The Tree of Life: Interconnecting Religions, Artistic Traditions, and Scientific Knowledge Conference

University of Connecticut Humanities Institute Conference Room, Homer Babbidge Library 4th Floor, 369 Fairfield Way, Storrs, CT 06269

Conference Program:

Thursday, April 27
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM Welcome Lunch
1:00 PM - 2:00 PM The Majesty and Indispensability of Trees: Where Science and Spirituality Converge
Yehezkel Landau, former Associate Professor of Interfaith Relations and Holder of the Abrahamic Partnerships Chair, Hartford Seminary
Dr. Yehezkel Landau, a dual Israeli-American citizen, is an interfaith educator, leadership trainer, author, and consultant working to improve Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations and promote Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding for over 40 years. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Hartford Seminary. 
2:00 PM - 3:00 PM Religion, Science, and the Magic of the Kabbalistic Tree [virtual talk]
J.H. (Yossi) Chajes, Sir Isaac Wolfson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought, Department of Jewish History, University of Haifa
J. H. (Yossi) Chajes is the director of the Center for the Study of Jewish Cultures and an associate professor of Jewish history, both at the University of Haifa. His research interests include kabbalah, early modern Jewish egodocuments, women’s religiosity, the history of Jewish attitudes toward magic, and the visualization of knowledge. He is currently directing the Israel Science Foundation-supported Ilanot Project, which is working to catalog and describe all kabbalistic cosmological diagrams. Chajes received his PhD at Yale University. He has previously been awarded Fulbright, Rothschild, Wexner, Hartman, and Katz Center fellowships, and, in addition, has conducted research at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies, the Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften at Goethe University, and at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

3:00 PM - 3:30 PM Tea
3:30 PM - 4:30 PM Franciscan Diet, Spiritual Trees: Jacopone da Todi and Dante on Hunger and Thirst
Andrea Celli, Associate Professor of Italian and Mediterranean Studies, University of Connecticut
Andrea Celli teaches Italian and Mediterranean Studies at the University of Connecticut. He graduated in Italian Philology at the Università di Padova (Italy), where he also received his PhD Degree (2004). Before moving to UConn, he lectured at the University of Lugano, Switzerland. In addition to several books, articles, and translations from Arabic and French authors, he recently published Dante and the Mediterranean Comedy: From Muslim Spain to Postcolonial Italy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022). He is currently working on two book projects: a monograph on early-modern representations of Hagar and Ishmael, as genealogical symbols of religious conflict; and a book on Muslims and the Eucharist, from medieval legends to modern medievalism. 
4:30 PM - 5:30 PM The Vegetable Saint
Greg Bryda, Assistant Professor of Art History, Barnard College
Gregory Bryda specializes in the art and architecture of medieval Europe. He has taught and published on the history and historiography of medieval art, and is particularly interested in medieval science, folklore, environment, and culture. His book The Trees of the Cross (forthcoming with Yale University Press) explores the fraught relationship between the medieval church and plants in late medieval Germany. It brings together a wide array of visual and literary sources to demonstrate how the church instrumentalized the wood of the cross as medium in numerous cultural techniques—in laying the cross over trees, maypoles, herbal medicines, and agricultural technologies—to attempt to put nature in its place, to recode or invert its positive and potent qualities, and, finally, to displace them onto Christian agencies.

His research into Germany’s long historiographic affinity with the forest formed part of a collaboration of art historians investigating the representation of environmental politics from the Wilhelmine period to that of National Socialism. With Matthew Vollgraff, he served as guest co-editor of a special issue of Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte (2022) on “Art and Environment in the Third Reich,” whose contributors examined the period’s aestheticization of “race” and landscape across a broad range of disciplines and media.

Bryda is currently researching a corpus of Christian artworks and spaces involving German settlement projects in eastern Europe (die Ostsiedlung), especially those pursued by Cistercian monks in the High Middle Ages. With Katherine Boivin, he co-edited Riemenschneider In Situ (Brepols, 2021), a volume of papers from the 2017 conference that assembled experts in southern Germany to analyze the sculptor’s monumental artworks that are too large and fragile to travel for exhibition.

5:30 PM Reception
UConn Contemporary Art Gallery, 830 Bolton Road, Storrs, CT 06269


Friday, April 28
9:30 AM - 10:00 AM Breakfast
10:00 AM - 11:00 AM The Tree as an "Animal-esque Plant" (Nabat Hayawani): Arboreal Thoughtscapes in Muslim Majority Lands Over the Centuries [virtual talk]
Christiane Gruber, Professor of Art History, University of Michigan
Christiane Gruber’s primary field of research is Islamic book arts, paintings of the Prophet Muhammad, and Islamic ascension texts and images, about which she has written two books and edited a volume of articles. She also pursues research in Islamic book arts and codicology, having authored the online catalogue of Islamic calligraphies in the Library of Congress as well as edited the volume of articles, The Islamic Manuscript Tradition. Her third field of specialization is modern Islamic visual culture and post-revolutionary Iranian visual and material culture, about which she has written several articles. She also has co-edited two volumes on Islamic and cross-cultural visual cultures. She recently completed her third book, titled The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images.
11:00 AM - 12:00 PM Wayang Kayonan Puppet: Synthesis of Artistic Traditions, Religions, Philosophy, and Scientific Knowledge [virtual talk]
Nyoman Sedana, Director of Bali Module and Professor at Indonesian Institute of Arts Denpasar
I Nyoman Sedana is a Professor at Institut Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Institute of the Arts) in Denpasar. He comes from a traditional family of dancers in Gianyar and graduated from the high school (KOKAR) and college (ASTI) of Performing Arts before joining the faculty at ISI. His wayang (shadow theatre) teachers include I Nyoman Sumandhi and Dalang Sidja. He received at MA from Brown University and a PhD from Univ. of Georgia. His research in puppet traditions of Asia has been supported by Asian Cultural Council, Asia Fellow award of the Ford Foundation, IIAS in Leiden, National University of Singapore and other institutions. He is co-author of Performance in Bali (with Leon Rubin) and currently a visiting artist at Butler University in Indiana.
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM Lunch
1:00 PM - 2:00 PM The Cure of Old Age, and the Preservation of Youth
Elizabeth Athens, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Connecticut
Elizabeth Athens received her Ph.D from Yale University. She is an art historian with research interests in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and natural history, the art of empire, and the history of collecting. Before coming to the University of Connecticut she worked at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts in Washington, DC, where she contributed to the digital humanities resource History of Early American Landscape Design, and also served as the curator of American art at the Worcester Art Museum. While at Worcester, she co-organized the traveling exhibition Coming Away: Winslow Homer and England and co-authored its catalogue. Athens’s research has been published in The Oxford Art Journal, History of Photography, and J18: A Journal of Eighteenth-Century Art and Culture. She is currently at work on a book project that examines the graphic practice of the eighteenth-century American naturalist, William Bartram.
2:00 PM - 3:00 PM Forging Intimate Connections: Trees, People, Place and Spiritual Well-Being
Sohyun Park, Assistant Professor of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, University of Connecticut
Sohyun Park’s research interests include urban ecology, urban and community planning, urban parks and green spaces, and urban morphology. Her research focuses on the relationships among patterns, functions, and services of urban ecological systems and their relevance to environmental sustainability and human well-being. Target sites of interest include various spatial scales ranging from a larger urban region and metropolitan area to a neighborhood and urban block. With her research on urbanism, landscape, and ecology (RULE), Sohyun seeks to understand a unifying theme of “landscape” as a holistic socioecological urban system. Her work has been supported by the U. S. Department of the Interior National Park Service, United Nations Development Programme, Korea Ministry of Environment, and national and local municipalities.
3:00 PM - 3:30 PM Tea
3:30 PM - 4:30 PM Arbor Essence
William Friedman, Arnold Professor of Organisimic and Evolutionary Biology and Director of the Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University
William Friedman's research focuses on the organismic interfaces between developmental, phylogenetic and evolutionary biology. Armed with hypotheses of relationships among clades, he seeks to explore how patterns of morphology, anatomy and reproductive biology have evolved through the modification of developmental processes. His work is primarily focused on the origin and subsequent diversification of flowering plants, and in particular, the establishment of double fertilization and endosperm as defining biological features of angiosperms. In addition to his interest in evolutionary history, he continues to be fascinated by the history of evolutionary thought in the 18th and 19th centuries, leading up to the time of publication of On the Origin of Species. 
4:30 PM - 5:30 PM Unearthing the Evolutionary Past: Progress and Stories from Reconstructing the Tree of Life [virtual talk]
Stephen Smith, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Michigan
Stephen Smith works on questions related to plant evolution, detecting and describing large scale patterns of evolution, examining differences in the rate of molecular evolution, morphological evolution, genomics, and geography. A great deal of this involves the development of new methods and new computational tools. Smith earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology from Yale University, and his B.A. in Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College. He teaches Evolution, Phylogenetic Methods and Theory, and his research areas include Phylogenetics, computational evolutionary biology, biogeography, and phyloinformatics. 


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The Tree of Life: Interconnecting Religions, Artistic Traditions, and Scientific Knowledge is presented as a part of The Abrahamic Story of the Tree. UConn Abrahamic Programs support peaceful co-existence and regional academic integration in the MENA region and provide an alternative framework for productive on-campus programing and dialogue at the University of Connecticut. Along with the School of Fine Arts, Humanities Institute, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Human Rights Institute, Asian and Asian American Studies Institute, Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, The William Benton Museum of Art, UConn Hillel, and the Mansfield Downtown Partnership, The Story of the Tree is a semester-long exploration of the Tree of Life in Judaism, Christianity and Islam through art exhibitions, walking tours, performances, and lectures.