On a beautiful April morning, one log intended for an art installation proved to be a little too heavy to stay upright. Luckily, no people or pickup trucks were damaged as it toppled.
A few deliveries by horse and cart later, Floyd County artist Charlie Brouwer triumphantly secured a couple of much more cooperative logs in place using a huge zip-tie. Once he was satisfied with the arrangement, he planned to fasten the trees in place permanently with metal fixtures.
“We’ve got four up,” Brouwer said, deadpan. “We’ve only got 40 to go.”
Brouwer’s colossal sculpture, “Hedgerow,” when completed will stand alongside a road within Selu Conservancy, a 380-acre retreat and nature preserve that borders the Little River amid farmland in southern Montgomery County. The land was donated by John Bowles and his relatives to Radford University, which uses the expanse as an outdoor classroom.
“When I was asked to do this, I tried to come up with an idea of something that would be fitting to the place,” Brouwer said. “I remembered seeing hedgerows in England, driving along roads where there were tall trees and shrubs growing up together, creating fences.”
Collecting dead locust trees from Selu and treating the wood to deter insects, Brouwer came up with a design that would arrange 35-foot logs into a kind of “poor man’s fence” in a row about 100 feet long.
“They’ll all be leaning on each other, holding each other up, and that will create a large fence kind of form,” Brouwer said. “The groundskeepers of the conservancy will mow around that area but not under the locust trees. Things will grow up in it, vines and small trees and shrubs, and create eventually what will look like a natural hedgerow.”
Cut-out shapes of animals like foxes, bears and hawks, as well as leaves and stars, will be attached to the locust logs, to make it look as if they are “caught in the hedgerow,” Brouwer said.
Bowles, who maintains a home on the property, hails from California — he and his cousins inherited the land that they ended up giving to the university. An art collector who has guest-curated shows for the university art museum, Bowles described the cutout additions as an “homage to the wildlife of Selu” and the entire artistic statement of the piece as “art and nature being integrated.”
Commissioned in 2019, “Hedegrow” was originally meant to be completed in fall 2020, in time to coincide with “Leaves of the Tree,” a joint exhibition in Radford University’s Covington Center gallery in which Brouwer, a Radford art professor emeritus, collaborated with his daughter Jill Hand, an art instructor at Virginia Tech who earned her Master of Fine Arts degree at Radford. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the construction of “Hedgerow.”
To move the logs while “on a budget,” as Brouwer put it, he had originally planned to tap the manpower of the university’s rugby team, whose members had done volunteer work at the conservancy before. When the pandemic made that impossible, Brouwer got the idea to ask Jason Rutledge of Ridgewind Suffolk Farm in Copper Hill to haul the logs using a team of horses in environmentally low-impact fashion.
“It’s environmentally pure,” Brouwer said. “We got in touch with him and he was interested in doing it.”
Rutledge and his assistant Aaron Shannon, 21, a student from Berea College in Kentucky, spent the morning attaching logs to a cart pulled by two Suffolk Punch draft horses. These horses are “the rarest and the oldest draft breed in the Western world,” Rutledge said. “There’s less than 1,000 of them left on the planet.”
Standing next to the road that takes visitors to an overlook called Big John’s Laughing Place, “Hedgerow” is intended to be just the first of several large artworks displayed at Selu.
“We’re trying to get more use out of Selu and we’ve been stymied of course by COVID,” said Radford University Art Museum director Steve Arbury. One of the ideas for Selu “is to start having some outdoor sculpture here and create various trails lined with sculpture, and this would be the first monumental piece here.”
In June, the works in the outdoor sculpture courtyard on the Radford University campus will need to move as Porterfield Hall is demolished to make way for the construction of a new arts building. A couple of those outdoor sculptures, such as Deborah La Grasse’s steel and aluminum “Speculations on Nature,” will likely be relocated to the conservancy, Arbury said.
Aside from “Hedgerow,” the university is continuing its tree-themed arts programming with a series of workshops for teachers, “Sprigs of the Tree,” about ways to use materials like leaves, twigs, bark and roots to make art. Spearheaded by art education professor Lou Ann Thompson and New River Valley artists Nikki Pynn and Carolee Bondurant, with advice from new art depatrment chair Stuart Robinson, the workshops will be held at the conservancy.
For more information on “Hedgerow,” visit https://ruarboreal.com/art-at-selu/.