A Brain Grows in Tremont: Public works of sculptor Olga Ziemska
Where Professor Ave. meets West 10th St., a giant’s head peeks out of the sidewalk. From the flat top of its skull, a steel trunk sprouts into a canopy of spikey branches. The stalk is in two senses a “dendrite”—a tree as named in Greek, and one of the bushy appendages on a neuron which receives transmissions from other cells.
During the Tremont Art Walk, diners and aesthetes walking past the sculpture snap pictures of its cerebral weirdness. On a bright weekday afternoon, it has turned back into landscape, seen but unremarked upon. Students on their way back from school sit atop the cranium to chat, or roll skateboards off of it to do flipping tricks.
The latter use has been a surprise to the head’s sculptor.
“In the future, maybe I’d like to design for skaters,” said artist Olga Ziemska, diplomatically implying extreme sports hadn’t been one of her intentions for this piece. However, she meant for the work to be used as a bench. Ziemska has always worked to make her pieces part of the environment in which it is installed. Whether by their form, material, or function, Ziemska’s work is always in conversation with its surroundings.
This holistic awareness of situations has allowed Ziemska to carve out a niche for herself. Since 2009, Ziemska has secured a public arts commission every year. So far, all her projects have been in Cleveland, Columbus, or at Kent State University. Most of her Cleveland projects have been orchestrated in partnership with LAND Studio, a nonprofit promoting the conscientious use of public spaces. She is currently in the very early preliminary stages for a street-level work in Columbus.
Her most recent finished work, “Cellular,” is a permanent lobby installation finished this year for the Westin Cleveland Downtown hotel. It is a shoulder-high head, hairless, slightly masculine in its features. Its mouth is still with contentment, the eyes closed but not clenched, as in a light sleep. It is made of hundreds of precisely-sawed wooden cores. All the wood was collected from trees removed or trimmed in the Tremont and East 9th St. area of Cleveland. This rescuing of material was not only prevented it from becoming trash, but places viewers in the midst of the region’s native flora, in the middle of the city.
“It’s an effort to reclaim natural history in Cleveland,” said Ziemska.
Back in Tremont, “Dendrite” is a neighborhood meeting spot, and an eye-catcher for visitors strolling between Tremont’s bars and cafes. But beyond its function as a neighborhood asset, the sculpture is steeped in its place’s past and present. Ziemska says that her conception of the sculpture was preceded by deep research into Tremont’s history. Especially interesting to her was the neighborhood’s former status as a college town, back in the days of Cleveland University, a legacy recorded in local street names like Literary, Professor, and College. Hence “Dendrite’s” brainy theme and imagery.
Ziemska simultaneously invokes imagery of forests and grey cells to draw attention not only to their structural similarities, but to their shared existence as growing, evolved things. The most frequently recurring theme in Ziemska’s work is the myth of separation between humanity and nature. Ziemska wishes not only to correct mistaken conceptions of our species’ place in the order of things, but also to make palpable our dependence on and duties towards the environment.
“I don’t think the current dictionary definition of ‘nature’ is enough, because it doesn’t include humans. I think if a lot of people were to be connected to nature, a lot of things would be different,” Ziemska said.
Some of Ziemska’s earliest exhibited work urged viewers to see themselves as one living thing among many. “Matka” series featured feminine figures built out of plant materials collected from where she was working. During Ziemska’s 2002 Fulbright Fellowship in Poland, the Matka was made of willow twigs; when she went to South Korea in 2012, it was bamboo.
When Ziemska worked with such organic materials, the resulting pieces lived ephemeral lives. She usually let the leaves and branches deteriorate over their natural lifetimes. But now—and not without irony recognized by the artist—Ziemska’s practice has moved towards public art installations, maybe the most self-consciously permanent medium.
Ziemska’s shift came in 2009, when she won a sculpture contest sponsored by the Yellow Springs Art Council. Her piece, “Flock of Hands,” required her to sit for half an hour each with a parade of the town’s residents while she made molds of their hands. While talking with her patient collaborators, Ziemska discovered the rewards of making art that addresses people directly, instead of challenging them to reconstruct the artist’s perspective.
“As an artist, you make work for yourself. I was kind of getting tired of being that insular…I wanted to make work which considers viewers. It’s less about making them try to understand, and more about bringing them into a conversation and seeing connections,” Ziemska said.