Twenty years before his first river weaving installation, John Siblik sat in an off-loom weaving class at Northern Illinois University-DeKalb dreaming up something unique — an idea for a conceptual weave. His professor at the time encouraged him to see it through.
Fast forward to 2006. Siblik, who was an associate professor of art at Upper Iowa University, was laid up with a back injury for two weeks. He finally had the time to take the project from concept to completion. That summer, he installed his first River Weaving installation on Otter Creek near Elgin, Iowa, for Take A Kid Outdoors (TAKO), an organization dedicated to providing immersive outdoor experiences for children. “River Weaving” became popular in Iowa. As a result, Siblik was invited to install the exhibit five different times, and received a grant from the Iowa Arts Council in 2008, along with having “River Weaving” at the Des Moines Art Center.
For his sixth installation, the current dean of the School of Liberal Arts returned to his home state of Illinois this past summer at the invitation of John Lustig, director of the Illinois State Art Museum. Employing the help of his family, friends, students and others, Siblik constructed 101 elements for a quarter-mile stretch of the Illinois & Michigan (I&M) Canal in Lockport. He scavenged many river banks and areas around Fayette and the Volga State Recreation area for willow branches to build the 6-foot by 3-foot structures he calls elements. Each element contains 12 pieces of willow secured together by willow loops, screws and wire.
“I like to think of myself as a landscape painter who is finding ways to work with the landscape in the 21st century, and that does not necessarily include painting on a canvas sitting in your studio or, as the impressionists did, in plain air,” said Siblik.
Siblik says he likes giving the audience a voice in defining the work. Some people have said his sculptures look like stitches on the water. For Siblik, that vision seems fitting. The I&M is a man-made canal dug by hand in the 1830s. When he was a kid growing up in nearby Lemont, no one ever went near the I&M due to pollution. “Talking to some local people, they can recall one Christmas in the 1960s or 70s when the canal was on fire,” said Siblik. “When someone says these (elements) are like a stitch, to me it’s like ‘River Weaving’ is a part of the healing process of this waterway as it is transformed back to a more natural stream. Hopefully, it can be an element of this community that can be enjoyed.”
In some ways, it already is. As Siblik and friends installed “River Weaving” in June, he saw children catching crawfish and playing near the canal. His 14-year-old daughter Piper, caught a large-mouth bass with her bare hands when she was helping with the installation this summer.
“River Weaving” on the I&M Canal has received national coverage, first with the Chicago Tribune and stretching across the country.