Fresh eyes on the landscape: Five new big sculptures at Morton Arboretum ready for viewing

Ona faces the sun and the DuPage River Valley on the Morton Arboretum's west side.

Her “hair” is an untamed mass of tree branches, shorter and spiky on top, long and windblown in the back. Rising 14 feet from the ground, the female figure has big, mirrored eyes reflecting the landscape and our place in it.

Polish-American artist Olga Ziemska created Ona and four other sculptural installations for “Of the Earth,” the new outdoor exhibition opening Friday at the arboretum in Lisle.

As the arboretum points out, her work is somewhat autobiographical. Ziemska is a self-described environmental artist whose last name means “of the earth” or “earthly” in Polish.

Her signature piece - another female form made almost entirely of willow branches - occupies a place of prominence behind the arboretum's visitor center. While it's smaller than the rest - at just 6 feet tall - it took enormous effort cutting, stacking and arranging sticks of wood into a humanlike sculpture.

Artist Olga Ziemska and her crew created the large-scale exhibition - "Of the Earth," which is what her last name translates to - using natural material from the Morton Arboretum grounds. Courtesy of Olga Ziemska

“Core to her work is this notion that we are nature, that we are connected to nature, that we are interdependent,” said Preston Bautista, the arboretum's vice president of learning and engagement.

Over the last five years, that's been a core theme of the arboretum's major art exhibitions. A tribe of giant trolls made of trash wood first took up residence in the summer of 2018. Danish artist Thomas Dambo built the six creatures with a sense of mischief that endeared them to thousands of arboretum visitors.

South African artist Daniel Popper had the difficult task of following in the footsteps of the delightful trolls. Popper's maternal sculptures were more transcendental and ethereal, but still larger than life.

Based in Cleveland, Ziemska is the first woman commissioned by the arboretum for a two-year solo exhibition. Bautista took notice of her terrestrial art through the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio.

“We deliberately wanted to find a woman artist for the 2023 exhibition, and hopefully, we can bring more diverse artists to the arboretum,” Bautista said. “When you start looking at the differences between the last three exhibitions, I think Olga thinks about scale differently.”

  Covered in turf, "Strata" blends in with her surroundings at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Brian Hill/

“Strata,” a 45-foot-long figure, seems to emerge from the earth. Her body is composed of stratified layers of rock and covered in artificial turf at the base of a grassy hill seen from the main road on the arboretum's east side.

“Humans have a complex relationship with the natural world, but there is no separation between people and nature,” Ziemska said in an announcement of the exhibition opening. “Everything on Earth is of the Earth.”

Ziemska and her crew put thousands of white river rocks on the surface of a sculpted human head, positioned horizontally with one ear to the ground and attuned to the larger rhythms of nature.

Adirondack chairs invite visitors to contemplate their relationship with the natural world near the shores of Meadow Lake.

“Each of these pieces were thoughtfully designed to fit into the grounds in which they are specifically installed,” Bautista said.

Arboretum volunteers went around the grounds gathering the other raw building materials Ziemska would need: naturally fallen or pruned branches from sugar maple, hackberry, linden, elm, willow and wild black cherry trees.

  The "Oculus" profiles stand 10 feet tall near the Morton Arboretum's maple collection. Brian Hill/

Ziemska gets more abstract in “Oculus.” Two profiles of a human head face each other. Metal frames hold hundreds of “tree cookies,” or smooth cross-sections of trunks. You can see yourself and the arboretum's collection of maple trees reflected in a mirrored orb that looks a little like the Eye of Sauron in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Compared to her other sculptures, “Oculus” closely resembles “Mind Eye,” a piece Ziemska created in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy. Indeed, her career has taken her all over the world. She's received a Fulbright Fellowship. But “Of the Earth” is her largest exhibition to date.

After a members-only preview, the exhibition officially opens to the public at noon Friday. Arboretum visitors might want to stick around until dusk. Head to the west side, over a bridge, past the Norway spruce plantings on the right side of the road. A short trail leads to a clearing in the woods. There, Ona (“she” in Polish) glows in the dark.

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