlike most others around the country whose grips tensed on newspapers, steering wheels and remote controls at reports of the fan pouring herbicide on the roots of the 130-year-old oaks, the noted Atlanta wood-turner could do something about it. Not that Moulthrop could bring back the towering Southern live oaks, which had figured prominently in countless celebrations at Toomer's Corner, gateway to the Auburn campus. But as one of the country's top young craftsmen, he knew he could extract pure beauty from tragedy.
He envisioned creating a large bowl that would stand as a symbol of the oaks' majesty, and perhaps even salve the sense of loss felt by the extended Auburn family.
Moulthrop is a third-generation wood-turner who has taken the classic vessel shapes of his father, Philip, and late grandfather, Ed, and turned them in new directions, with different materials and design approaches. He was recognized for his innovative eye in 2012, when the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington included his pieces in its prestigious "40 Under 40: Craft Futures" exhibition.
Still, with his fine craft lineage, Moulthrop, now 36, said he often feels he's working in the long shadows of his father and grandfather. He therefore is attracted to projects with "an element of challenge and second meanings to them."
He contacted Jim Gorrie, a longtime collector of Moulthrop family work who is an Auburn alumnus and university trustee. The Brasfield & Gorrie construction firm president and CEO quickly connected him with university administrators and leaders of the school's Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art.
Moulthrop proposed creating a large piece for the museum that he would donate to its permanent collection. Auburn President Jay Gogue and museum director Marilyn Laufer quickly embraced the idea.
The school's extensive efforts to save the trees, which ultimately were taken down in April 2013, put the project on pause. And then Moulthrop required the better part of a year to transform the massive Y-shaped fork atop the College Street oak that he selected into a gleaming elliptical form.
Finally, the 26 ½-inch-diameter, 15-inch-tall bowl, with a little bark left on top to better connect it to the original tree, went on exhibit earlier this month in the Jule Collins Smith Museum exhibit "Matt Moulthrop: Auburn Oak." It will remain on view through Aug. 31, then move to the permanent collection display.
In the meantime, the museum organized an accompanying family retrospective, "Heartwood: Woodturned Vessels by Matt, Philip and Ed Moulthrop."
Little would seem to faze confident, accomplished Matt, who has been included in dozens of individual and family exhibits — including "Generations: Turned Bowls by Ed, Philip and Matt Moulthrop" at Augusta's Morris Museum of Art through June 22.
Yet he admitted that working on "Auburn Oak" was unnerving.
Before the poisoning, "I was aware of the trees, but not their magnitude to the Auburn family, and it became almost overwhelming, to the point of intimidating, as I went further into the project," Moulthrop said.
"It was a tremendous amount of pressure and eyeballs watching the fruition of some thing that didn't exist. Because most art pieces are scrutinized after the fact; in this case, (it was) pre-fact. I'd get letters, emails and phone calls."
Which was something for someone whose college allegiance was complicated by the fact he was a University of Georgia underclassman who earned a master's degree at Georgia Tech.
He said that even though some loyalists to his schools gave him a hard time, he felt he was operating with diplomatic immunity on "Auburn Oak."
The work in fact is continuing, as Moulthrop has been commissioned by the university to create two series of bowls from different sections of the oaks for major donors to a capital campaign. After all his worry, given that a wood-turner has only one shot to uncover the beauty inside a tree section, Moulthrop said he was very pleased with the way "Auburn Oak" turned out. He even started sleeping better once the work was done.
"I wanted to embody what that tree hopefully meant to them," said Moulthrop, who realizes most of the pressure was self-imposed. "The way it came out, it couldn't have gone better."
The reaction at the opening reception on May 16 was what he hoped — emotional. Museum director Laufer said her wish is that visitors view Moulthrop's gift "as a tribute, not only to the trees that were lost, but the way the Auburn family was able to find a way to reaffirm our belief in humanity, evident in this example of creative expression."