SHERIDAN — Carsten Meier grew up in a village in East Germany near a meadow full of white willow trees. The trees were durable; they could be used as fence posts but could also be turned into baskets.
Meier learned from a local shepherd the different uses for willow trees.
“It [was] a solid part of my childhood, for sure,” Meier said.
Meier, an artist and assistant professor of photography at Utah State University, utilized the willow’s durability earlier this month when he created a circular exhibit near a walking pathway across Coffeen Avenue from Sheridan College.
The project, named “Zirkel,” has a diameter of 46 feet and is composed of white willow branches that should eventually come together to create a type of sanctuary. The fusion process will take about five years to complete.
Meier created the exhibit during his recent time in the Jentel Artist Residency Program.
It is the second “Zirkel” he has made, the first being a black willow project in Baldwin City, Kansas.
“Zirkel” is German for compass but also sounds similar to “circle.”
“I was looking for a term that would work in both ways,” Meier said. “It’s funny and simple and easy to remember.”
Whitney Center for the Arts executive director Erin Hanke met with Meier in mid-May to discuss creating the willow exhibit at the college. After looking at a campus map, Meier decided to create the exhibit on the parkway across Coffeen Avenue because the fertile soil and wetland environment provide an ideal nourishment area.
In Kansas, Meier received help from a lot of people on constructing the project. For the local piece, he worked almost completely alone. Sheridan College grounds supervisor Zackary Houck helped mulch, but Meier did everything else.
Meier used branches from the surrounding trees. He didn’t have an easy mechanism to cut and move the branches, so he hauled six or seven at a time on his back. He used come customized tools to dig holes three or four feet deep to make sure the branches would stay in place.
“You have to remove every branch,” Meier said. “You climb into the tree; you’re cutting them out; you’re bringing them all over.”
He inserted the branches one foot apart from each other and tied them together. The process lasted 10 days and usually entailed eight to 10 hours per day of physical, creative labor, but Meier didn’t seem to mind.
“This repetition provides you with sort of a meditative work process, which the artist, I would like to say, is looking for,” Meier said.
He even camped out for a night near the creation, an odd yet captivating experience.
“It was like this full immersion,” Meier said.
Meier was satisfied with the end result.
“The work is a metaphor for preservation of wilderness,” Meier said. “I think it turned out quite well. It’s pretty disturbing right now because all the leaves are hanging. It’s not necessarily attractive, but I kind of wanted to see that because it’s the second one I made and it’s kind of interesting to see.”
Hanke was pleased to see Meier incorporate nature into a living piece of art.
“It’s always great when we can take advantage of the beauty that’s already here in this place,” Hanke said. “We’re not trying to create a museum piece that isn’t supposed to be touched. It’s supposed to grow into the environment.”
Meier will return to Sheridan occasionally to check on the project, likely for the first time next fall.
He eventually wants to create a Zirkel project in all 50 states. That seems ambitious, but it likely wouldn’t be Meier creating all of the projects.
The next one will probably be constructed in Massachusetts or New Mexico. He likes the idea of potentially traveling and training other people to help build willow projects.
“It’s kind of a crazy project, but that’s what artists do, right?” Meier said.
White willow trees have been a constant part of Meier’s life, and with this new project, he merged his personal and professional life to create a natural sanctuary in Sheridan.