EAU CLAIRE — Caleb Carr crouches down to brush sand off a smooth circle of wood much like someone clearing dirt or leaves from a family member’s gravestone.
The wooden slab, actually the top of two-foot-long log buried along the bank of the Chippewa River, is a project the UW-Eau Claire senior majoring in illustration made for a class on site-specific art.
He and his three fellow students in the spring semester course taught by Cedar Marie, assistant professor of art and design, were challenged to create artwork along the riverbank behind the university’s Haas Center using materials found in nature.
The students used rocks, dead wood, plants and even litter to construct their artwork just off a well-used section of the Chippewa River Trail.
When searching the riverbank for inspiration, Carr found the remains of a tree that had been cut down and chopped into pieces and piled up.
“I was really struck by that,” he said, attributing his veneration of nature to his upbringing on a farm near Mineral Point.
Viewing the logs and brush as remains of a living being, Carr thought of a way to memorialize it.
He sanded off one end that had been scarred by a chain saw, replacing the rough surface with a smooth one that better showed the tree’s rings.
Digging a two-foot-deep hole in the soft sand of the riverbank, Carr laid the log inside with just the sanded end showing and flush with the surface.
Like names, dates and messages inscribed in tombstones, Carr felt that seeing the rings showing the tree’s age and documenting good and bad years for its growth tells a story too.
Following the completion of the art projects, the university sent out a news release on Monday to invite the public to seek out the artwork that has become part of the landscape.
“There isn’t any signage, so people have to look for them,” Marie said in the news release. “All works will naturally become part of the site they originated from in their new forms.”
One of the pieces is an artistic arrangement of dark rocks on the sandy beach, which is best viewed from above on the north sidewalk of the Water Street bridge. Made by senior art photography major Taylor Wilkinson of Lakewood, Ill., the piece entitled “Ephemeral” is made in the image of a spinulose wood fern — a plant species classified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as needing “special concern.”
Elsewhere along the trail, a collection of rocks, twigs, shell fragments and flowers dangling from strings tied to a horizontal branch make up “Nature’s Clothesline” — a sculpture created by Sarah Stresnak, a senior art illustration major from New Prague, Minn.
The natural setting of along with the flora and fauna there played a part in the artistic works created by the students.
“The river influenced everybody to some extent,” Carr said.
Using branches, twigs and leaves found along the riverbank, senior studio art student Carolyn Ede of Mondovi built a nest that’s about five feet in diameter and three feet tall. The oversized nest is easy to spot nestled among trees next to the paved trail.
Ede chose a nest partially as a celebration of Eau Claire’s status as a Bird City — a designation awarded to Wisconsin cities that make efforts to preserve bird habitats.
“I wanted to celebrate that, but then also talk about the repercussions of our littering along the Chippewa River and what that does to the birds,” she said.
To get that environmental message across, Ede used litter from the riverfront and some collected by her children’s Girl Scout troop to create a four-foot-tall egg made of garbage.
She wrapped the trash egg in chicken wire and cellophane to contain it, but still chose to remove it after her project was finished.
“I didn’t want the trash to get loose and relitter the area,” she said.
Creating the piece took about 10 hours, Ede estimates, during which she got some second-takes from passersby watching her gather branches and weave them into a circle.
“At first people were giving me weird looks,” Ede said.
But as the nest took shape, she said she got good feedback from people walking by.
Carr recalls some critics while his class worked, too, as one man had said “this is not art,” as he walked by their projects in progress.
Eliciting any response from an audience — even those who dispute the merits of the installation — is still seen as meeting artists’ goal of giving people an experience.
“I consider that a success,” Carr said.