New giant 'Human+Nature' sculptures at Morton Arboretum show 'spiritual connection' to trees
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.
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
"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."
Human+NatureWhere: Morton Arboretum, 4100 Route 53, Lisle
When: Opened Friday and running for at least a year
Tickets: Included with timed-entry arboretum admission, $16 for adults; $14 seniors; $11 kids 2-17
Info: mortonarb.org or (630) 968-0074