Standing before a row of towering locust trees, Kris Sader gazed up at the long, sharp thorns adorning the branches overhead. A few years ago, she’d used a ladder to reach those thorns, she recalled. With sterile clippers, she’d carefully harvested a spiky bundle of them to use in her artwork.
“I’ll need to measure this again,” she said, wading through the snow to place her hands on the smooth bark of a nearby birch. The tree had grown markedly wider since she had measured it two years before.
For the past several years, Sader, 64, has been planning and creating pieces for an outdoor art installation that will be located in the winter garden of the Lyle E. Littlefield Ornamentals Trial Garden. Located on the campus of the University of Maine in Orono, the garden is just minutes from her home.
In essence, she plans to “clothe” the garden using natural wool combined with plant materials she has collected from the space — including thorns, twigs, beans and seeds. She envisions trees and granite sculptures wrapped with wonderous garments that express the garden in all its seasons.
“I like to tickle the subconscious of the viewers,” said Sader of her artwork.
Primarily a printmaker, Sader began creating site-specific environmental art installations in 2002 after taking an intensive three-week course on the artform.
“I became fascinated,” Sader said. “[In the course] we asked ourselves things like, ‘When you walk through a space, how do you respond to that? Is it something you want to say? Or is it something the site wants to say?’
“At the time, there wasn’t a lot of this going on in the U.S.,” Sader said of the artform.
Wind patterns, bird migrations, apple blossoms and tree bark — these aspects of nature and more have inspired Sader’s many art projects over the years. Nature is often at the center of her work.
“I’ve always liked being out in nature,” Sader said. “It’s a physical kind of work. I love the natural processes, the surprises.”
The winter garden art installation involves many stages and art pieces, she said, and she anticipates it will be ready to install this spring or next winter.
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” said Sader about the installation.
She began the process by gathering plant material from the garden. Twigs, thorns, seeds, beans and nuts — she bundled them up and brought them home. Some material she dried and laid aside; some she wrapped in natural wool, bound the bundles with twine and boiled them in water. She then carried the bundles to the winter garden and buried them in different locations, marking each site with an orange flag.
It wasn’t the typical start to an art project, but Sader had her reasons.
“A lot goes on in the soil,” Sader said. “Even in the wintertime.”
An organic gardener for about 40 years, Sader grew up in Tuscon, Arizona, where she spent her days playing in the desert and “creating things” with her sister, who also has grown up to be an artist. With her husband, Steve, Sader lived in many states and raised two daughters before moving to Maine in 1987.
While her husband taught forestry courses at UMaine, Sader decided to go back to school. She earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a focus in printmaking; a master’s degree of science, ecology and environmental science; and a bachelor’s degree in arts and sciences — all from UMaine, where she taught printmaking for seven semesters.
During her studies, she developed several interests — one being soil ecology, the processes that occur beneath the surface of the earth.
“I’ve buried a lot of things in the soil of our backyard garden over the years, just to see what will happen,” she said, laughter in her voice.
In the spring, Sader unearthed her wool bundles and was delighted in their transformation. The natural materials inside the wool, as well as bacteria in the soil, had stained the pale fabric with yellows, reds, browns and oranges. Also evident were organic patterns — the outline of a bean pod, the stamp of a crabapple.
In her home studio, Sader is using the fabric to create handstitched “garments” for the garden. For a birch tree, she’s creating bands to wrap around its trunk, fastening with handmade maple buttons and decorated with stitching that emphasizes the patterns that formed in the fabric while buried.
Around a locust tree, she plans to create a Victorian-style collar of thorns and fabric, and over a granite boulder, a shelter of twigs tightly stitched together.
With a tinge of humor, Sader describes her artwork as “labor-intensive.” A lot of unseen work goes into both her installations and fine art prints. But the viewer doesn’t need to know about all of that, she said.
“A viewer of art is free to take from it whatever it means to them — and add to it, connect with it on a one-on-one basis,” Sader said. “Art can stand alone.”
This isn’t the first time that Sader has worked in the UMaine gardens. In 2002, she created an art installation called “Subconscious Petals” in the gardens’ crabapple orchard, hanging cotton-based canopies in the trees to record natural events, such as the falling of apple blossoms. And from that work, she also created a series of prints titled “Petal Portraits,” in which she experimented with the natural pigments hidden in the apple blossom petals of 15 different cultivars, which she researched to trace back to their origin.
Sader also has created site-specific art installations at the Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden, where she’s woven together pine needles and cedar branches in the forest to talk about bird migration and the passing of time.
“I like to go and be isolated in the natural environment,” Sader said.
Last May, she spent a week as an artist in residence at a dune shack in the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District on Cape Cod, where she created an installation of “wind recorders,” sculptures of balsa wood and strips of cloth that she printed with designs and colors inspired by the compass grass, carpenter bees and tree swallows she observed around her dune shack.
She recorded the installation with photos and video, and when she returned to Maine, she gave a recent presentation about it called “Impressions of the Cape” at Waterfall Arts in Belfast.
In an effort to make art more accessible to her community, Sader plans to open a studio and gallery space called Dragon Echo this spring in downtown Orono. There she will host two open studio days a week, as well as public art and gardening workshops. The gallery will display her artwork, as well as the artwork of other local artists, she said.