‘Of the Earth’ exhibition brings nature and humanity together at Morton Arboretum

The five sculptures are made from a variety of natural materials: some from river rocks, others from trees. For weeks, volunteers collected, pruned and prepared fallen branches from sugar maple, hackberry, linden, willow, elm and wild black cherry trees found at the Morton Arboretum.

So it’s only right that the exhibition the sculptures belong to, which will debut at the Arboretum on Friday, is called “Of the Earth.” And it is perhaps even more fitting that the sculptor’s last name translates into that very phrase — or “earthly.”

“She met with the exhibitions team, the marketing team, and we’re like, ‘Oh, your name means ‘Of the Earth’ in Polish? How perfect is that?’ So it made sense right away,” said Preston Bautista, the Arboretum’s vice president of learning and engagement. “And the fact that we could provide her with materials for the artwork, I mean — that’s so unique.”

With these five sculptures of human figures, three of which depict female forms, Polish American environmental artist Olga Ziemska will become the first woman to have a major sculpture installation on the Arboretum’s 1,700 acres — a huge canvas many artists can only dream of having. “Of the Earth,” which will remain until spring 2025, will also be the largest of Ziemska’s exhibitions anywhere in the world.

The exhibition’s signature piece welcomes guests outside the Arboretum’s Visitor Center: she is a 6-foot-tall female figure built from willow tree branches stacked on top of each other. “Stillness in Motion” is the newest in Ziemska’s “Matka” (“mother” in Polish) series — similar pieces have been installed in Romania and Poland.

“We wanted to make sure to bring a woman artist. We want to have, moving forward, a more diverse pool of artists as part of our exhibition program,” said Bautista. “The fact that a woman is depicting a female figure, I think it’s very different (than) when a man does that. I think a man actually approaches that from sort of the point of view of almost a spectator or a voyeur. Whereas, you know, Olga doing this — it’s herself. In a lot of ways, they’re sort of self-portraitures. There’s so much of her identity in all of this.”

He gestured toward Ona (meaning “she” in Polish), which is located on the Arboretum’s west side and looks over a clearing. The 14-foot-tall sculpture shows a woman with wind-swept hair made from tree branches and mirrors for eyes.

“I use art as a tool to better understand the things we often overlook,” Ziemska said in a news release. “Humans have a complex relationship with the natural world, but there is no separation between people and nature. Everything on Earth is of the Earth.”

Another “Of the Earth” sculpture that calls to mind one of the artist’s international pieces is “Oculus,” out in the East Woods. It’s a version of Ziemska’s “Mind Eye,” which was built in the Dolomite Mountains in Italy. Next to the maple collection, two 10-foot-tall human head profiles made out of hundreds of tree cookies, or the cross-section of a tree, look at each other. They both have mirrored spherical eyes that can be seen from both sides.

Though the sculptures are meant to emphasize a oneness between humanity and nature, Cleveland-based Ziemska did use some human-made materials in her sculptures, like steel and glass-fiber reinforced concrete, in order to withstand the weather in the Midwest. Besides glass, Ona also had a last-minute addition to her concrete skin — yellowish rocks that glow blue in the dusk.

“It’s always tremendous to come out to the Morton Arboretum and see how they’ve chosen art and nature and put the two together in a really universal way,” said visitor Sue Hamburg, whose favorite sculpture was Ona with her wild hair. “So no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what your background is, you can identify and you can relate with nature, because all of us human beings come from the natural world.”

Hamburg grew up locally, often hiking at the Arboretum with her sister Barbara Brabets, who is visiting the United States from where she now lives in Australia. An unmissable part of Brabets’ trip itinerary, the sisters planned to visit the Arboretum’s newest art installations, as they have done in the past few years.

But Hamburg had to return to her home in Minneapolis on Friday, so the pair went out on a limb and hoped they’d be able to see most of Ziemska’s sculptures Wednesday afternoon ahead of their debut.

The Arboretum has had exhibitions for a few years now, perhaps more famously the wooden troll sculptures of “Troll Hunt” from 2018 to 2021 and other giants in “Human+Nature” in May 2021. The search for the next exhibition, which would open summer of 2025, is already underway.

“I wanted to build on ‘Trolls’ and ‘Human+Nature.’ I wanted to build on this idea of artists-commissioned works for the Morton Arboretum,” Bautista said. “So we’re gonna move forward in that direction. And they will happen every two years, so they are going to be a biannual exhibition, every couple of summers. We’re hoping to be able to engage a range of artists from all over the country all over the world.”

At the base of a hill in the Arboretum’s crabapple collection, fashioned out of river rocks and artificial turf, the silhouette of a reclining female figure emerges from the ground. This is 45-foot-long “Strata,” located next to an oak tree in an open field. Tari Marshall, the Arboretum’s director of public relations and social media, pointed out that “Strata” seems to emphasize the layers and complexity of each human.

Looking over Meadow Lake, a short walk from the Visitor Center, a couple sits on lounge chairs and consider a human head laying horizontally. “Hear: With an ear to the ground” is made up of hundreds of white river rocks. Brabets, the visitor from Australia, said she noticed some children playing around the sculpture — going “Wakey-wakey!” — trying to wake it up from its apparent slumber.

Hamburg said she believes outdoor art like these exhibitions are more easily accessible to people who otherwise wouldn’t seek out art museums on their own. Importantly, she said, this kind of art allows visitors “not to be afraid of it or feel like I have the wrong answer interpreting it.”

“Of the Earth” opens May 26 at the Morton Arboretum, 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle; 630-968-0074 and mortonarb.org

adperez@chicagotribune.com