Monday, June 17, 2013

Art that Moves: Tree of Life Interactive Sculpture Takes Shape at Maplewood Mall

by Sage Passi

Cecilia working on her automata "Birdhouse."
Photo courtesy of TPT' sM N Original series: mnoriginal

I met Cecilia Schiller, a wood sculptor, at a garden party in the fall of 2011. We were both there to celebrate a water-friendly landscaping project that we were involved with at Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis. Her “warm” and inviting wood carved sign that borders the entryway at one of three rain gardens had recently been installed at the center. Seeing her work sparked a vibrant conversation about her growing interest in public art which led us to further discussions. Within several months Cecilia applied for and was awarded a $2000 Jerome Foundation planning grant to collaborate with the Watershed District to research and develop a design for an art project to enhance and raise public awareness about watershed stewardship.

Cecilia's sculpture, "Birdhouse," on exhibit at the
Landmark Center last year.
Cecilia has a fascination with “automata” - interactive mechanical sculptures. Her detailed whimsical pieces have wooden gears and hand carved figures brought to life by the turn of a crank. Her art work has evolved from many years of working behind the scenes in theater to create puppets, masks, costumes and props.

“My automata are small theatrical events without actors,” says Cecilia. “An audience of one is all that’s necessary. I’ve seen how these pieces have an uncanny ability to draw people in and inspire strangers to share in the experience. This led me to search for ways to make them more accessible to everyday people and to look for more public venues.” Cecilia was featured this winter on TPT's program MN Original, a show that showcases Minnesota artists and their work. Link here to the segment.

Throughout 2012 Cecilia interviewed Watershed staff and brainstormed with them about themes and messages to incorporate in her installation. She visited potential locations for her project and participated in a variety of events and meetings to familiarize herself with the Watershed community’s activities and missions. Her research and creative process led her to develop a design for a sculpture to be placed at the canopy drain spout at the northwest entrance at Maplewood Mall. The District was looking for a better conveyance system to transport water safely to the ground and wanted a design that would add visual excitement to the entrance and promote water stewardship in a fun and engaging, interactive way.

Carved wooden gears make Cecilia's sculptures move.
Photo courtesy of TPT' s MN Original series: mnoriginal

“I think there is a synchronicity in our partnership,” comments Cecilia. “The Watershed District is looking for ways to inspire people and challenge them to think about the ways they interact with land and water and consider how their actions impact the environment. My art is symbolic and is reminiscent of what happens in real life. The simple action of turning a crank brings about unforeseen events.”

Scanning the broad range of projects she has worked on, it’s clear that Schiller has a deep commitment to art as an interactive experience. Her many collaborations include projects with the Guthrie, the Children’s Theater, In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the Minnesota Opera, Minnesota Dance Theater and Children’s Abbot Northwestern Hospital to list a few.
She will be partnering with Willis Bowman, an artist and mechanical engineer whose recent projects include outdoor public art installations at the Minnesota Arboretum and the Bakken Museum. The two make a dynamic duo whose art promises to intrigue and stimulate audiences who encounter their interactive sculptural art installation at the Mall.
Cecilia in her studio.
Photo courtesy of TPT' s MN Original series: mnoriginal

In the late fall of 2012 Cecilia applied for a $7000 grant from Forecast Public Art/Jerome Foundation for emerging artists to complete her project and secured the promise of a $7500 match from the Watershed District for her sculptural installation. In late March she was awarded the grant. Since then she has been involved in finalizing details for the design and securing the final approval from the Maplewood Mall’s management.

Cecilia's preliminary prototype design at Maplewood Mall
North East entrance downspout location.
Cecilia’s design at Maplewood Mall incorporates a water-driven kinetic sculpture with interactive features. The sculpture will be powered by water from the roof that comes through the downspout into a turbine and moves the upper branches of a wooden “tree” in a circular motion. Sculpted Douglas fir wood slats provide the appearance of a tree trunk and will be cut in a wave pattern to represent water. Wind will also push the branches into a gentle motion or viewers can power the sculpture with a crank from the sidewalk when there is no rain. Levers that are triggered by the passing branches will ring bells as the sculpture turns in a composed rhythm that is reminiscent of water sounds. This rhythm will have the potential to be changed as desired.

Final design prototype of Tree of Life interactive sculpture to be installed at
Maplewood Mall North East entrance.

Cecilia characterized her design by saying, “The Tree of Life used in my design is an image that appears in many cultures around the world and is a symbol of our connectedness to each other and the planet. The Water Tree of Life reminds us of our fundamental dependence on water for survival and the well-being of our environment. By using the Tree of Life symbolism we want to draw awareness to the circular nature of responsible water stewardship.”

Installation will begin this summer and should be completed by late summer/early fall. Watch for announcements for a fall celebration marking the completion of this project.

Congratulations, Cecilia!!! We look forward to seeing your art emerge and sharing it with the public.

Photo courtesy of TPT' s MN Original series: mnoriginal

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