Sculptor Tries to Weld City, University

Dennisuk navigates red tape for Huron River project
A William Dennisuk sculpture in progress

A student stands next to the sculpture-in-progress by William Dennisuk, in the studio of the University of Michigan School of Art & Design. When finished, the piece made of bronze rods will be flipped – its base is at the top of the photo. (Photos by the writer.)

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.

William Dennisuk

William Dennisuk, in a fabrication studio at the UM School of Art & Design.

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.)

The artist's rendering of his sculpture as it might appear in the Lurie Engineering Center's reflecting pool on UM's north 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.

Computer-generated images of sculpture designs

William Dennison holds copies of computer-generated images of his sculpture designs.

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.

William Dennisuk

William Dennisuk points to problematic welds on a sculpture he's making that he hopes to eventually place in the Huron River.

Closeup of a bronze sculpture

Green tags mark problematic welds on a bronze sculpture by William Dennisuk.

Bronze sculpture by William Dennisuk

A nearly finished bronze sculpture by William Dennisuk, suspended from a wooden frame in a studio at the UM School of Art & Design.

Rendering of a bronze sculpture in the Huron River

William Dennisuk's rendering of his bronze sculpture as it might appear when installed in the Huron River, next to Riverside Park.

Rendering of a bronze sculpture in Gallup Park

Another rendering by the artist of a bronze sculpture as envisioned in Gallup Park.


  1. By Nina
    April 5, 2010 at 10:38 am | permalink

    This is sick. The river is the most beautiful part of Ann Arbor. We do not own it. It is just passing through. If you really want to make the river more beautiful, then how about picking up some of the litter others have thrown in there instead of adding more of your own.

  2. By Steve Borgsdorf
    April 5, 2010 at 10:41 am | permalink

    Why don’t the artist’s renderings show the sculptures laden with algae, goose guano, leaves, debris, and loose pages from the A2 Journal?

  3. By Pinus Nigra
    April 5, 2010 at 11:43 am | permalink

    Really bad idea.

  4. By Dave
    April 5, 2010 at 12:32 pm | permalink

    Preposterous! The Huron River is beautiful. We don’t have to imagine what nature looks like in the middle of a ciy. Why on earth would anyone tamper with what little natural beauty we have left?

    Who is making these decisions? I’d bet the farm that if this was voted on (the sorta thing that happens in a democracy), this proposal would fall flat on its face! Horrible idea.

  5. By Eric
    April 5, 2010 at 1:03 pm | permalink

    I believe that art can help raise environmental awareness, but I’m not sure this is the best way.

  6. By Barbara Levin Bergman
    April 5, 2010 at 1:13 pm | permalink

    I find idea of installing any piece of art in any river appalling. It is astonishing that one’s affiliation with the university would entitle anyone to even think that their ideas give entitlement to alter the natural environment permanently, especially especially a public environment.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I have often registered my anger that someone was able to deface the surface of the Arboretum with lines of daffodils. This project is entitled “imagine Align.” I do not need sermon when I walk in in this public space. If I want art, I will pay admission to a museum. If I want a lecture, I will by a ticket for same.

    Art in public spaces in a good idea and one that our family has supported with the installation of a piece in memory of my late husband, Reuben Bergman. However this installation was made in a way that did not disrupt anyone’s right to walk in the beauty of nature. I also support sculpture parks; they are created for the purpose of displaying these works. I also support thoughtful play equipment , park benches and picnic tables because these are an integral part of the purposes of public parks.

    But the river is mine and the river is yours. And it is a river. Not an art gallery. I want to continue to enjoy my river as a river.

    Barbara Levin Bergman, Washtenaw County Commissioner, Dist.8

  7. By Mary Morgan
    April 5, 2010 at 1:27 pm | permalink

    Just to clarify the permanency of the installation. From the article:

    “At this point, the sculptures are planned as temporary installations, to be removed at the end of the summer.”

  8. By Susan Steiner
    April 5, 2010 at 2:23 pm | permalink

    Sculpture is a beautiful art form and can enhance a natural setting by drawing the eye to and around the sculpture and providing a focal point. I like the way sun and water look on metal sculptures and admire the creativity that goes into the design. If you like large sculpture peices take a trip to Grand Rapids to the Frederick Meijer Sculpture Park: [link]

    I hope Ann Arbor gets more large sculpture pieces!

  9. By Barbara Levin Bergman
    April 5, 2010 at 3:47 pm | permalink

    Thanks, Mary. While I still object to the installation, I am gad they are not permanent. I stand corrected.

    Barbara Levin Bergman, Washtenaw County Commissioner, Dist 8

  10. By Rod Johnson
    April 5, 2010 at 7:43 pm | permalink

    I love these pieces.

  11. By Tom
    April 5, 2010 at 9:41 pm | permalink

    This poem by Wallace Stevens provides a perspective I’ve always liked. It is entitled “Anecdote of the Jar”

    I placed a jar in Tennessee,
    And round it was, upon a hill.
    It made the slovenly wilderness
    Surround that hill.

    The wilderness rose up to it,
    And sprawled around, no longer wild.
    The jar was round upon the ground
    And tall and of a port in air.

    It took dominion every where.
    The jar was gray and bare.
    It did not give of bird or bush,
    Like nothing else in Tennessee.

  12. By LauraM
    April 6, 2010 at 12:11 am | permalink

    I like the one shown in Riverside Park.
    As someone mentioned, things such as papers and plastic bags would probably end up blowing into and clinging to something like this.

  13. By yellow
    April 6, 2010 at 2:34 am | permalink

    I too thought of that horrid yellow line in the Arb – what an arrogant installation piece. I don’t mind the metal sculptures as much, especially if they are not permanent. The yellow daffodils however are such a harsh and permanent reminder of some very bad decisions on what had otherwise been one of the loveliest places in Ann Arbor to visit this time of year.

  14. By zollar
    April 7, 2010 at 6:03 pm | permalink

    I agree that a river installation is a bad idea. Perhaps locating it in the youth fishing pond in Gallup park is a better location.

  15. By Pete Richards
    April 7, 2010 at 10:22 pm | permalink

    Tragically and obscenely the Gulf of Mexico for at least as far as the 150 miles from Galveston to Corpus Christi is littered with hundreds of operating and abandoned, yes ABANDONED, oil rigs. No offense to the sculptor but this is on my mind as I imagine canoeing the beautiful Huron.

  16. By Andrew
    April 8, 2010 at 2:09 pm | permalink

    When this comes to fruition, I will personally thank the artist for making the Huron River look like a disc-golf course.

  17. By Tricia
    April 8, 2010 at 9:54 pm | permalink

    Wow, what a bunch of negative nellies! I guess I’m the only person willing to admit that I like the daffodil line (after all, many of the trees in the Arb were planted there intentionally, weren’t they? It’s certainly not old growth native trees). I don’t quite get the symbolism behind the Vessels, but I think these sculptures will be intriguing.

  18. By Rod Johnson
    April 9, 2010 at 4:01 pm | permalink

    I like them too, Tricia.

  19. By blackcanoe
    April 10, 2010 at 7:55 pm | permalink

    There was plenty of opportunity to comment before this point. The above comments are rude actually.

    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.

  20. By Matt Hampel
    April 10, 2010 at 9:48 pm | permalink

    I like the daffodils, and I like the sculpture concept, too. The material and placement remind me of Edward Tufte‘s sculpture.

  21. By Matt Hampel
    April 10, 2010 at 9:51 pm | permalink

    I also think we ought to invite Andy Goldsworthy to Ann Arbor.

  22. By Brad
    May 4, 2010 at 3:21 pm | permalink

    The MDNRE permit has been issued for 3 sculptures, valid from 5/4/10 until 10/31/10.