Ash Story: An outdoor eco-installation

an art installation by 

Mary Abma, Peggy DeVries and Marcia Lea

Assistants: Icua Read, Zabi Aslamzada and Skye Bradie

Location: Hampton Park on Island Park Drive.

Materials: ash wood chips, ash ashes, ash leaves, beet dye, acrylic paint, glass bowl, and ash log

Created: June 2015 in Ottawa, Canada

Thanks to Davis Art School, Ottawa, and to the National Capital Commission who helped to make this project a reality.

For more information on the impact of the EAB, please visit Forest Invasives.

This video shows the completed installation on site at Hampton Park.

To view the video, please follow this link:

Today was the day! And what beautiful weather we had! We couldn't have asked for better. We were thankful to welcome Icua, Zabi and Skye on board to help us with all of the work. 

As soon as we arrived, we began work on the stump. We had purchased a glass bowl, which we set in the hollow in the centre of the trunk. First, we placed the ash that was created by burning ash logs in the centre of the depression. Once the bowl was in place, we began to build up the edges with the wood we had scooped from the trunk and then with some ash wood chips. We wanted to build a circular pattern that radiated from the centre. The chips created a nimbus around the water.

Once the bowl was in place, we filled it with water. the final touch was to float pressed ash leaves on the surface of the water. They, too, were placed in a circular pattern.

In order to highlight the D-shaped exit holes created in the trunk by the ash borer, we painted them green. It was during this process that I noticed that one of the holes was not empty. I carefully peeled away the bark to reveal the body of an ash borer that had died while trying to emerge from the tree.

We made the shadow of the ash tree that had once lived from wood chips from Ottawa ash trees. 

Finally, in recognition of the fact that the EAB destroys the phloem (circulatory/digestive system) of the tree, and to symbolically link the tree's destiny with our own human health, we referenced a circulatory system with paint on the stump and with dyed wood chips within the shadow.

An exhausted team at the end of a long day:

Today was a busy day at Marcia's studio in Davis Art School. At the beginning of the day, the three of us sat down over coffee and had a brianstorming session. We wanted to use the stump as a base from which the shadow of the former ash tree would fall.

We discussed the shape of an ash tree and how the shadow would fall on the ground. We decided that the shadow should point east. The east symbolizes a place of birth, of the rising sun. The Anishinabe people describe the significance of the compass points on this page, which we read together. We also discussed what we would do with the focal point, the core of the stump. We decided that it should symbolize new birth and discussed how its shape reminded us of a baptismal font.

Peggy got to work sketching ash trees.

Other jobs that day included:

Making a sign that would not blow away (from the remains of an ash tree, of course):

Doing some "proof of concept" work:

Dyeing some wood chips with natural (beet) dye:

and bagging wood chips and loading them into our cars so that we could transport them to the park!

The first thing we did, today, was to visit Hampton Park, on Island Park Drive, in Ottawa. We went there to find the perfect location for Sunday's installation. Right off of the parking lot, I spotted the largest ash tree stump I had ever seen.

In the evening at 7 p.m., I gave a talk at Davis Art School. The talk outlined my ongoing series of artworks about the loss of our ash trees due to the Emerald Ash Borer. Here are a few quotes from my talk:

Once I learned to identify the ash and had begun to walk among them, I began to mourn their passing. Something I did not know was now lost to me and I felt it deeply. I wondered: “What if we felt every loss to our ecosystems the way we feel the loss of a person? Would it make a difference?

We don’t see directly the effects of what we do. We might “know” that there could be consequences if we move firewood, for example, but we don’t see the insects, we don’t believe the experts, and besides, why should we pay $5.00 for firewood when we already have some? And the metaphor goes deeper--destruction of what is sacred. 

Does art have a role in all of this? I believe that art can stimulate us to see things in a new way, to create awareness of our environment, to encourage deep thought and reflection.