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More public art is headed to the hike-and-bike trail

Monday, July 25, 2022 by Willow Higgins

For the past several years, a moratorium has prevented the installment of any new public artworks in the vicinity of Austin’s hike-and-bike trail and Lady Bird Lake. With the expiration of that moratorium, the Trail Foundation, which has taken over management of the area, is making plans to incorporate more public art into the city’s crown jewel.

The Trail Foundation has launched a formal arts and cultural programming project, and hopes to have a robust plan for the initiative by the end of this year. The basis for that plan and any future projects will stem from its first initiative, which was in the works for over a year and was completed this spring. The project, called Common Waters, was a total hit. Representatives from the Trail Foundation and the artist who led the project spoke to the Arts Commission this week about their early success and what is yet to come.

Local artists Rejina Thomas, Ruben Esquivel and Taylor Davis were tasked with creating a floating wetland to glide along the surface of Lady Bird Lake. The floating wetland is topped with a sculptural piece resembling a nest. The nest is home to a small ecosystem of plants, which grow down into the water, out of view.

“Those roots create surfaces for microbes and fish, and that’s all going to clean contaminants and excess nutrients out of the lake,” said Charlotte Tonsor, the project manager. She explained that the installation “explores the intersection of art, activism, environment and community while highlighting the beauty and demonstrating the importance of Lady Bird Lake, our city’s lifeline.”

Common Waters is rich with symbolism. The sculpture uses dried, invasive bamboo, a rapidly growing plant, which was intended to emulate Austin’s rapid growth as a city, alongside seven native species. “Nests are symbols of safety, home and protection,” the project description reads. “This nest serves as the ephemeral shelter for a floating wetland of native plants that are designed to filter and clean toxins from the lake. Similarly, when we protect the native Brown and Black communities of Austin, who have been the backbone of cultural creation for generations, we can also begin to clean the toxins of our city’s ancestral trauma.”

The project was launched in the form of a celebration in May of this year, with the planting and installation completed via a community effort. To be installed, the wetland was pulled on a barge by a team from the Watershed Protection Department, who were “all smiles through the whole thing,” Tonsor recalled. Musician Ephraim Owens played on the boat while the project team kayaked alongside it. There was a blessing of the sculpture before it was eventually pulled off the barge and set free in the water.

Davis, one of the project artists who spoke at the Arts Commission meeting, said, “I think this whole program was very enriching and I look forward to an iteration that is even longer and more intentional. It could easily be six months to a year of us really diving into the fabric of the community that we’re working in and having really intentional conversations about what these artistic metaphors are meaning.”

Common Waters is just one piece of what the Trail Foundation has in mind for the hike-and-bike trail. The project functioned as a catalyst to find out what Austinites are interested in seeing and making. The project team is currently analyzing data from surveys before they begin creating their arts and culture programming this August and plan to host another community engagement event this fall. 

“We do have a belief that through arts and culture programming and public art, we can encourage new faces to come to visit the hike-and-bike trail and expose people (to art),” Heidi Anderson, Trail Foundation CEO, said.

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