By Steve Kash
Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
Petra Nyendick recalls that when she moved to Terre Haute in 2005 in hopes of opening an art gallery, one of her initial surprises was usage of the Wabash River by people in the city was so light.
“Except for some activities in Fairbanks Park,” Nyendick said, “most people in Terre Haute rarely even see the river because the concrete bridges crossing the Wabash obstruct its view — it’s as if, in modern times people have tried to fight nature by controlling it instead of learning how to more fully enjoy it.”
Fortunately, interest in the Wabash River has been slowly increasing around Terre Haute due to the efforts of several people, and 2013 was declared Terre Haute’s “The Year of the River” in fall 2011 as a consequence of activities directed by Mary Kramer, a friend of Nyendick’s. Kramer is the executive director of Art Spaces, a group funded to build art projects in public places.
Once the Year of the River initiative kicked off, local groups and businesses began considering ways to draw positive attention to the Wabash.
Nyendick immediately wanted to do what she could. From 2006 to 2011, she was the proprietress of the Swope Art Museum’s Halcyon Gallery. During the years she ran the Halcyon, many of the Wabash Valley’s premier artists exhibited in the gallery. Nyendick is now the director of Indiana State University’s Community School of the Arts program.
“I’m from Toronto,” Nyendick said. “We have so many lakes and rivers, and the city is right beside Lake Ontario. My parents had a cottage on a huge lake a couple hours north of Toronto. Almost every weekend during the summer we went there. After I heard about the Year of the River, I hoped that if I could get a group of artists organized we could do something meaningful related to the river. I realized I had about a year to get something going.”
In January 2012, Nyendick invited 20 professional artists from around the Valley to her home to see if any would be willing to help. What happened next was an atomic chain reaction of individual creativity supported by an outpouring of generosity of several public-spirited local businesses. What resulted is the Watermark Landing project.
On May 18, the project was installed in Fairbanks Park. There will be an official dedication ceremony of the Watermark Landing attended by Mayor Duke Bennett at 1 p.m. June 23 at the site’s location by the river.
At Nyendick’s first gathering, 15 people offered to donate time to the effort. At subsequent meetings, the group brainstormed for a suitable project.
“We wanted to do something near the river in Fairbanks Park, but we talked about five or six ideas before we found the right one,” Nyendick said. “One of our initial ideas was redesigning and decorating Fairbanks’ water arch, but eventually we decided against changing its original purpose. We also thought of erecting a temporary project that would stay up during the Year of the River, but all possibilities we considered had downsides.”
A trip to California by two of the group’s artists resulted in an idea that turned into the Watermark Landing.
Zach Chambers, an engineering professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and his wife, Edie Richards, went to southern California with Rose-Hulman’s Eco Car II project, a 16-school competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and other corporate sponsors. During the trip, they stayed at the Renaissance Hotel in Hollywood.
During her time at the hotel, Richards became charmed by a long walkway leading to an outdoor plaza. The walkway consisted of stepping stone tiles that were each decorated with an imbedded mosaic image.
“If an artistic walk could have appeal in Hollywood, I believed it might work in Terre Haute,” Richards said. “We had already considered having a decorative walkway near the river using glass, but tiles would be safer because they would not get slippery.”
After the artists agreed to the idea, plans were eventually finalized to establish a 16- by 14-foot decorative site made of 30, two-foot square stepping stones along with a concrete sidewalk composed of Wabash River aggregate leading from the park’s existing riverfront sidewalk to the landing. Final installation would include two stone benches and have a sign explaining the stones and memorializing the artists who designed them.
Nyendick appointed her husband, John Davidson (also one of the group’s artists), to coordinate Watermark Landing activities. In their free time during the coming year, Davidson and Nyendick immersed themselves in raising funds and coordinating the numerous logistics of the project.
“When we approached the city of Terre Haute’s Park and Recreation Department with our plans for Fairbanks Park, they loved it,” Nyendick said. “We were given permission to install our Watermark Landing 40 feet from the edge of the riverbank, a short distance south of the park’s children’s play area.
“Then we approached Garmong Construction, and Brian Kooistra, Garmong’s director of operations, was excited with the concept of the Watermark Landing and agreed to help. Without Garmong, there’s no way we could have accomplished this. They did the surveying, digging and laying of the foundation, and then they laid the sidewalk and poured the concrete between the stepping stones when they were finally set in place.”
Other businesses Nyendick credits with playing major roles in the Watermark project are American Tile, which donated the stepping stone tiles; Kelly Metals, which donated a 36- by 48-inch educational metal sign; and Terre Haute Savings Bank and the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission, who offered financial assistance. Two of the group’s artists, Jo Anne Fiscus and Susan Tingley, donated a stone bench in memory of a parent. The benches will be positioned beside the Watermark Landing with overlooks of the river.
Watermark artist Todd Stokes, owner of the Golden Frame, agreed to use his business facility as the depot for the decorative tiles.
Each artist originally agreed to design two tiles. When completed these would be attached with thinset to 100-pound concrete slabs and set into the landing. The Watermark artists sketched their ideas and then presented them to group member David Erickson, an art professor emeritus at Indiana State, to do a layout for the landing.
“I wish more people in the Terre Haute area had a connection to the river,” said Tingley, who ended up decorating three tiles. “This project was very personal for me. I’ve always loved going up the Wabash. When friends or family come from out of town, I try to take them on jet boat rides.”
Tingley, like the other artists, did research on the Wabash and its heritage before choosing a river-related theme.
“One of my tiles is a Sandhill Crane, which is an important symbol of the Miami Indians, who lived along the Wabash before the arrival of Europeans,” said Tingley. “The word ‘Wabash’ is derived from the Miami word ‘Ouabache.’ Images of Sandhill Cranes are currently on the crests of the Miami’s tribal flags.”
Another tile Tingley designed bears the images of buttons, a testament to the Wabash’s once-plentiful mussel reefs gave rise to button factories in the Valley; her third tile shows a musical note. Terre Haute’s Paul Dresser wrote “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” which became the official song of Indiana in 1913. “The Wabash Cannonball” is the signature song of both ISU’s Marching Sycamores band and Purdue University’s marching band.
Like most artists in the Watermark group, Tingley found that using tile as an artistic medium was challenging. The only member of the group who had worked with tile before was Richards.
Each artist was given a selection of colored tiles to choose from. They selected three tones. Tiles then had to be broken either by hammering or a wet saw. The pieces were fit like a jigsaw puzzle to create in mosaic form the images artists chose to portray.
Artist Rob Bradfield also feels a personal connection with the Wabash; he used his tiles to depict a kayak and a riverboat.
“I’ve been kayaking up and down the river for years,” Bradfield said. “Within 20 minutes after pushing off from the dock, I feel like I’m in a wild area far away from the city. … Sometimes I commune with nature by taking pictures.”
While grappling with the difficulties of producing art using tiles, Bradfield changed his original design from having rounded corners to having squared corners. He cut his pieces using an electric wet saw.
Trevor Bridgewater, who did a tile with the Year of the River logo and another of a canoe paddle, grew up in Clinton. “I’m delighted to be associated with the Watermark Landing project,” he said, “but when I began actually working with tile — whoa! I’d never done anything like this. I had my dad help me work. He’s a retired construction contractor.
“The Watermark Landing is my first meaningful contact with the river since college. The Wabash is a source of great personal memories. When I was growing up, my dad and I used to canoe a lot on the river. Sometimes we would put our boats in at the landing in Montezuma; then we paddled down to an island near the mouth of where Raccoon Creek enters the river. A rough cabin was on the island where we stayed. Dad, his friends, and I would camp there and fish and party. Other times dad and I canoed south of Clinton to the boat landing in Tecumseh. Along the way there are some long, beautiful sandbars most people in this area have never seen.”
Stokes also has had a close relationship with the Wabash, dating back to when he was a boy growing up watching boat races with his grandfather from the banks of Fairbanks Park.
Stokes’ stepping stone designs depict the river as geometric images. His work is formed with two colors of tile: green for the earth and blue for water.
“It took me five hours to cut and piece together each of my tiles,” Stokes said. “I’ve never worked with tile. I found it challenging. I’m thankful that Rose-Hulman allowed me to borrow a water jet to cut my tiles into the form I needed.”
The Chambers/Richards family’s contributions to the stepping stone platform include a tinge of irony. One of Chambers’ tiles shows Fort Harrison, which when it was erected in 1811 was designed to defend European settlers from attacks by Indians. A few years later, Terre Haute came into being as a consequence of the original fort.
Richards traces her ancestry to a great-grandmother who was a member of the Eel River tribe — the Eel is one of the Wabash’s first major tributaries in its 375-mile journey from western Ohio to the Ohio River. Richards grew up in northeastern Indiana near Auburn, where local streams form the early tributaries of the Wabash. One of Richards’ tiles shows an alligator snapping turtle and the other a yellow-crowned night heron.
“I think using tile is a perfect way to tell the story of the Wabash,” Richards said. “Down through the ages most people who have not had the opportunity to learn how to read, so art has often been used to tell messages. Maybe our tiles will inspire a book to be written or somebody will want to buy a boat and explore the river or in some other way be inspired to take advantage of the Wabash’s possibilities in his or her life.”
Other tiles depict typical Wabash River creatures, including Sujata Gopalan’s “fish,” Laura Mason’s “Frog,” Jo Anne Fiscus’ “Crawdad” and “Great Blue Heron,” David Erickson’s “Cardinal” and “A Carp Per Diem,” and Heather Loney did a dragonfly called “Devil’s Darning Needle.” Some tiles depict vegetation, such as Laura Mason’s “Leaf,” John Davidson’s, “Lily Pads,” and Stephanie Standish’s “Fresh Indiana Produce.” A few tiles are mind-tickling, including John Gardner’s “It Shines White” and Petra Nyendick’s “Tap Water” depicts a kitchen faucet to remind people that the Wabash is the source of our drinking water.
Erickson’s final layout of the Watermark Landing is a subtle blending of colors, shapes and themes that manages to be thought-provoking and pleasing to the eye while not pretentious — a people-friendly landmark that for generations to come will attract the attention of curious onlookers from near and far.
Some people will sit on the benches by the landing, relaxing in the moment. Others may be stimulated by the artistic ambience to consider new life possibilities. Or, once in a while, a happy couple visiting the landing might hear the melody of the river and suddenly begin dancing atop its decorative tiles under the moon and stars.