New giant 'Human+Nature' sculptures at Morton Arboretum show 'spiritual connection' to trees

  • Cathleen Wallin of Glen Ellyn looks up in wonder at the "Hallow" sculpture on the grounds of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle as part of the new "Human+Nature" exhibit by South African artist Daniel Popper.

    Cathleen Wallin of Glen Ellyn looks up in wonder at the "Hallow" sculpture on the grounds of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle as part of the new "Human+Nature" exhibit by South African artist Daniel Popper. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • The "Sentient" sculpture at the Morton Arboretum "shows how distracted we are in today's times, and how nature can help us connect more deeply with our inner self and still the mind," artist Daniel Popper said.

    The "Sentient" sculpture at the Morton Arboretum "shows how distracted we are in today's times, and how nature can help us connect more deeply with our inner self and still the mind," artist Daniel Popper said. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Visitors can walk through the "Hallow" sculpture near Meadow Lake at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

    Visitors can walk through the "Hallow" sculpture near Meadow Lake at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Karl Fay of Palatine visits the Morton Arboretum in Lisle to see the new outdoor art installation by Daniel Popper.

    Karl Fay of Palatine visits the Morton Arboretum in Lisle to see the new outdoor art installation by Daniel Popper. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Daniel Popper created the largest collection of works he's ever built at the Morton Arboretum.

    Daniel Popper created the largest collection of works he's ever built at the Morton Arboretum. Courtesy of the Morton Arboretum

  • "Heartwood" is displayed at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle for the "Human+Nature" exhibit.

    "Heartwood" is displayed at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle for the "Human+Nature" exhibit. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 5/28/2021 7:15 PM

The first of five sculptures Daniel Popper created for the Morton Arboretum stands out from the rest.

At 26 feet high, it's the tallest. It's also Popper's calling card: a female form, head tilted to the side, eyes closed, chest exposed, a symbolic opening of the human heart.

 

Called "Hallow," the figure graces the southeast side of Meadow Lake in one of the busiest spots of the arboretum. She's also the face of a marketing blitz for "Human+Nature," the new exhibit replacing the installation of giant trolls that brought record crowds to the tree preserve in Lisle.

Aside from their monumental scale, the two exhibits and the artists who were commissioned by the arboretum are complete opposites.

The larger-than-life trolls made themselves right at home at the arboretum in the summer of 2018. Danish artist Thomas Dambo built the six creatures with a sense of humor, magic and mischief that endeared them to arboretum visitors.

Where Dambo's trolls were intertwined with the landscape -- one was hidden in the shrubbery -- Popper's sculptures are placed in open green space. And where Dambo is effusive, Popper is more measured with his words. He did few interviews leading up to the official opening of "Human+Nature" (pronounced "human nature") Friday.

"I want to create works of art that connect people more deeply with creativity and nature," Popper said while he was in Las Vegas for his next project.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
"The sculptures speak to our spiritual connection to trees," South African artist Daniel Popper is quoted as saying on a sign in front of his "Umi" sculpture at the Morton Arboretum.
"The sculptures speak to our spiritual connection to trees," South African artist Daniel Popper is quoted as saying on a sign in front of his "Umi" sculpture at the Morton Arboretum. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

His art has been described as transcendental and ethereal. Some of his pieces are inspired by yoga poses and give off a bohemian vibe. It wouldn't be a stretch to see his sculptures at Nevada's Burning Man Festival, a countercultural spectacle that's become more mainstream.

Sure enough, Popper's work has been displayed at Afrikaburn, a Burning Man regional event in his native South Africa.

"They definitely have a dream and visionary context behind them," Popper said.

So far, the audience getting a close-up view of his sculptures at the arboretum is skewing older than the crowds that turned out in droves for the mythical trolls.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"A lot of people are still sad about the trolls," Popper said. "I think they built up quite a strong relationship with them over the years. It's just a paradigm shift people might have to go through developing a relationship with these works.

A sculpture called "Hallow" is one of Daniel Popper's signature motifs, said Sarah Sargent, manager of interpretation and exhibits at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
A sculpture called "Hallow" is one of Daniel Popper's signature motifs, said Sarah Sargent, manager of interpretation and exhibits at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

"But they're also for a slightly different audience. They're not as family-friendly as the trolls were, but there's a different audience as well that we've already started to hear from who have connected quite deeply with the pieces."

Most of the pieces are easily seen from the arboretum's main road and made of steel, concrete, wood, fiberglass and natural materials.

If you're touring the exhibit by car, two of the five sculptures are fairly close together on the arboretum's west side.

"Heartwood," another female figure, brings arboretum visitors atop a hill with an incredible view of the DuPage River Valley. It takes only a short walk from a small parking lot through the woods and to a clearing to come upon the sculpture, a bust split in half to expose the markings of a tree ring on one side and a thumbprint on the other.

Peyton McLaughlin, 5, of Elmhurst wanders around the humanlike "Hallow" sculpture by South African artist Daniel Popper at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
Peyton McLaughlin, 5, of Elmhurst wanders around the humanlike "Hallow" sculpture by South African artist Daniel Popper at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

"If you look and see how similar they are in the design," Popper said, "it's almost to try and show this parallel between the history and identity of ourselves and the history and identity of trees as sentient beings."

Drive a bit past the Thornhill Education Center, and there's a pair of outstretched hands in front of a grove of old oak trees.

"That one is particularly beautiful to me because of the sort of symbolic nature of the work we do," said Sarah Sargent, the arboretum's manager of interpretation and exhibits. "In conservation and restoration, we always say it's the work of many hands."

The "Umi" sculpture at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle is on the east side of the 1,700-acre outdoor museum. The maternal figure is made with hand-carved concrete by South African artist Daniel Popper.
The "Umi" sculpture at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle is on the east side of the 1,700-acre outdoor museum. The maternal figure is made with hand-carved concrete by South African artist Daniel Popper. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

On the east of the arboretum, near the magnolia collection, is "Umi" (meaning "mother" in Arabic), a Mother Nature archetype with root-like structures forming an open womb.

"They're beautifully textured, so words don't do justice," Sargent said.

"Sentient" is the most abstract, with eyes, noses and other facial features jetting out from the 18-foot-tall sculpture. It's meant to convey "how distracted we are in today's times, and how nature can help us connect more deeply with our inner self and still the mind," Popper said.

The five sculptures represent his largest collection of works ever exhibited together in the United States.

The "Sentient" sculpture at the Morton Arboretum is located on the east side of the campus in Lisle.
The "Sentient" sculpture at the Morton Arboretum is located on the east side of the campus in Lisle. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

"It's definitely been a fantastic achievement," he said. "It was very tough going."

Arboretum organizers aware of Popper's social media presence approached him to follow up the trolls with an installation that was also going to "catch the eye and not sort of disappear" among the trees, Sargent said.

The process began in 2019 with Popper scouting the 1,700-acre arboretum. Human+Nature was originally set to open in June 2020, but it was postponed by the pandemic and shipping delays. Huge pieces of the sculptures had to be shipped in 40-foot containers from China and then were put together at the arboretum.

The exhibit is expected to run for at least a year. Its central message may be best understood reading a sign with Popper's description of the nurturing "Umi" figure.

"These sculptures speak to our spiritual connection to trees."

0 Comments
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.