Gateway to nature

In order to offer transparency into how our stories are produced and to teach our readers about the importance of media literacy online, the editorial team provides a quick self-rating of the integrity of the articles and the facts presented against the following IQ metrics.

  • Published on October 17, 2022
  • Last Updated March 10, 2023
  • In Guest Writers

Nature sculptor Thomas Sleet's newest work, open-air 'River Ark,' unveils October 22nd at the Audubon Center at Riverlands. Get an early peek here.

The setting for sculptor Thomas Sleet’s latest work, River Ark, lies on a floodplain just steps from the Mississippi River’s relentless slow roll southward. It is easy to imagine this as Nature’s cathedral. The landscape swarms with life on an expansive, yawning sweep of prairie grassland that parallels the nearby marsh. Close your eyes, breathe in and meditate: The quiet is powerful and illusory; it rushes upon you so strikingly that the wind brushing your ears seems to crescendo and fall like a drum roll. The skies above unfurl to welcome a committee of dragonflies as they accompany a chorus of crickets and cicadas. The birds are the main attraction, the divas, however: Larks, terns, heron, swans and pelicans appear in succession for cameos.

River Ark is set to be unveiled on October 22 here at the Audubon Center at Riverlands, 3,700-acre bird sanctuary 20 miles north of St. Louis. Getting here takes some doing. Make a right turn off a four-lane highway that heads northward and crosses the Mississippi into Illinois. The Audubon is the first outpost you see on the left, located on a winding road that later meanders another six miles through corn and soybean fields to a spot overlooking where North America’s two greatest waterways, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet. You know you have arrived from the sight of Sleet’s work, a sculpture composed of 75 timber logs, blackened by hand and smoothed by the waters of the Mississippi.

River Ark Site - (Credit - Thomas Sleet).jpg
The River Ark site at sunset. Courtesy of Thomas Sleet

Sleet’s sculpture is a drama in pantomime, one set off by two parallel columns of ordered yet unique shapes. Its dimensions are electrified by the location and heightened by the elements of air, sun, and water that surround you here. To enhance the effect, the artist affixed angled mirrors to some of the tree trunks to catch light on oblique angles and to cast it off again during the early morning and late afternoon. The dramatic questions River Ark poses bring to mind the words of 20th century thinker Roland Barthes, who wrote, “Light without shadow makes for emotion without reserve.” Onlookers are bound to ask: Are our terrestrial accomplishments finite, earthbound and forever gazing upward? Are we together or alone? What is our role as community before Nature, beneath the firmament and alongside the great waters that mark the passage of time?

“The plan was originally to transform the material I used,” Sleet said, “but in the end, working outdoors, breathing in the environment, drinking in a 360-degree skyline, the material started to transform me, the experience was a form of transcendental meditation.”

Screen Shot 2022-10-16 at 9_29_45 AM.png
A close-up from inside the River Ark structure. Courtesy of Thomas Sleet

The synergy between the location and the piece is unmistakable. Move no more than 30 feet in any direction, nature takes over. The Audubon sanctuary is a capsule of the river’s rise, fall, flood and wane across and beyond time. The center is crisscrossed by birding trails and a patchwork of prairie and marshland brimming in high grass, sedges and reeds. The ornithologists and educators on duty stress the importance of the location to the ecology of a continent: It’s a way station where nearly two-thirds of the migrating bird species in this part of the world pass during transitional seasons, either heading South as the days wane in the Fall or North with the promise of a thaw and green renewal in the Spring.

In the span of 30 years, Thomas Sleet has quietly become a force not only in the local art scene, but across the Midwest, where his work appears in museums, in public or in the lobbies of corporate patrons like Block, Inc. (the financial technology company formerly known as Square) that have commissioned pieces. Sleet works primarily with found objects that he alters in some way.

“An integral part of my process is removing a layer of familiarity from the material,” he said. “I want my work to stand as a reference to itself without referencing its previous state.”

A recurring theme in Sleet’s oeuvre is the disintegration and reconstruction of patterns, symbols and other visible orders. He is his most masterful when scrambling the expected into new configurations. Take,Integration 4D, for instance, which is in the St. Louis Art Museum’s permanent collection. Its interlocking pieces in earthtones and black mimic the microscopic amoeba, diatoms and paramecia that team in a droplet of pond water. Another example is the work Adinkra Tower, a 24-foot steel and aluminum obelisk he designed for a bus center on St. Louis’s far Northside. Sleet adorned the structure’s panels in Ashanti symbols that each represent a maxim that illuminates the night. In a series of pieces he completed between 2007 and 2014, entitled Terra, Sleet forms layered hive structures in cement and carpet. The result resembles a study in topology infused with natural greens, buff tones, and vermillion.

Screen Shot 2022-10-16 at 9_13_10 AM.png
Another of Sleet’s works, the Adinkra Tower. Courtesy of Thomas Sleet

Work onRiver Ark began in 2021. No sooner had Sleet’s sketches for the site been approved than he set about the work of collecting driftwood and logs that would be the project’s raw material. Time was critical with a deadline of April to collect the timber he was to use. The reason: The river seethes during the Spring thaw and rises to fill the floodplain near the sanctuary. The artist reached out to the Army Corp of Engineers, the arm of the U.S. government that manages the flow and navigation of the Mississippi River and was quickly approved; clearing fallen trees in fact was doing the corps a favor in a small way. Sleet joined a crew of two others he hired to fish suitable trunks from the dozens that washed up on the riverbank — a total of 110 logs, some six tons that had to be sorted to cast aside waterlogged or decayed flotsam. A wide variety of trees collapse and float southward in the river’s sweep including oak, hickory, cedar, ash, maple and sycamore. In their own way, the currents contributed. The flow of water works to strip away bark and streamline the logs. It also reveals the wood’s stretched, gnarled, contorted and even grotesque character in stark relief. With the help of a grappling hook, boat rope and a pickup truck, the crew dredged the wood and moved it to a spot where the artist applied a propane torch and linseed oil to char and seal the specimens that made the grade.

River Ark timber (Credit - James A_ Anderson).jpg
River Ark timber, prior to construction. Courtesy of James A_ Anderson

Perhaps the most basic way to look at Sleet’s ark is as transport to an open-air homecoming, a reunion with Nature. “I began to consider ways in which I could use driftwood to draw lines in the land, to draw the eye across the land, to connect the prairie to the water’s edge and provide a sculptural installation of scope and scale, that allow visitor interaction,” Sleet said in a previous interview. “Even deeper is the inspiration to transform material and environment via spontaneous textural constructions that invoke the experience of unlimited connectedness.”

James A. Anderson is a professor at the Lehman College (Bronx) campus of the City University of New York, as well as a journalist, author and editor who writes on economics, urban planning, sustainability, music, and finance. His work has appeared in Time Magazine, Next City, Barron’s, Savoyamong other publications.

This story was created by Detour, a journalism brand focused on the best stories in Black travel, in partnership with McClatchy’s The Charlotte Observer and Miami Herald. Detour’s approach to travel and storytelling seeks to tell previously under-reported or ignored narratives by shifting away from the customary routes framed in Eurocentrism. The detour team is made up of an A-list of award-winning journalists, writers, historians, photographers, illustrators and filmmakers.

This story was originally published October 17, 2022 9:00 AM.