The Chippewa River creates a scenic picture as it winds through the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus. For Cat Mailloux and Megan Byron, the banks of the Chippewa will soon be used as an artistic canvas of a different kind.
Both Mailloux, a senior from St. Cloud, Minn., and Byron, a senior from Blaine, Minn., are double majoring in art education and sculpture. They spent the summer reaching out to school-age children in the Chippewa Valley with the help of a summer research grant administered by the UW-Eau Claire Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and funded through the Blugold Commitment.
The River Bend Art Project is an artistic collaboration designed to create a sculptural installation along the Chippewa River which reflects on loss and rebirth in flood zones. The idea stemmed from a project Byron did for a sculpture class.
"I was assigned to do 26 sculptures in 26 days," Byron said. "One of my pieces responded specifically to the debris along the water's edge left from the flooding in Eau Claire in the fall of 2010."
The sculpture gave Byron and Mailloux the idea to apply for a summer research grant.
"The opportunity interested us because we hadn't thought about how research could apply to our discipline of art," Mailloux said. "We submitted our proposal and waited for six weeks to hear a reply. At the end of March we heard that we had received the grant. We were excited and honored to receive the award."
The project, which focuses on creating "flood catcher" sculptures made from sticks and white paper, is meant to be more than an art display. During the summer, local school-age children created the small sculptures that record their responses to flooding, answering the question "If your house were flooding, what would you want to save?"
"We want to give a picture of flooding on a local, national and global level," Byron said. "Our project explores on a human level the spectrum of responses to disaster. We want viewers to think about those ideas and process on a personal level how they would respond to that type of loss."
Both Mailloux and Byron said they wanted to experiment with how they could explore environmental response through an artistic lens rather than a scientific one, and that young minds provided a fresh perspective.
"We were drawn to the idea of loss and rebirth, a cycle that often occurs in natural disasters, specifically in flooding," Mailloux said. "We value the directness of kids' responses. Their honesty reveals a lot about human tendencies that adults are less willing to admit."
The display of the flood catchers will be housed on the banks of the Chippewa River as it winds through campus. Mailloux and Byron will install the sculptures Sept. 8. They are inviting families and students from around the Chippewa Valley to help install the sculptures and walk the river bend of the Chippewa River State Trail bordering the UW-Eau Claire campus to experience the work. The display, which will include Plexiglas drawings that explore flooding around the world, will run through Sept. 30.
Through their summer work both Mailloux and Byron say they learned much more than just sculpture. The project has helped sculpt their views of the community.
"It was wonderful to get connected with individuals in Eau Claire, from art teachers to parents to city officials, who are supportive of our project," Mailloux said. "It has been encouraging to receive their support and see the arts valued and promoted in the community."