Van Ryzin: How a piece of art was raised in Lady Bird Lake

It was a nail-biting hour for the small group gathered on the Pfluger pedestrian bridge one hot sunny afternoon last week as they anxiously watched as a 50,000-pound crane on a barge hoisted a 5,000-pound tree onto a steel pile planted in Lady Bird Lake.

On the bridge were artist Beili Liu and architect Norma Yancey, part of the creative team behind “Thirst,” the arresting civic art project that memorializes the more than 300 million trees lost in the Texas drought. The symbolic nexus of “Thirst” is a 35-foot cedar elm painted a ghostly white that seemingly hovers over the lake, its roots just out of reach of the water.

Also on the bridge were several of the project collaborators — structural engineer Jerry Garcia and geotechnical engineer Clayton Signor — and Chris Cowden, director of Women & Their Work, the nonprofit organization sponsoring and funding “Thirst.”

Fluttering overhead was a chain of white prayer flags, each bearing an image of the iconically shaped tree. The chain of flags continued along the bridge and radiated down the lake path on both shores.

On the barge below was another member of the creative team, architect Emily Little.

Little exhibited a cheerful calm as the tree lurched and turned as it was hoisted upward until it finally, slowly, stood upright on its steel pile.

The crowd on the bridge cheered and applauded.

“Something like this has never been done before in Austin, so we don’t always know exactly how things are going to happen,” Cowden said.

Supported entirely by private money and a year in the planning, “Thirst” is funded by a $50,000 grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the charitable legacy of the Port Arthur-born artist widely regarded as a major figure of post-war American art. In particular, the Rauschenberg Foundation extends its grants to art projects that highlight environmental and humanitarian issues.

It’s not at all unusual for artists of the past half-century to work on a large, conceptual level, creating artworks that occupy an arresting presence in the natural environment or the urban landscape.

Think of Christo wrapping Paris’ Pont Neuf bridge in yellow fabric or installing more than 7,500 saffron-colored fabric gates in New York’s Central Park.

Though nowhere near the physical or financial scale of a Christo project, “Thirst” — which will be inaugurated Sunday and be on view through Dec. 20 — is arguably Austin’s most ambitious civic art project to date.

Certainly, it has been one of the most logistically challenging.

Beyond the creative team — which also includes landscape architect Cassie Bergstrom — the effort involved to stake a 35-foot tree in Lady Bird Lake for three months has required a brigade of unlikely collaborators.

Among them are pile-driving professionals, engineers of several different specialties, arborists, truck drivers, professional painters and crane operators. (Many of the companies involved donated their services.)

The drought-ravaged “Thirst” tree comes from a private ranch just east of town, one of dozens of dying trees the property owners had planned to take down. The ranch owners opened their property to the artistic team for several weeks as the tree was carefully uprooted, painted white and its trunk bored with a steel support.

About a week ago, an 18-wheel truck transported the tree in the middle of the night to the shore of Lady Bird Lake. It was then hoisted by crane and placed on a barge so further detail work could be completed.

Security guards stood watch during the night as the tree lay on a barge, tucked away close to the shore. During the day, workers tweaked the barge, the artist team put finishing touches on the tree and the electricians installed lights among the branches. (It will be lit each night from dusk until 11 p.m.).

Meanwhile, volunteers helped install more than 14,000 prayer flags.

Of course, none of this happened without a hitch.

The tree had to be hustled off the ranch earlier than planned when recent rains threatened the trucking plans.

The barge used to transport the tree up the lake took on water and had to be repaired. Last-minute adjustments had to be made to the steel pile on which the tree rests.

And soon after the prayer flags had been hung, several were ripped off, stolen from the Pfluger pedestrian bridge. (During the course of “Thirst,” someone will walk the trail daily to check on the flags.)

But even before any work could happen — and despite the fact that no public money was used to fund the project — the artistic team nevertheless had to face a mountain of municipal bureaucracy that took months to climb.

Nearly 50 presentations and official meetings were held with about 14 different city departments — among them the Sustainability Department, Parks and Recreation, Austin Watershed Protection, the Urban Forestry Program, Austin Energy, Austin Police Department and the Cultural Arts Division.

Then there were meetings with myriad private stakeholders — the Austin Rowing Club, the Trail Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, the Downtown Austin Alliance and neighborhood associations.

Finally, because the city required that the project have a site permit, an address for the tree’s mid-lake position had to be determined in order for a permit to be issued.

The address for “Thirst”? It’s 1304 1/2 W. Riverside Dr., Austin, Texas, 78704.

Cowden says that as the project progressed, the unlikely constellation of collaborators as well as the arduous logistical and bureaucratic problem-solving emerged as a metaphor for what will need to happen on a much larger scale as water scarcity is addressed.

“It’s difficult, it’s inconvenient, it’s complicated, it makes everyone anxious, and unexpected issues come up that have to be addressed,” said Cowden. “But those are all things we’re going to encounter when we come together to try to solve our region’s water issues.”

Also to be encountered is a certain amount of public blow-back and criticism, plenty of which has already percolated.

As crews worked on the “Thirst” installation, they passed out informational cards that explained the most frequently asked questions from passers-by: “No City of Austin funding was used for this project.”

Last week, in the morning cool, Liu sat along the lake trail and strung together prayer flags as tree experts fluttered around her, installing the wire and supports on which the chain of flags would hang.

“This project is so much larger than any of us,” she said. “The issue is so much larger than us. What we really want to do is start a conversation about water and drought and what we need to do.”

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