Making A Natural Space: La Reunion TX’s Annual On-site Installation

Off West Jefferson Blvd, near the border between Dallas and Cockrell Hill, the future home of the La Reunion artist residency is a rolling, raw woodland, with a pretty little brook cutting down a steep slope under the remnants of an old Sante Fe Railroad trestle. That this pristine natural setting exists mere miles from downtown speaks to the unique promise of the La Reunion project – a Walden Pond surrounded by urban Dallas . It also helps explain why many of the artists who are part of La Reunion’s annual on-site, outdoor installation show, which opens this Saturday, are engaging in socially conscious, environmental concepts. We sat down with La Reunion Executive Director Sarah Jane Semrad, as well as artists Brad Ford Smith, Nicole Collum Horn, and Annie Abagli, to talk about their work in the upcoming show.

Front Row: Sarah Jane, can you start by giving us a little background on the idea for the show?

Sarah Jane Semrad: This program is called “Make Space – Installation.” It’s sort of a derivative off of our former tree-carving project, which is where we took non-native trees and turned them into decomposing sculptural works. We’re taking a step back from the trees do to the major curatorial and site arrangement / master planning issues. So we’ve taken a step back from using actual trees and are allowing the artists the opportunity to work with found natural materials in a short term, temporary sculptural work or installation. This is our third year to do art on the site, and we had seven proposals that were accepted this year out of fourteen. The artists include Brad Ford Smith, Nicole Collum Horn, Scott Horn, Annie Abagli, Kevin Obregon, Sandra Groomer, and a combo of Oliver Bradley and David Blood.

FR: When you say short term, how long are they going to be installed?

SJS: Short term means three to five months, sort of to be determined by how they’re decomposing, how the weather is impacting them. Brad’s project in particular probably will be up a little bit longer because he’s actually exploring the decay of a material on the site – sort of a scientific experiment as well as an art installation.

FR: I thought we could go around and each of you could introduce your project.

Brad Ford Smith: I’m Brad Ford Smith and my project is the privet sculpture project where on the La Reunion property there’s a lot of underbrush that’s called “privet.” Privet is a bush used a lot in landscaping. Almost every other house that you see in Dallas has privet bushes around it. The little seed get off and into the ecosystem and they sprout all over the place. And La Reunion has a lot it.

FR: And it is non-native to this area?

Brad Ford Smith's privet installation detail (Photo: Brad Ford Smith)

BFS: This particular type of privet comes from China. It comes from different parts of Asia. It’s becoming a real problem in all urban parts of the country because it gets in the water system and then it sprouts up all over the place. And it’s really aggressive. And it pushes out native materials. So with my project I’m trying to combine a larger scale sculptural kind of architectural element with trying to find a green use for this privet. I’m harvesting it and using it as a building material. The location of this structure that I’m building is going to be an arched gateway that marks the eco-zone from the trees and the undergrowth to where you step out onto a field of native grasses. So I wanted to delineate.

SJS: A threshold.

BFS: Yeah, a threshold. And it will also mark the progress of the privet on to the field.

FR: From your work your privet will grow out?

BFS: My work marks a spot where the privet stops at this time period, and a year from now I will come back a photograph where the privet has advanced. A big part of the project is documenting the process of working with the privet, trying to figure out the pros and cons of using – mostly just my exploration of finding out what privet is. I grew up with a giant hedge of it at my house. So it is all about exploring the different aspects of this non-native bush on the Dallas Metroplex.

SJS: We’ve brought in a scientific adviser for artists using privet, who’s a biologist and is sort of helping with some advice and research and additional information about privet.

BFS: Yeah, he specializes in invasive plants and how they affect mammals and aquatic life. When he came out onto the property and he saw – it’s not only privet, but you walk around and you so – okay this is a landscape bush, this is another landscape bush. And you see that kind of thing all across Dallas. You go to White Rock Lake and you see all these decorative bushes snuggled in to the woodland areas. So it’s been really interesting working with him.

SJS: So while La Reunion is a future artist residency, its current incarnation is a 35 acre outdoor studio and gallery. So we’re all about engaging artists to help restore this ecosystem, help us explore this ecosystem. How can we make this a better place with creativity sort of being the medium?

Nicole Collum Horn: My project is called “Waste Not, Want Not.” I am doing a large, oversized replica of a bathtub drain with an accompanying chain that will be tethered to the side of the La Reunion pond and floated onto the middle of the pond. And the actual piece itself – the chain is made from privet that was harvested from the site. And the drain is made from plastic bottles that are sealed to maintain buoyancy – old pool toys, privet inside the structure, and my old curtains, actually, as the skin to it. I wanted to start a community based discussion on personal water usage and have this waterproof book out there that has information on how to save water in your home through low flow toilets, low flow showerheads and faucets, lawn care. It addresses each issue of what a family uses, what a person issues, and changes you can make in your life to conserve and still maintain quality of life standards. I wanted to jumpstart a community discussion on how each person can lower their usage, and maintain their water levels, which you can see are severely dropping.

FR: So it’s a drain.

NCH: A bathtub drain.

FR: Tethered to the side.

NCH: With this chain made of privet. So this will be floated out and be tethered on either side to stay stable in the center of the pond.

The La Reunion site (Photo: Travis Williams for La Reunion TX)

SJS: The La Reunion site is in the West Dallas watershed, and so long term we have ideas and about that pond and its natural springs on the site, and how we can do all of our rainwater collection and landscaping water and – any water that we can use that is already there, or water that is flowing through there as part of the West Dallas watershed. So her piece speaks volumes about our future plans and bringing awareness.

Annie Albagli: I’m making a piece called “Elsewhere,” which is essentially harvested privet that’s been treated to make, I want to say a hut, but a place for refuge where you go in and re-experience privet and that area around you. It’s right in the middle of the prairie grass – it’s this big expanse it creates, but you are in there and you feel like you are hidden away. Obviously everyone can see where you are. I initially wanted to make paper that people could write notes and plant them around the hut, but we can’t alter the state of the environment. So now I think I’m going to have glass bottles that I found hanging from the ceiling from the hut, and you can put notes in there. You are all alone by yourself and you have that trace of another person that was there.

FR: The privet material is following through all these works. Was that part of the parameters for the artists’ proposal?

SJS: No the call was really about how do we use found and natural materials, and so we had a series of artist tours where we said, this is what we got, ask us your questions, and the privet is such a – it’s out there in such quantity that you can’t help but say what’s that and can I use it. It’s such a natural thing to want to use because we don’t allow artists just to cut down anything. We don’t just go in and cut down trees, or harvest whatever we want. That’s got to be a conscious decision and we need to know what the plant is and is it okay. Privet eradication is a major problem in Texas, and so artists naturally wanted to use it.

FR: What is it like to work with the material?

BFS: It’s an interesting material because the wood itself is really dense, it’s almost like a fruit wood, which makes it a nice wood when it’s green and wet, but when it is dried out it becomes very brittle. So when you’re working with it – did you notice that when you first harvest that it was easy to work with?

NCH: It was very flexible, but now that it has been sitting in my studio, I can’t bend it into that chain without something just snapping. So you strip off all this material and you are left with this long thing kind of vine.

BFS: Switch-wood.

NCH: It’s very malleable.

AA: In the beginning I was going crazy. I’m used to working with lattice – really thin pieces of wood from Home Depot. But this, trying to bend it and control, it was really frustrating. I’m also really scratched up.

Main photo: Brad Ford Smith


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