The Tree: Nature and the arts meet with new sculpture at Nature Center’s All People’s Trail

The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes has been busy in the past few years—improving the trails and adding those small touches that have made it such a popular destination for more than 50 years.

But after renovations were completed on the All People’s Trail in November 2019, Nature Center director of development Rob Sikora and his staff realized they wanted something at the entrance that celebrated and reflected the values of the community and the convergence of arts and nature—something that embraced art as a means of communicating the importance, beauty, and fragility of the natural world.

Erik Neff Art Installation at Nature Center at Shaker LakesSo, the Nature Center brought on local artist Erik Neff, a Newbury-based painter and sculptor, to add something special at the Kohl Fund Gateway to the All People’s Trail. The result is a seven-foot-tall, five-foot-wide sculpture that honors its natural surroundings, promotes recycling, and glimmers in the sunlight.

The sculpture with stainless steel beams and 420 pounds of recycled glass in a terrazzo mosaic style embedded in four-inch cement slabs. Neff says he wanted the sculpture to blend with the surroundings of the Nature Center, so the glass reflects the moods of the weather and sky—making for a dynamic art piece that changes as often as Cleveland weather.

The piece was completed in December and is exactly what Sikora was hoping for. “We wanted to have this entrance be a really welcoming, defined space,” he explains. “And we think this installment really defines it.”

Neff, whose first artistic calling is painting, began his design with drawing and paintings before the vision of the sculpture came to him. When China stopped accepting recycling materials from the U.S. in 2018, Neff began accumulating glass bottles.

I hated sending glass and other plastics to the landfill. So, I decided to start storing our waste glass until the recycling industry could readjust,” he says. “It still hasn’t, unfortunately.”

With his accumulating glass bottle collection, Neff saw an opportunity. “I’ve read a lot about glass as a raw building material both in construction and road surface mixes,” he says. “I wanted to ‘do something’ with all of our saved glass. When the opportunity to apply for a public sculpture commission at Shaker Lakes occurred, that seemed like a way to try using that glass.”

Neff not only used the glass in the obvious components of his sculpture, the panes, but he also incorporated crushed glass into the concrete.

“Most of the glass used in the construction of the piece was post-consumer glass from our household—especially from clearing my parents’ house of 57 years over the summer,” he boasts. Neff used about 420 pounds of clear glass to cast the four-inch-thick concrete panels.

Neff used a combination of mosaic and terrazzo techniques for the half-inch colored surface of the panels. He estimates that the crushed glass for this component weighted about 200 pounds.

The terrazzo glass is made up mostly of the kinds of colors found in post-consumer glass—brown, amber, emerald green, brownish green, and cobalt blue. “There were many additional colors that came from glass candle holders, vases, cups, plates, bells, figurines, ash trays, ceiling light shades,” Neff says of his hunt for anything glass to use in the sculpture. “Let’s just say, people kept an eye on me so that I didn’t swipe anything glass to crush.”

Neff also turned to Ben Parsons and Mary Zodnik, founders of Azure Stained Glass Studio, 15602 Waterloo Road in Collinwood, for donations. “They really helped me and the resultant piece with their kind and generous offer of waste stained glass,” says Neff. “The range of colors of glass from their contribution made for a much richer palette.”

The Nature Center’s Sikora says the completed sculpture fits perfectly in its surroundings. “It’s definitely a part of the landscape,” he says. “We really appreciate the fine arts and nature connection, and [Erik] is that perfect example of Mother Nature and man-made art.”

Neff has never officially named his latest installment but admits that he has always referred to it simply as “Tree,” because he says that was what he was visualizing. “I often worry about the name of a piece influencing or limiting the viewer’s perception of it,” explains Neff. “But ultimately it is the viewer that fills in the meaning or context. People have also seen it as a veined leaf, which I like. The structure of a leaf and a tree have some parallels in the nature of branchings—so, that feels right to me.”

Neff says that balance is exactly what he wanted to accomplish with his sculpture. “It is not in a white cube under controlled conditions,” he explains. “I like that it must exist in the same elements and ambient light of its surroundings—at times blocking the view, but hopefully, also bleeding into the objects and patterns around it.”

Neff says he usually prefers to leave his creations unnamed, so viewers can interpret the work as they see it. 

“It always depends on the viewer to make or not make a connection to a piece,” he explains. “Sometimes titles get in the way, sometimes they provide real meaning. The worry is that the title may either seem too pretentious and weighty, or that it may undercut the meaning, allowing the viewer to mentally dismiss it. I always want art to invite the viewer to really look—I like slow viewings. I’m curious to see how that ‘Tree’ exists in the environment.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.