There comes a moment in the life of many artists when they know instinctively that what they are doing is not working out.
For John Siblik, environmental artist and painter, that moment arrived last month.
You could say he knew the installation of his art installation wasn’t going as planned when he found himself standing in the 166-year-old Illinois & Michigan Canal with water at his chin and a rope tied around his waist to prevent him from being swept downstream.
On the banks of the canal, at the other end of that rope, was John Lustig, director of the Illinois State Museum’s Lockport Gallery, the guy who commissioned Siblik.
"I never would have cut anyone as much slack as I cut John," Lustig said later, and he did not mean rope slack. "This work, from its installation to the structural design of the piece, like from A to Z, was so flawed."
Yet so striking.
Siblik had made an elegant, 101-piece sculpture titled River Weaving. It was constructed primarily of sticks, and that vulnerability only lent to its beauty. Once in place, the sculpture resembled the humps of a long, thin sea serpent snaking up and down the I&M Canal.
That is, until the pieces came unmoored and floated away. At one point in the installation — frantically trying to recover the scattered chunks — Siblik waded across the canal, stretched out to grab hold of a piece trapped against a river lock and recoiled: "There was something else there. It was pale and bloated, and I'm like, 'Of course, on top of everything, a dead body.'"
It was a sofa.
But you would think the worst too.
Siblik's River Weaving was to be installed in early June. Then the canal flooded. Then everyone had to wait a month for the waters to recede and for Siblik, who lives in Iowa, to return.
By the time the sculpture was finally completed last week, a month later than expected, it had become the "Apocalypse Now" of art installations, an ambitious production that at times seemed nothing less than cursed.
"Actually," Lustig said, "I would say, closer to 'Apocalypse Now Redux,' only longer and more exhausting."
As commuters breezed across the nearby bridge on Ninth Street last week, the traffic on the I&M Canal was light. It was morning. Joggers shot past and dog walkers sauntered by, rabbits darted up the banks, and chipmunks leapt into brush. A family of ducks squatted in the center of the stream, which looked shallow and flat, the water flowing quietly.
The canal is alongside the large, old shipping warehouse that holds the Illinois State Museum. Siblik and Lustig started to reinstall River Weaving there, and about 50 of Siblik's arches (or "elements," as he calls them) were up; 40 more sat on the edge of the bank, waiting their turn. Each arch consisted of long willow reeds bent and held together by shorter reeds curled into hoops and fixed in place with screws.
The arches, partly underwritten by the city of Lockport, cost about $5,000 to make and, once in place, would cover a quarter mile of the canal. There was, however, one nagging concern:
What did it do?
A woman pushing a baby stroller asked if the arches were a kind of croquet set. Another woman said, mystified: "I think it's very pretty and interesting but it is also, very different, you know?"
A man walking his dog was more blunt: "It's a waste of money. If this thing did something, I would get it. But what does it do?"
Siblik has heard this before. Standing by the canal and staring out intently at the arches as if he might will the artwork to remain in place, Siblik said that when he first mounted River Weaving, in a river in Iowa in 2006, he worked with a farmer and conservationist "who grew incredibly annoyed as I explained the whole thing. I showed him concept art, and he wanted deer or barns or something."
Siblik, who grew up in Lemont and has the sinewy stature of a farmer, is dean of the liberal arts school at Upper Iowa University and an associate art professor.
"Even while we've installed it here, we get people who became visibly aggravated by it," he said. "And when we would ask them why, they say they wanted it to function at some level."
As he spoke, a woman approached with her dog and asked what those things out in the canal did.
"They're for your visual enjoyment," he said. "Have they given you that?"
The woman looked uncertain and left. "Good luck," she said.
Siblik smiled weakly.
Lustig, who grew up in Chicago Heights, said whatever confusion there is about River Weaving is easy to explain: It stems from the practical, provincial nature of the Midwest.
"People here want things to serve a function," he said. "I want an aesthetic. Should I stand out there all day with a sign saying this? (The museum) has had people wanting to know if the piece had something to do with wildlife, did it measure water depth, pH balance in the canal. I understand that. It's a working-class place. Everything ties to: What job do you do?"
River Weaving sits in a stretch of water that, for decades, provided this city of 15,000 residents with more than its name. Lockport was settled in 1830. A few years later, an area farmer invented the steel plow, and a few years after that, work on the I&M Canal began. It was dug by hand and finished in 1848, becoming a link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.
By the 1870s, commercial traffic on the canal was vibrant enough that Lockport, which served as the headquarters of the canal's administration, adopted a nickname: "The City that Made Chicago Famous." But by the 1920s, a series of new water channels and canals (including the nearby Sanitary and Ship Canal) drained off both its waters and business.
Lustig, who spent a decade curating Indiana State University's permanent art collection, joined the museum in 2012 and was tasked with bringing art outside the museum's imposing stone walls, restoring a vibrancy to downtown Lockport.
Having known Siblik for decades, Lustig thought of River Weaving and took the idea to Steve Streit, Lockport's mayor. The theme of the city's summer festivities is "steampunk," so, keeping with that improvised-industrial vibe, Lustig described the work as "gigantic stitches closing a wound," reflecting how "nature is reclaiming this canal."
Streit, who studied graphic design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, wanted the work in place by Lockport's Old Canal Days festival in early June.
The problem with environmental art, though, is that the environment doesn't always get the memo.
It rained in June. And rained. And by the time Siblik and Lustig began installing the piece, the banks of the canal were flooding. Siblik's work had generally sat in calmer, smaller streams, and it didn't last long in storm waters.
Each arch was held against the riverbed primarily with a smattering of stones. About 70 of the 101 arches were in place when pieces began floating away. About 50 washed downstream, at least a mile and a half. Siblik took to the chase, a rope strapped around his waist. They saved most of the pieces.
Beavers made off with a couple.
And Lustig got poison ivy.
Lustig and Siblik began fighting. "Let's call it a day," Siblik had said. "Not gonna happen."
Lustig said no, the water would go down and the conditions would change, and they could finish. Siblik drove back to Iowa.
When Siblik returned, he was towing a small rowboat. He and Lustig collected slate from a quarry and rowed it into the canal and reinstalled the arches, anchoring each with 500 pounds of stone, Lustig said. "As far as I'm concerned, it'll be in place forever."
Or at least through early September.
Oh, one problem remains:
What is this thing exactly?
"Yeah, that's the other question we get a lot of," Lustig said.
Siblik explained it is a meditation on the way that weaving, literally with fabric and figuratively through teamwork, "is an elemental backbone of society." He pointed to the way the arches themselves are woven, and the way the water sort of weaves through the arches.
So far, anecdotally, they've heard from people who think it's a series of carp traps, or Native American art, or an abstract representation of dolphins cleaving water, or random barbed wire strands.
Or some kind of cult object. Looking out on the canal, Lustig said: "I understand why someone might say that. And I have been accused of presenting Wiccan sculptures before. But, please, come on, I'm way more of a 'Star Wars' guy."