Spruce, balsam, noble fir, white pine.
Once Christmas trees just a month ago, hundreds of donated evergreens lie in organized piles at Olbrich Park, smelling as fragrant as a lush pine forest and waiting to become art.
The trees are intended to be part of “How Lovely Are Thy Branches,” an ongoing public art installation in the 90-acre city park at 3527 Atwood Ave. Carefully assessed by a team of volunteers for their freshness and aesthetics, most of the trees here will soon be ‘unbranched’ and their branches intertwined with others as part of a large spiral-shaped maze taking shape on January snow.
A row of flags suspended between birch trees at the entrance to the site flutters in the wind. Trunks of old Christmas trees lie in neat piles, ready to play their part in the exhibition.
“There’s a lot of magic here and a lot of positive vibes,” said artist Lillian Sizemore, snow crunching under her boots as she navigated the construction site under crystal blue skies.
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“At this point, I’m working my way through the project. At some point, the trees tell me what to do.
Against the wintry whiteness of Lake Monona, “How Lovely Are Thy Branches” will open with a ceremony from 3-5:30 p.m. on January 30. The event will include a food truck, remarks from Sizemore and a Glowing Hoop procession through the maze at around 4:30 p.m., half an hour before sunset. The installation will remain in place until February.
Sizemore, a mosaic artist and master gardener, conceived the idea for a temporary outdoor maze and has been overseeing its design and construction — with the help of outsourced trees and volunteers — since mid-January. The project was commissioned by the Madison Arts Commission’s BLINK program, which distributes about $10,000 a year in grants for temporary public art installations, said City of Madison arts program administrator Karin Wolf. Sizemore’s project also received a matching grant through the Madison Community Foundation.
A maze is not a maze but rather a single path that winds around itself, calming the mind in the process. In her BLINK grant application, Sizemore explained that she wanted to build a temporary maze in a park in Madison because of her powerful story.
“Cretan-style labyrinths are among the oldest forms of land-art,” she writes. “This … design consists of a single lane that goes back and forth to form seven circuits, bounded by eight walls, surrounding the central objective.”
“The mazes draw us to the center with balance and harmony,” Sizemore explained. “Walking the meandering back-and-forth circuits has been scientifically proven to gently shift our neurological connections into a state of deep flow. In a maze, there is no wrong way.
The feelings of winter
The project will also include a social space – or outdoor “lounge”, as Sizemore puts it – with hay bale seating against a line of trees that create a windbreak; a “tree museum” presenting different varieties of conifers; and, in the center of the maze, a ‘mound of moss’, where visitors can leave a small offering such as a rock, a twig, their ‘hopes and ideas for global cooling’ or any other memento.
The goal is to “extend and enrich the thrill of winter” while providing a place to stroll, reflect and refocus, Sizemore said.
“It’s a way to get out, to be safe, to do something fun — and to meet your friends, or to do it alone. There have been a lot of families here, which makes me very happy,” she said.
And with Valentine’s Day approaching, “there may be lovers coming out” to walk the path. “That would be very nice,” she said.
The artist applied for a $1,500 BLINK grant to cover expenses for her project more than a year and a half ago, and it took that long to figure out the logistics, she said. Working in an urban park on such a large scale installation meant “lots and lots of permits and permissions to navigate”.
To Sizemore’s surprise, when town crews pick up discarded Christmas trees on the sidewalk, the trees are immediately chipped and would not be useful for his project. So, from New Years, Sizemore asked residents to deliver their own used Christmas trees – in one piece, but without decorations – to the site in person.
People showed up with trees on sleds, in wagons and in car trunks. Some arrived in vans with 10 or 12 trees that drivers had saved from the sidewalk in their neighborhood, she said.
Donations soon exceeded the 250 trees the artist was seeking, so Sizemore stopped accepting trees two weeks earlier.
My tree, your tree
Nearly 90 feet in diameter, the maze is constructed with intertwining branches, a symbolic image for our times, said Jennifer Bastian, founder and director of Madison Communication, which served as the project’s fiscal sponsor.
It will “combine the branches of my tree with the tree of someone who lives on the other side of town, and allow us to see something more whole than a tree by the side of the road after Christmas, in waiting for garbage pickup,” Bastian said in a statement. “We need every opportunity possible right now to imagine how to be together, and this gives us one grounded in community and environmental awareness.”
As she helped sort and ‘unplug’ Christmas trees, Marti McLove, a volunteer who spent several winter afternoons with the Sizemore team, said she answered questions from many curious .
“What I really love is all the people it attracts and explaining what the project is all about,” McLove said. “This is the kind of conversation that public art inspires.”
Known professionally as the “mosaic detective” for her investigative work as a mosaic historian, Sizemore herself typically works in mosaic, collage, watercolor and sculpture. The Indiana native also has experience as a florist, herbalist and garden designer, and earned her Wisconsin Master Gardener certification while living in Madison in the early 1990s.
After a long stay in San Francisco and London, where she did postgraduate research focused on the geometry of mosaics at the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts, Sizemore returned to Madison in 2017.
His project at Olbrich Park is very much like a mosaic, Sizemore said, with “all the many pieces that had to come together to make this work a reality.”
“From the trees themselves, to the growers, to the families who chose them, enjoyed them and brought them to the site, and all the volunteers who help process the tree branches, build the facility, the many city employees and other artists that I coordinated with,” she said, “it has truly been an epic journey of community.
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