By Anna Sadovskaya, Senior Arts Editor
Published September 19, 2013
Naturally garnished with big burrs and ornamental oaks, Ann Arbor’s “Tree Town” nickname is appropriate, given the nearly 50,000 trees lining its streets.
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Struck by the vast presence of mature trees within Nichols Arboretum and throughout the rest of Ann Arbor, artist Catherine Widgery designed an art installation set to decorate the East Stadium Boulevard bridges and underpass.
The search for an artist was conducted through the Ann Arbor Public Arts Committee, which sanctioned a set budget for the public-art project.
“Usually what happens is (the committee) sends out a call to artists when we have a project idea or a location in which the commission has selected to put an art project in,” said Public Art Administrator Aaron Seagraves. “We review them based on the criteria of the project goals, evaluate the artists based on qualifications.”
From there, three or four artists’ concept designs are chosen as finalists and after interviews and closer inspections of design attributes, one artist is selected. The committee, made up of stakeholders and community members, elected Massachusetts designer Catherine Widgery to undertake the project.
“I think with this particular proposal, it used a lot of the area that we were hoping to place artwork in,” Seagraves said. “The theme of using imagery of trees and placing them in a transparent background, on glass, using acrylic, so it’s see-through, I think it was the theme that really struck people.”
Having completed close to 40 public art installations across the United States and Canada, Widgery is no newcomer to the art scene. Her interest in environmental sculptures and infusing nature into art led her to a career involving public installations.
“Public art puts art in the public spaces and in an environment where it’s not a museum,” Seagraves said. “It can be enjoyed by a lot more people, viewed by a wider audience. What I think public art does, when it’s really successful, is identify a particular spot or area, and lends an identity to an area.”
Along with lending an identity, public art creates a common culture for the community and distinguishes a city from others. The Rock, on the corner of Hill Street and Washtenaw Avenue, is a notable Ann Arbor landmark that unites the city’s inhabitants through a paint-based tradition.
“It’s not public art in the sense that it’s an art sculpture, but it’s a participatory type of art project,” Seagraves said.
Though arts funding has been kept up in Ann Arbor, many municipalities and institutions in the United States have seen cuts and decreases in their resources. But Widgery calls to mind successful art installations that gave purpose and notability to an area, like Millenium Park in Chicago.
“I think people underestimate the financial as well as the aesthetic aspect of art,” Widgery said. “I’m a great believer that it really contributes to the quality of life in the town.”
Her own project, “Arbor Winds,” aims to do just that. Without giving too much away, Widgery explained that it will be situated on the East Stadium Boulevard bridges and feature tree-inspired prints on pieces of glass and a larger, more immersive installation at the passageway.
“There’s the underpass and then the raised elements that will be all along the bridge, so that when people drive over them there will be colorful points of animation across the bridge, and a larger work right at the entrance,” Widgery said. “It’s still in development, but it’s exciting to feel there’s this give-and-take, back-and-forth exchange based on all the public feedback that there was.”
Though the feedback allows for the project to grow, it also makes pinning down an exact design difficult. Widgery believes it is this aspect of collaboration that gives artists their work edge.
“When you first come to an idea, it still has the possibility of evolving into something better,” Widgery said.