For walkers, runners, and bikers on the trails of Lady Bird Lake, the ghostly tree is hard to miss. Suspended above the waters between the Pfluger pedestrian bridge and Lamar, the white tree and 14,000 prayer flags silkscreened with an image of the tree are part of the new public art project THIRST.
The art installation is meant to raise awareness about the ongoing drought across Texas, and it is the culmination of a yearlong collaboration by several Longhorn members and Women & Their Work, a visual and performing art organization in Austin. The group is made up of lead artist Beili Liu, an associate art professor at UT; architect Emily Little, MAr ’79, BA ’73; landscape designer Cassie Bergstrom, MAr ’08; and architect Norma Yancey.
The 35-foot-tall dead cedar elm tree is painted white and appears to hover over the surface of the lake, its roots unable to reach the water. The tree, along with the thousands of prayer flags that line the 2.5 miles around the hike and bike trails, memorialize the loss of more than 300 million trees that perished in the Texas drought in 2011. The team hopes that the project sparks a conversation about water and its scarce availability in the state.
In 2012, Women & Their Work was invited by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation to submit a letter of intent for a project that emphasized artistic excellence, collaboration, and innovation in the spirit of Rauschenberg, a 20th-century American painter and graphic artist. Women & Their Work Executive Director Chris Cowden then gathered a team, and they decided that the water crisis was the most pressing issue facing the city.
Liu points out that Lady Bird Lake was chosen as the site for the installation not only because it is the heart of Austin, but with the constant water level and greenbelt surrounding it, “sometimes it is exactly the place where we tend to forget about the urgency of the water crisis.”
The installation presented major logistical challenges for the THIRST team, both in terms of city permitting and coming up with a way to suspend a large tree upright over the lake. Organizers spent countless hours at Austin City Hall obtaining all the necessary permits and addressing concerns about everything from safety issues to the disruption of rowing lanes on the lake. Little says they attended more than 50 meetings to address issues raised by the city and the community.
“No one working on this project could have imagined how difficult and complicated it was because it had never been done before,” Cowden says. “Each time we solved logistical and structural problems, new ones would arise.”
The team gathered experts in structural engineering, pile-driving, trees, cranes, barges, and tree-moving to solve the logistics of installing the tree.
The cedar elm tree was split into two pieces, driven on an 18-wheeler to Lady Bird Lake, and then towed to the site on a barge. A pile was driven into the lake bottom, and a pole placed in the tree was placed over the spike using a crane.
“We have been overwhelmed by the response,” Cowden says. “We have gotten dozens and dozens of emails, hundreds of posts on the Thirstart.org website, and many beautiful pictures posted on Instagram.”
Little said that one professor in the UT nursing school told her she planned to use the project as part of her class studying motivation and what causes people to change behavior. Texas Speaker of the House Joe Strauss (R-San Antonio) and State Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) want to hold a press conference on the bridge in front of the tree to encourage voters to support Proposition 6, a state constitutional amendment that addresses the water crisis in Texas.
The THIRST art project—best seen from the Pfluger pedestrian bridge—will be on display through Dec. 16.
Above: Photo by Ben Aqua. Courtesy Women & Their Work