Artist creates living willow tunnel at Salamonie Lake as part of Arts in Parks

Sadie Misiuk (left) and Viki Graber plant willow branches on the banks of a pond at Salamonie Lake on Friday, April 7. The branches will eventually become a living tunnel, an installation put in place as part of the Indiana Arts Commission’s Arts in the Parks program.
Sadie Misiuk (left) and Viki Graber plant willow branches on the banks of a pond at Salamonie Lake on Friday, April 7. The branches will eventually become a living tunnel, an installation put in place as part of the Indiana Arts Commission’s Arts in the Parks program. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published April 13, 2017.

In another week or so, with any luck, the willow will have budded and the ground will have dried, making the newly installed living tunnel at Salamonie Lake an enticing place to play — or just chill out.

But willow weaving artist Viki Graber and her assistant, Sadie Misiuk, had to contend with a chill in the air and mud under their feet when they created the sculpture on Friday, April 7.

“This is going to be a child’s tunnel, but adults can go in there if they want to crouch down a little bit,” Graber says.

Once it fills in, she says, it will be a nice, shady place to put down a blanket and read a book or have a picnic.

“And the animals, I think, will like it,” Graber adds. “Eventually, it will look like a big, long bush.”

The installation at Salamonie is part of the Arts in the Parks program, which invites artists to apply for grants through the Indiana Arts Commission in Indiana state parks, forests and historic sites. Graber will create a similar structure at Mississinewa Lake April 14 and 15.

The curved tunnel at Salamonie has three entrances and is designed to encourage exploration, says Teresa Rody, interpretive manager for the Upper Wabash Interpretive Services.

“It’s an artistic tunnel, but I said I wanted kids to enjoy playing with it,” Rody says.

The intent of the sculpture at Mississinewa is the same, but that one will have a different shape.

The Mississinewa sculpture will have a spiral footprint, “kind of like a snail,” Graber says, and will end up looking like a round hut — vaguely reminiscent of a Native American structure, she says.

“But it’s not meant to be any kind of Native American thing,” she says.

Graber, of Goshen, is fairly new to large-scale living willow sculptures.

“I’ve done a couple for myself, a couple for friends,” she says. “But never this magnitude.”

In one earlier project, a bird had started building a nest in it before it was even finished, she notes.

“Normally, I’m a basket weaver,” Graber explains.

A fourth generation basket weaver, to be exact. Her great-grandfather learned the art in the 1800s, living on the South Dakota prairie where “willow was basically the only wood source to speak of,” she says. He took what was at hand and wove whatever containers were needed.

The craft was passed down to Graber’s grandfather and father; Graber started weaving when she was 12. With plastic containers and metal buckets now readily available, basket weaving has become more of an art form, she says.

Graber weaves baskets mainly during demonstrations at historic events, not as a way of supporting herself. For that, she brews beer for the Goshen Brewing Company, in Goshen.

“I love beer, and my nephew started Goshen Brewing Company,” she explains. “Until then, I had been a full-time house painter, and I was done with that.”

She was happy to leave the physically taxing job of painting houses behind, but she soon found out that brewing beer is also physically demanding — as is the task of building living willow sculptures, a process that involves drilling planting holes in the ground with a giant bit.
Misiuk, Graber’s assistant, is a potter who also works at Goshen Brewing Company. She got involved because she wanted to “learn something new,” she says.
The pair visited Salamonie several weeks prior to the build to harvest 2 to 3-year-old willows, nine to 10 feet tall, from within the park. While Graber grows her own willows for her baskets, the willow for the sculpture was purposely harvested on site to prevent any bad bugs or other contaminants from being brought in.
Then, they tried to keep the branches from growing until they were planted.

Willow is a plant that’s very willing to grow, she says.

“If you stick them in the ground, they will grow,” she says.

When it was time, the harvested willow was planted in the ground and woven together to form a tunnel.

“Willows grow upward, so the tunnel will always remain hollow,” Graber says.

The willow will grow two to three feet a year, and Graber plans to revisit the sculpture annually for the next two or three years to weave the new growth back into the sculpture.

Wildlife may take care of some of the pruning.

“Deer love willow, and they might eat some of the new growth,” she says. “Rabbits like willow, too, but this is way too thick for them to eat.”

The living tunnel is located next to the Salamonie Wildlife Pond, an area equipped with picnic tables for people who want to fish or watch wildlife.

Graber will build her second structure at Mississinewa on April 14 and 15, and members of the public are welcome to watch the process.