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Why a Seattle artist is bending willows at Berks Nature

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In a swampy thicket not far from Angelica Creek in Reading, Sarah Kavage taught willows to bend for people to see.

She made a willow canopy over a bench and a serpentine of woven branches that wind into a bottomless basket low enough for a toddler to look through.

There's a willow umbrella of sorts and more surprises tucked away off a path in Angelica Creek Park, the home base for Berks Nature, Berks County's main conservation organization.

The willow weavings echo the history of Angelica Creek Park, an ongoing restoration project that began in 2006 following a dam breach in June 2001 caused by flooding from Tropical Storm Allison.

The dam that formed Angelica Lake burst, and the water drained into the nearby Schuylkill River. Since then, the area has been returned to a wetland habitat through the investment of over a million dollars and a multi-decade restoration project.

Willow is a symbol of healing and restoration, Kavage said.

It is supple, cooperative and working with it is "a little more satisfying than bonsai," she said.

It bends but doesn't break.

"It is persuadable," Kavage said.

"Willow is a generous plant," the artist said as she moved through the thicket recently. The thicket was planted in 2007 by Berks Nature's senior ecologist, Larry Lloyd.

As she worked, a red-winged blackbird perched on a tree branch, surprisingly close. She said it might make a nest, maybe even in the umbrella.

The Seattle-based Kavage wrapped up a one-week stint at Berks Nature's environmental center, The Nature Place, on March 12.

The Nature Place was her first stop on a tour that will take her to 17 environmental sites in the Philadelphia region where she will create in-situ sculptural installations that draw attention to the natural world. Other sites include John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Montgomery County and Cobb's Creek Environmental Center in Philadelphia.

Kavage, 49, is a lead artist for the Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River, a network of environmental groups of 23 environmental centers like The Nature Place in the Philadelphia region and includes centers in New Jersey and Delaware. The Alliance aims to raise awareness and appreciation of the 13,500-square mile system which provides clean drinking water for 13 million people.

In development since 2017, the Lenape-Hoking Watershed Art Project was initiated to build relationships and open channels of mutual understanding between the Centers and their neighbors, said Nancy Becker, a spokesman for the association. Kavage and Adrienne Mackey were selected through a request for proposals in 2018 based on their project proposals that focused on creating deeper connections between communities and the environment.

Gathering of invasive phragmites and hay bale builds are set for April-May. Other installations and the Water Logged! card game will take place summer-fall 2021, Becker said.

Kavage gave a workshop at Berks Nature in the fall. And last year, before the pandemic hit, she worked at the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge in Delaware and Philadelphia counties.

The tour projects include timber carving in the Poconos and weaving with invasive at the Heinz refuge.

While she said her work at The Nature Place was somewhat improvised, Kavage said there was a lot of preparation.

She learned the Appalachian folk art of bent-willow furniture making just for the project. She walked the property with Lloyd to find out what she could use and what she should leave alone.

Kavage, a native of Ohio, is a visual artist with a master's in urban planning. Her place-based art attempts to draw people in to think more and perhaps differently about nature.

Kavage has lived and worked around the world.

She said she loved the landscape of Pennsylvania that she's encountered: the marshes, rivers and rolling hills. And, she has found Pennsylvanians refreshingly direct.

"I appreciate that they say what they think," Kavage said.

Berks Nature plans to install signs to explain the installation and eventually include it on an audio tour of the park, said communications specialist Kaitlyn Tothero.

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