William Dennisuk is still waiting for the state to sign off on a public art installation that could dot a stretch of the Huron River with large vase-like sculptures. As he waits, he spends most of his days in a studio, hoping to complete the project before he returns to Finland later this year.
The Chronicle first met Dennisuk – a visiting artist and lecturer at the University of Michigan School of Art & Design – when he came to the October 2009 meeting of the Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission. He described his project, called Vessels, as a way to bring together the city and campus communities, and to raise awareness about how we interact with the natural world.
When The Chronicle dropped by the art school’s studio recently to get an update on the project, Dennisuk said that working through the required approval process took longer than expected. Also taking longer than projected was working through his own learning curve for some new techniques he’s trying with these sculptures.
Although he had hoped to install his artwork in April, now it looks like late May will be a more realistic goal.
Who Decides? Navigating Red Tape
A native of the Detroit area who now lives and teaches in Finland, Dennisuk has been supported this academic year as a visiting artist by the UM School of Art & Design’s Witt Residency program. In materials submitted to the city’s park advisory commission last year, here’s how he describes his vision:
I would like to see artworks, projects, interventions and performances which illuminate hidden or neglected dimensions of nature, while perhaps also redefining our relationships toward it. While the immediate goal of this project would be to heighten visitors’ experience of the parks and pathways of Ann Arbor, what I am aiming for is a wide‐ranging examination of how our various disciplines can shed light on our relationship with the environment.
In this public art project I would like to see what Robert Irwin defines as a, ‘site‐determined’ approach to the public space. This approach stands in contrast to the sculpture‐park or gallery outof‐doors approach to the public space. In this respect the object or artwork should be considered as only one of the elements within a wider matrix of considerations. In this site‐determined approach each artwork, performance or intervention should evolve out of an intimate dialogue with a particular setting.
This approach to the public space calls for a hands‐on assessment of the various levels in which we move through and experience a particular site: all the tactile or haptic components, the particular historical context, personal memory and emotional layers, how people use the site, the overall social/political atmosphere, as well as the intangible dimensions each site engenders. It is my hope that if this detailed “reading” of the various sites along the Huron River can be conjoined with developments in our respective disciplines we could see the beginning of a new model for engaging the environment; one that arise out of an on‐going dialogue with the world around us.
Last fall, Dennisuk began exploring what kinds of permissions he’d need to install his artwork both on campus and along stretches of the Huron River that run through city parks. Conceived of as a temporary public art project, these large sculptures – standing six or seven feet tall – would appear to hover above the water, affixed to steel bases that would be weighted down in the riverbed with heavy stones. He’s hoping to place the artwork at a location in the river next to Riverside Park, Gallup Park and Nichols Arboretum, plus at two locations on UM’s north campus.
He discovered there’s no single place you can go to get information about doing a public art installation, especially one that crosses multiple jurisdictional boundaries. For the city, he talked with parks staff as well as the park advisory commission, attending PAC meetings in October and November 2009 to explain what he was hoping to do.
Dennisuk couldn’t attend PAC’s December 2009 meeting, but two UM staff members came to speak on his behalf: Chrisstina Hamilton, director of visitors programs at the UM School of Art & Design who also oversees the Witt Residency program; and Heather Blatnik, with the university’s environmental permitting program.
Blatnik told PAC that the project needed a permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality – because it involved placing artwork in the Huron River. As part of the application process, MDEQ required a signature from the city.
At that meeting, Hamilton and Blatnik also addressed some concerns expressed by PAC members – for example, they explained that UM’s insurance would cover liability. The commissioners unanimously approved a resolution endorsing the university’s application to the MDEQ for a permit for Dennisuk’s project.
Since then, the MDEQ has merged with the state’s Dept. of Natural Resources – it’s now the Dept. of Natural Resources and Environment. Reached by The Chronicle last week, DNRE spokesperson Linda Jones said that on Feb. 11, 2010, a public notice of the application was posted and sent to public officials in this area, including the Ann Arbor city clerk and the Washtenaw County health department, among others. That triggered a 20-day public comment period, she said, which is required by law for work that’s done in or over Michigan’s inland waters.
When that period passed, Jones said, the application and file were forwarded to the DNRE’s regional office in Jackson, which oversees an area that includes Washtenaw County. The Chronicle hasn’t yet received a response to calls placed to the staff member there who’s handling the permit.
The application cost $500 – Dennisuk said the state agreed to combine the three sites into one application, rather than charging for three separate applications.
Aside from the pieces near the parks, Dennisuk plans to place two similar sculptures on UM’s north campus: In the formal reflecting pool next to the Lurie Engineering Center, and in a pond next to the School of Music. (He hopes to install the reflecting pool sculpture on April 30 – in time for commencement ceremonies and President Obama’s visit to campus.)
For those two pieces, he’s had to navigate a different path to permission. He told The Chronicle that there seems to be several avenues for placing public art.
If the art goes into a building on campus, you need permission from the top administrator. For example, if you wanted to put your work in the Lurie Biomedical Engineering Building, you’d need permission from the dean of the College of Engineering. Plant maintenance supervisors would also have a say.
For artwork on campus grounds, there are several groups that might need to vet a project, including the Dept. of Public Safety (if security needs to be on site during installation), grounds maintenance, the campus External Elements Design Review Committee, and the UM president’s Advisory Committee on Public Art.
Dennisuk is sanguine about the process. The good news, he said, both with the city and the university, is that nobody he’s encountered has been antagonistic about the project. “That’s been encouraging,” he says.
Trying New Techniques: A Learning Curve
Seeking permits hasn’t been the only challenge. Dennisuk points to his own learning curve, as he tries new techniques and materials for these sculptures. For one, he’s been learning to use a new computer numerically controlled (CNC) system to design the artwork – the School of Art & Design has some sophisticated software and equipment, he says.
Materials have been a challenge, too. Rather than using iron, as he has in the past, Dennison is making the new pieces out of bronze rods, which he describes as a “very difficult material to work with.” If the metal overheats when it’s being welded, “it will bend in ways you don’t want it to,” he said.
Another complicating factor: Dennisuk’s designs for some of the sculptures in this project are more complex than his usual approach of welding horizontal and vertical bars. Some of the pieces require twisting the metal, a process that takes longer to execute, he said.
It also takes a delicate touch to weld two round rods together. Depending on what angle you’re using, the torch interacts with the metal differently, causing it to flatten or crimp.
That difficulty is in evidence on one of his nearly finished sculptures in a School of Art & Design fabrication studio, located in a building off of Fuller Road. The piece is checkered with small slips of green paper, which Dennisuk explains are used to mark some “lousy” welds. Someone at the school who’s more of an expert in working with bronze will be helping him fix those spots, he said.
Beyond strengthening the welds, Dennisuk plans to sandblast the piece, then apply a patina to give the bronze a slightly greenish cast. The idea is to help it better set into its environment, he says, so that it appears to be emerging more naturally from the river. Bronze would normally develop a patina on its own, but that process would take several years. At this point, the sculptures are planned as temporary installations, to be removed at the end of the summer.