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Smoky Hill River Festival
Salina, Kansas, June 12-14, 1998

"...for it is when art acts as an agent of transformation that we may correctly speak of it as a gift." –The Gift, by Lewis Hyde

As I considered the Salina Art Center's invitation to create a temporary public sculpture for the 1998 Smoky Hill River Festival, I began to see the opportunity for an experiment in hidden art. Rather than presenting festival-goers with the expected – an object to be stood before and beheld – I thought it would be more interesting to challenge them with the subtle and unexpected. I knew from the beginning that the idea involved some risk, but I was heartened by my past experiences in Salina. The generous and knowing response of the Art Center's audience to an earlier exhibition of mine encouraged me to take a chance.

The idea was to scatter one thousand cast bronze sticks throughout the festival grounds. Anyone who found one could keep it. I thought of the bronze stick as working on several different levels. On one level it served as a game piece in a massive treasure hunt. On another it might serve as a memento of this year's festival. As a component in an artwork, I thought of it as functioning on both an actual and a symbolic level. I saw it as a physical token of what is normally an abstract exchange between artist and audience. My intent was to present the opportunity for a momentary reenchantment with the ordinary and at the same time to provide a souvenir of that experience. The title Kindling refers not only to the physical likeness of the project's elements to dry sticks of wood used to start a fire but also to one of the definitions of the verb kindle: "to arouse or inspire." With the title I wanted to acknowledge my own belief in the power of art to transform and also to express my wish that this particular work might possess a small portion of that power.

Bonded sand was used to form molds from one thousand actual sticks gathered and trimmed to a length of nine inches, a size chosen for comfort and portability. Each unique casting weighed about six ounces. Because I felt that the element of surprise was an important aspect of the project, the bronze sticks were given an antique patina so that the replicas would blend with the natural litter under the trees and along the riverbank of Oakdale Park. Sensitive to the project's unusual requirements for furtiveness, the festival staff issued deliberately ambiguous publicity for Kindling. Preview materials for the project read: "Art is everywhere in the park this year. Find it and it is yours forever." In the studio, as I pressed the still-plastic sand up against each original or held each raw casting against the grinding wheel, I often thought about the anonymous hands that would complete the process.

The bronze sticks were scattered throughout the park early in the morning before the crowds arrived. They were placed where twigs might normally fall or accumulate. Some were laid in open areas where even the right turn of sunlight on metal might offer a clue, while others were tucked away in more challenging spots under bushes or in tall grass. My hope was that someone would stumble upon one of these curiosities and that, once the secret presence was discovered, word-of-mouth would launch a communal treasure hunt. I worried for a while, fearing that none would be discovered. But before long my concern was eased by the sight of people meandering along the riverbank with their heads down. As time passed, the rumor of the bronze sticks became as much a part of the festival as the games, the music, and the food. I was relieved and delighted as I observed solitary seekers, families, and bands of teenagers combing the grounds for hidden treasure. The festival staff's fear that some sticks would remain as booby traps for the park's lawnmowers was allayed by the sight of children and adults crawling under shrubbery in search of metallic booty.

A picture is worth a thousand words. The photograph of the smiling young girl wearing a LUCKY tee shirt and holding a bronze stick is my own souvenir of Kindling. Like most artists, I usually do not know on a personal level how my work is received. Once we let our creations go, we can only hope that our work will grant a moment of amusement or wonder or escape or maybe even prompt some small change in attitude or reawakening of spirit. For me the pleasure of the project was being able to witness in anonymity the reaction of an audience to my work.

Set free during a weekend in June, each object has now begun its own individual history. Some will be treasured, and some forgotten. Some will be lost forever, and some refound. In retrospect I consider the possibilities. Does one serve as a paperweight? Is one lost already in the darkness at the back of a drawer? Has one been generously passed on to another and in turn passed on again? Does one sit proudly on a mantle, the warmth of the fire inducing a vague remembrance of its origin? I'm reminded of the old saying that firewood warms you twice, once when it's gathered and once when it's burned. I wonder if the immediate surprise and joy of finding an unusual stick on a hot summer afternoon will be rekindled now and again by these gifts I offered.