Lockport's River Weaving art installation a labor of love

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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.

Some vanished.

And Lustig got poison ivy.

Lustig and Siblik began fighting. "Let's call it a day," Siblik had said. "Not gonna happen."

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