Living Sculpture Takes Root On UF Campus


Steven Siegel and Heather Barr, 352-392-0201, ext. 228
Wayne Smith, 352-846-0868

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. –- It looks like something that’s been here for a million years, like a multi-ton rock that has been worn smooth by the forces of time.

But that moss-covered “boulder” on display at the University of Florida isn’t really a boulder at all. It’s a living sculpture, a jumble of decaying vegetation and still-thriving plants. And with luck, it will literally take root on the UF campus.

“I do my most experimental work on university campuses,” says New-York-based sculptor Steven Siegel, creator of “Pod,” an 18-foot-long, eggplant-shaped construction taking shape in the courtyard of the Fine Arts Complex.

With the help of several student volunteers – and advice from a researcher at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences – Siegel is building a sculpture out of palm fronds, sphagnum moss, and other landscaping waste once destined for the university’s compost heap. The sculpture has been under construction since early November, and is scheduled to be “completed” Nov. 14.

Though it’s sometimes hard to tell when Siegel’s works – many of them built to rot while on display – are really finished.

Since the early 1990’s Siegel has traveled to public sites around the United States and abroad, building massive sculptures out of “found objects” – the post-consumer castoffs that usually wind up in a landfill.

He placed a 10-foot-tall bale of crushed plastic bottles in a courtyard at the University of Virginia and built a 12-foot-high ball of aluminum cans on the campus of Western Carolina University. But he’s best known for constructing massive mounds of newspaper – sculptures that, when complete, look like natural rock formations or gargantuan beehives. The decay that naturally occurs to these pieces, many of which have been displayed outdoors for years, is one of the themes in Siegel’s work.

That’s what the critics have said, at any rate. Others have pointed to Siegel’s work as a commentary on the volume of garbage produced by a consumer-oriented society. Siegel prefers not to talk about the “meaning” of his work.

“I don’t do messages,” he said. “What you see is what you get. But because I work with a lot of post-consumer material, people do pick up on the fact that we’re throwing a lot of things away. With the paper pieces, people are shocked to see that they last as long as they do.”

Siegel was invited to the UF campus by Amy Dickerson, director of University Galleries, and Heather Barrett, a graduate student in museum arts at UF.

Barrett says she wanted to find a project that would involve UF experts in disciplines not usually associated with art. She also wanted to give Siegel a chance to create a piece using cast-off objects unique to Florida. So she approached Wayne Smith, then director of UF’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation – and former head of the solid waste program for UF’s statewide extension service.

“One of the first things that came to my mind was oyster shells,”said Smith, now a professor emeritus. “Florida is a coastal state with a major seafood industry, so oyster, scallop or clam shells seemed like an obvious choice.”

Oyster shells turned out to be impractical. Siegel typically builds his sculptures around wooden frameworks similar to the frameworks used in parade floats – and putting too much weight on such a framework could cause it to collapse

“The shells just turned out to be too heavy,” Barrett said.

So Smith suggested another all-natural medium: landscaping waste.

“Because of the favorable weather here, we produce a much larger volume of landscaping debris – what some call ‘yard waste’ – than most other states,” he said

The result is a bit of a departure for Siegel. While many of his works are built to decay, Siegel says there’s a good chance that many of the plants in “Pod” will grow in coming weeks.

That’s because, among the palm fronds and other landscaping cuttings, the sculpture contains several kinds of bromeliads, or “air plants” – plants that are usually found growing on other plants, and are capable of drawing moisture and nutrition from the air.

As many of the plant clippings in the sculpture rot, Siegel said, the bromeliads should grow, changing the appearance of the installation in unforeseeable ways.

“I honestly don’t know what the piece is going to look like a few months from now, but it should be fascinating to watch,” he said.

An exhibition of Siegel’s work, titled “Secondary Functions,” will be at UF’s Focus Gallery until Nov. 19. A reception in honor of that exhibition and “Pod” will be held in the Fine Arts Complex courtyard at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 14.



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Posted: November 13, 2003

Category: UF/IFAS

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