Art invades

Temporary sculptures pay tribute to environmental artist and raise awareness of non-native plants in Bidwell Park

Erin Wade works on attaching a temporary skirt of Himalayan blackberry branches to one of Bidwell Park’s giant oaks.

Erin Wade works on attaching a temporary skirt of Himalayan blackberry branches to one of Bidwell Park’s giant oaks.

photos by jason cassidy

Park art:
A reception for Invasive Nature(s) will take place Friday, July 26, from 6 to 8 p.m., on the north side of Sycamore Field in Lower Bidwell Park. The installation will be on display through Aug. 4. Visit for more info.

When Chico artist Erin Wade first made her pitch for one of the city of Chico’s public-art mini-grants, she simply wanted to pay tribute to British environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy by creating sculptures in Bidwell Park inspired by his work.

Goldsworthy is famous for his unique, meticulous and often temporary sculptures using natural materials. In Rivers and Tides, the acclaimed documentary film on his work, he balances rocks in seemingly impossible configurations; reshapes icicles (biting off pieces as he goes) into curved shapes that light up in the sun; and creates intricate, creekside arrangements of sticks into geometric shapes that float away with the current. He talks about tapping the flow that runs through nature (and through him). Being open to each site’s flow is at the center of his unplanned approach: “I take the opportunity each day offers.”

Wade was awarded the $2,000 grant for what would become her Invasive Nature(s) site-specific installation—which will be on display along the walkway at the north end of the Sycamore playing fields in Lower Park through Aug. 4—but she said her pitch had to be much more specific than Goldsworthy’s flowing approach.

The members of the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission understandably wanted to talk specifics when it came to using the park’s natural resources for an art project, so Wade narrowed her focus to repurposing the park’s invasive plants into pieces of art that would also act as tools for raising awareness of the problems caused by non-native plants.

There are hundreds of non-native plants in Bidwell Park, and if Goldsworthy himself were to set foot almost anywhere in the park, it’s almost certain that invasive plants would naturally flow his way.

Wade’s ball of ivy begins to take shape.

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“They’re just kind of another little sign of our human impact on the world,” Wade said of Bidwell Park’s “introduced” plants. In 2008, working on a similar theme of humans’ impact on the park, Wade created a site-specific installation—Fruits of Refuse—shaping 50-or-so pounds of garbage into mushrooms and other sculptures.

“As an artist, limitations are good,” Wade said, talking about her plans during a walk-though of the current project’s site—along the path running from the Sycamore Pool to the Caper Acres playground on the north side of the Sycamore playing fields. On the eve of embarking on the week-long creation of her pieces, Wade said that, while she was looking forward to creating spontaneous pieces based on what the site offered during the week, she did have a couple of initial ideas to get started: She planned to repurpose the thorny branches from Himalayan blackberry plants into a skirt around the trunk of a giant oak tree, as well as create a giant, tangled ball from some of the English and Algerian ivy overrunning much of Lower Park.

“I’m not using any hardware—it’s entirely the natural materials,” she explained.

Wade and her crew of local-artist helpers concentrated primarily on pulling those natural materials from the current Sycamore Restoration Area just north of Caper Acres. In preparation for the project, Wade spent time on a volunteer work session with Friends of Bidwell Park’s invasive expert, Susan Mason, learning which invasive plants she should use and which she should avoid. “I’m not working with things that have millions of tiny seeds that will blow all over,” Wade said.

As she progressed through the sweltering heat of the summer (she actually had to take one day off due to heat exhaustion), and with the blackberry-branch skirt and ivy ball mostly complete, Wade had wanted to make something out of the berries of the American pokeweed, but found that Mason and her fellow volunteers had done such a good job attacking the invasive plant that she couldn’t find any at the site. After a wild-goose chase around the park in search of pokeweed, Wade decided she was getting off track as far as how Goldsworthy would approach things.

“I’m just going to have to go to the place that I’m working and see what’s there,” she decided. “[It] was a reminder to get back in the flow of the place, [use] what was actually there.”

What she found there were long catalpa-bean pods.

“I picked a bunch of those yesterday, and today they’re quite brown,” she said of the new material that she was getting the feel of, and that likely would continue to change all the way up to the official unveiling on Friday (July 26). As Goldsworthy says in the opening of Rivers and Tides: “There’s an intangible thing that is here and then gone.”