A tree will rise soon out of Lady Bird Lake, right between Lamar Boulevard Bridge and the Pfluger pedestrian bridge.
“Thirst,” a striking, temporary art project intended to memorialize the loss of more than 300 million trees in the recent Texas drought, was approved by the Austin City Council on Thursday.
No city money will be used to fund the highly visible project, which is scheduled to be up for three months beginning in late September.
“Thirst” is an initiative of longtime Austin arts organization Women and Their Work, which received a $50,000 grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation to fund the project.
The central element of “Thirst” is an iconically shaped, leafless, 35-foot-tall cedar elm tree painted a ghostly white. With no small amount of engineering and artistic sleight-of-hand, the tree will appear to hover over the surface of the water, its roots just unable to touch the lake.
Along the lakeside trails from the Lamar Boulevard bridge to the South First Street bridge, a 2.5-mile chain of 14,000 white Tibetan-style prayer flags will loop through trees. Each white flag will be silk-screened with an image of the tree.
Women and Their Work commissioned artist Beili Liu, architects Emily Little and Norma Yancey and landscape architect Cassie Bergstrom to collaborate on the creation of “Thirst,” which will be celebrated with official opening events Sept. 28-29.
“Thirst” will remain installed through Dec. 20.
“This piece will call attention to water and its scarcity in our area,” said Women and Their Work executive director Chris Cowden. “The importance of water has become more than symbolic with the recent extreme drought, and this is a way to artistically bring awareness to that issue.”
Little said that, from the beginning of the artistic process, the team wanted to find a way to creatively call attention to the drought and to the urgency surrounding issues of water conservation.
“Lady Bird Lake is really the heart of Austin,” Little said. “It’s the symbolic core of Austin.”
The tree used for “Thirst” comes from private property just east of Austin. Dying from the drought, the tree was slated for removal before being selected.
The logistically complex process of installing a tree in the middle of the Lady Bird will begin about a week before the project’s official opening.
Trucked into town on a flatbed trailer, the tree will be placed on a barge at a boat ramp near the Interstate 35 bridge, then brought up the lake to the project site.
Little said that, beyond its symbolic importance, the site of the installation was also chosen because it does not interfere with established rowing lanes. Likewise, its closeness to the pedestrian bridges will offer people a traffic-free, up-close viewing place, she said.
With a canopy span of about 35 feet, the tree will be bored up its center and staked on steel pile, which in turn will be driven into the lake bed. Under the water, cables will be attached to additional piles to stabilize the leader pile.
Buoys and swimming lane markers — illuminated at night by solar-powered safety lights — will create a 60-foot-wide safety zone around the tree. Additional lighting fixtures will also be used around the tree at night. Project staff will canoe out to the tree regularly to monitor its condition.
Thursday’s council approval caps more a than year-long planning process, a bureaucratic work of art in itself that has included involvement from more than a dozen city departments as well as community stakeholders such as the Austin Rowing Club, the Trail Foundation, Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Austin Parks Foundation and several neighborhood associations.
In fact, though “Thirst” is a temporary project and privately funded, its placement on city-governed property nevertheless meant that municipal officials required of it one essential bureaucratic detail. The city gave the project an official street address: 1304 1/2 W. Riverside Dr., Austin, Texas, 78704.
“Thirst” project website: www.thirstart.org