My family and I just returned from a vacation in St. Joseph, Michigan at a lovely lake house with my sister and her family. While I have lived in the western suburbs for seven years, I always go to the Jersey shore for my summer vacations as opposed to exploring the midwestern lake scene. What I found most intriguing about the idea of a lake vacation is the accessibility of lakes as compared to oceans. East Coasters have been known to describe Lake Michigan as the ocean without waves and salt. At the ocean we swim and boogie board and perhaps float in a tube, but a lake holds the endless possibilities of rafts, boats, and my favorite: sitting with my sister on each end of a paddleboard having coffee and conversation. It also provides an opportunity for making art.

On our shared family vacations, my sister treats us to daily yoga and meditation and I treat everyone to art projects tailored to our locale and events. For example, on a family vacation in Mexico over Christmas and New Years we made ornaments for the tree and hats for our New Year’s Eve party. We created Mexican rugs and iridescent fish out of layers and layers of paper It has become a nice tradition in our families. As the cousins range in age from six to twenty-one, the challenge is to come up with projects everyone can do and enjoy. The lake was my inspiration on this vacation.

Besides the lake, what inspired me to do water-based art projects? John Siblik, an environmental artist. He created the River Weaving piece that has been installed in the I & M Canal next to the Illinois State Museum in Lockport. Siblik made 101 arches out of sticks and when placed in the canal, looks like the weft to the water’s warp. The pictures in the July 30th Trib were lovely and I couldn’t wait to see it. A hundred arched sticks in the water. Is that art? Yup. It’s Eco Art. Eco or Environmental Art can be art that occurs in nature, art that celebrates nature, art made from natural materials or art that addresses environmental issues.

Two weeks ago, I set off for the cool, throwback town of Lockport. I found it interesting that Siblik, who received a $5,000 commission toward this piece from the museum, got push back from the locals. Siblik created the piece to be enjoyed visually. The locals wanted River Weaving to have a purpose, such as to catch Asian Carp. As I was looking at and photographing the piece, a local came up and lodged the same complaints with me as I had read in the paper.

I was shocked at the difference twelve days can make with a piece of art in nature. The locals may have gotten their wish and it isn’t pretty. River Weaving has certainly shown up how much garbage has made its way into the canal and I trust Siblik is taking daily or weekly photos of the evolution of his piece and is accepting and even expecting perhaps a different piece entirely than what he conceived.

I hope Siblik takes a page out Marcel Duchamp’s book with regards to his River Weaving piece. Duchamp worked on The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors from 1915 to 1923. The glass covering the piece was broken during transport. Duchamp viewed the cracks as something that happened to his work, which enhanced it. I  think Siblik’s piece will turn out to be an environmental commentary as his beautiful tree branch arches become covered with muck and garbage. It is becoming a different and probably more powerful aesthetic than what he had imagined.

River Weaving is reminiscent of the most famous work of Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, which was built in the Great Salt Lake in Utah in 1970 and I’d venture to guess that most people have seen in a book or magazine. Forty-four years later, it is still in place although is has changed color. Smithson was very interested in the relationship between man and nature and I think, ultimately, Siblik’s piece will be thought about when people discuss, man, nature and art.

Back to Lake Michigan and my kids’ art projects. What did we make? My nephew and I built a Spiral Jetty-inspired piece on the edge of the lake made with rocks. The water was rough and it was challenging to create our small sculpture. My niece and I built a teepee structure on the beach with driftwood.

In addition to building things in Lake Michigan and on the beach, we had fun installing things on Lake Michigan. Inspired by a posthumous work of Smithson, Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island and eco artist, Richart Sowa’s Spiral Island, we made our own Floating Islands to Travel Upon Lake Michigan. I cut island shapes out of cork-backed plywood. I brought paints, wood, and little trees. The kids painted and embellished them and then we set them out on the lake. We had a lot of fun and learned a few lessons about making art in nature: it can be challenging and it can be beautiful but nature always wins!

Kathleen Thometz is an artist and writer. She lives with her husband, kids and three doodle dogs. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com.

Kathleen Thometz

I am an artist, writer, and art instructor with four children, one husband, and two doodle-dogs. I have contributed articles to the mid.com and Chicago Parent Magazine and wrote the Artist's Eye column...