14 September, 2006

Arboreal Sentinels

The trees in Birds Hill Provincial Park have stood as silent witnesses to The Winnipeg Folk Festival for over thirty years. Thousands of performers and hundreds of thousands of festival goers have passed among them for one weekend each July. This year several of the trees seemed be paying closer attention to the festivities. Several of the trees were looking around.

The Spruce by the entrance path
Arboreal Sentinels are a series of four sculptures that my friend, Curtis Wiebe, and I created for the Winnipeg Folk Festival's 2006 Prairie Outdoor Exhibition. Curt had the excellent idea to put moving eyes on trees around the Folk Fest site. Since he & I have collaborated on art projects before (that's besides playing together in The WhizBang Shufflers), he asked me to come on board to help with the technical end of things.

The Oak by the medical tent

The Poplar by Green Ash StageAs you can see from these photos, we came up with prosthetic appliances for the trees which contain a pair of eyes. Each eye is made from half of a Ping-Pong ball, with an iris & pupil painted slightly off center. This is then mounted on the second hand shaft of a small (& cheap) clock. A white LED light fitted behind the eye ball illuminates it at night.

The Poplar by Main StageThe body of each sculpture was made from spraying expanding polyurethane foam around a chicken wire form. The cured foam was then carved down to the desired shape. The Spruce & The Oak were covered with bark collected from the Festival site, and the two Poplars were covered with varnish soaked papier-mache and painted - on-site - to match their specific trees.

The eyes at nightAt night, the LEDs behind the eyes made them eerily noticeable. Unfortunately we had a short in the wiring of The Spruce sculpture which caused the 2 AA batteries to overheat, so we had to pull them out them leaving that one in the dark. It's a real shame that we had this problem on that particular tree since everyone passed it on their way out at night. If it had been illuminated as planned, so many more people would have spotted it.

Curt installing The Spruce These sculptures were pretty subtle, and I'm sure most people missed them all together. However, the people who did notice them had some wonderful reactions. Little kids dreamed up names for the trees, as well as elaborate back-stories to explain the various expressions on each one. When showing the sculptures to my friends, people sitting nearby - often right underneath - would look puzzled and ask what we were looking at. At first, when they finally noticed the sculptures, they would look a bit startled, but then they quickly became quite intrigued. My favourite quote about the Arboreal Sentinels was from a woman who asked, "Do I have heat stroke, or are those eyes moving?"

Teyana standing on my shoulders & synchronizing the eyes on The OakSince each eye was attached to its own clock mechanism, and we had gutted the clock mechanisms from really cheap clocks, the eyes tended to get out of synch. The Oak was the worst for this. This meant that twice a day we need to correct them, so I enlisted the help of my friend, Teyana. I suggested that she just fly up to the sculptures with her faerie wings, but she opted to stand on my shoulders instead.

On the positive side, having to make the rounds to inspect these sculptures first thing every morning, meant that Teyana & I could get on site before the main gates opened. Once we had checked everything out, and made the necessary adjustments, we were free to head back stage to get some breakfast while there was still breakfast to be had!


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