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Collaborative art project at UW-Eau Claire celebrates native white pine trees

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Jacob Hallett (left) and Megan Miller, pictured in the Haas woodshop repurposing wood from a previous campus installation, worked on "Expressions of Nature" throughout the summer of 2022. (Submitted photo)

A new collaborative art installation created by students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire officially opens Wednesday, Oct. 12, in Haas Fine Arts Center, with a reception starting at 6:15 p.m. in the Haas lobby.

The piece, titled “Expressions of Nature,” was created during the summer of 2022 and was made possible by support from the Freshwater Collaborative Grant from the state of Wisconsin and project funding by the UW-Eau Claire Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.

The project combines the efforts in the departments of art & design and music and theatre arts and explores the idea of listening to the voices of nature in a new way — through sound impulses made by plants. The installation incorporates a range of plant species from different environments, with the native white pine tree as the featured element.

“White pines are a vital part of the history of Eau Claire,” says Megan Miller, one of the students on the design team. “This region was originally a dense forest of white pines, wiped out by the booming lumber industry which propelled the development of the city. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, white pines are finally making a comeback and should remain a major species in future forests.”

The listening device in the “Expressions of Nature” installation called PlantWave detects slight electrical variations in a plant via two electrodes placed on the branches of the white pine tree. These variations are graphed as a wave, which is translated into pitch messages. The result is a continuous stream of sound emitted by the tree. Patterns of these sounds are visible as the vibrations they create are transmitted through speaker cones filled with water.

Miller says that repurposed wood making up the base of the structure came from a sculpture by artist Peter Krsko that stood outside of Haas Fine Arts from 2020-22.

“Krsko is known for reusing materials and often transforms his old sculptures into something new,” she says. “We are happy to continue this practice and to have contributed to another transformation of his materials.”

The student team who worked on the interactive installation includes:

  • Jacob Hallett, a senior music composition major from Waukesha.
  • Megan Miller, a senior drawing and painting major from Bloomington, Minnesota.
  • Jenny Olson, senior illustration major from Luck.
  • Jack Orta, a junior photography major from Bloomington, Minnesota.

Faculty mentors were:

  • Dr. Gary Don, professor emeritus of music and theatre arts.
  • Mykola Haleta, assistant professor of art & design.
  • Jyl Kelley, professor of art & design.

“Our installation, 'Expressions of Nature,' includes music created by plants, visualizing sounds waves through the vibration of water, stones from the Chippewa River, and a water feature representative of the flowing water of the Chippewa and Eau Claire Rivers,” Miller says. “The installation calls for us to slow down and refocus on the beauty of the nature around us.” 

In addition to interacting with the installation, Miller suggests that anyone interested in learning more about the past, present and future of trees of Eau Claire read the Volume One article “The State of Trees,” by Eric Rasmussen.