A tree grows in St. Johns: ‘Mother Tree’ brings big public art to Lansing’s east side


Thursday morning, a fabulous scene out of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” played out in a cluttered motorcycle shop in St. Johns, north of Lansing.

Two men were assembling a half-woman, half-tree out of metal.

One by one, they smoothed hundreds of sinuous steel shards onto a rigid frame, until they assumed the contours of a woman’s face and back. Acetylene torches marked each step of this strange ritual with a blinding blue flash and a shower of sparks.

The shop floor was covered with metal shards. Sculptor Ivan Iler searched for the perfect swirl to smooth onto the woman’s face. His longtime assistant, Travis McGinnis, zapped another piece into place along her spine. Nearby were a set of reference drawings and an empty can of Unicorn Farts beer.

A chain stretched upward from the woman-tree’s scalp into a high canopy, like the tower where Dr. Frankenstein hoisted his creature to touch the lightning.  Bare branches towered high above the torso, waiting for thousands of stainless steel leaves to be attached.

Nearby, a second tower of steel, nearly 15 feet tall, was coalescing into a muscular braid of human legs and tree roots — the base of the sculpture.

Iler didn’t have much time to savor the scene. He was under the gun.

“Mother Tree,” a monumental, 40-foot-tall sculpture commemorating the diverse and close-knit Prospect Place neighborhood on Lansing’s east side, was due to be erected in Hunter Park the following Thursday (Aug. 10) with a big community party. A freshly poured concrete pedestal was waiting.

Thousands of temporary spot welds had to be made permanent on the mosaic-like skin. And then there was the foliage. Iler had no idea how many laser-cut leaves were stacked in the plastic crates on the floor.

“How many are there? All of them,” Iler joked. “It’s going to be tight. There are going to be some sleepless nights.”

Although Iler made a reference sketch for “Mother Tree,” he prefers “sketching in metal,” shaping the work as he builds. 
Although Iler made a reference sketch for “Mother Tree,” he prefers “sketching in metal,” shaping the work as he builds. 

Worthy of beauty

It doesn’t take much to provoke a shindig on Lansing’s east side, especially along the Kalamazoo Street corridor. The community is already woven together by dozens of activities and programs, from a farmers market to a garden house, a food pantry, refugee services, free ice cream days at the Eastside Lansing Food Co-op, swimming, soccer, yoga, yadda yadda. What more could it want?

The “Mother Tree” sculpture in Hunter Park promises to provide a crowning touch. Unsurprisingly, its unveiling Thursday will spark a big community “Summer Art Celebration” at Hunter Park that afternoon.

Yasmina Bouraoui, the instigator of the sculpture project, called it a “small but mighty” neighborhood.

In 2015, after living for 25 years in East Lansing, Bouraoui moved to Lansing’s Prospect Place neighborhood, a strip of Lansing’s east side that lies between Michigan Avenue to the north and Kalamazoo Street to the south, from Holmes Street to the west and Allen Street to the east.

“Like much of the east side, we’re colorful and quirky and really diverse,” Bouraoui said. “We have artists, students, factory workers, state workers, everything in between.”

She often takes her grandkids to Hunter Park.

“It’s a beautiful park with lots of amenities, but there’s no art, there isn’t that touch of cultural beauty,” she said.

In fall 2021, while thumbing through the Allen Neighborhood Center newsletter, she spotted a notice for an Arts Impact Grant for $75,000 from the city of Lansing.

The grants go to “a permanent creative structure” that “enhances a neighborhood’s appearance and kindles community engagement” in the city.

Bouraoui saw Ivan Iler’s work on the Netflix series “Metal Masters,” a reality show where metal smiths create art on demand in a competitive setting — a British cook-off show, with rivets.

She took the bull by the horns and called Iler in 2021. He agreed to help her make the pitch for the grant, but he had conditions.

“If you work with me, you have to trust me,” he told her. He didn’t want to deal with micromanaging from people with the purse strings.

“School didn’t agree with me,” Iler said. “I was the kind of person who didn’t like to be told what to do, and probably still am.”

“You’re the artist,” she replied.

Iler had already proven himself in Lansing with “Portrait of a Dreamer,” also known as the “gear head,” a titanic metal being that presides over the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Museum Drive.

“Dreamer” is a bold cascade of functioning metal gears, springing from the head of a silvery colossus. The bravura sculpture turns heads downtown while deftly capturing Lansing’s self-image as a hub for manufacturing brawn, represented by all those gears, and high-tech brains, embodied in the giant cranium.

Bouraoui, Prospect Place Neighborhood Association President Ethan Schmitt and a group of residents were confident that Iler would come up with a similarly spectacular and neighborhood-specific work for the east side.

“We feel like it’s time for this community to be recognized and to be celebrated, to call attention to the work that’s been going on for 22 years and to tell east siders they’re worthy of beauty too,” Bouraoui said.


Iler and McGinnis weld hundreds of flakes of metal skin (or is it bark?) onto the frame of the “Mother Tree” in Iler’s St. Johns workshop last Thursday.
Iler and McGinnis weld hundreds of flakes of metal skin (or is it bark?) onto the frame of the “Mother Tree” in Iler’s St. Johns workshop last …

Fast and naturally

The design for “Mother Tree” came to Iler fast and naturally. In fall 2021, he walked the Prospect Place neighborhood, toured the Allen Neighborhood Center and talked with residents.

“It’s such a family there,” Iler said. “Everybody looks out for one another. They also care a lot about the trees in their area. The ‘Mother Tree’ seemed very fitting.”

To  Schmitt, a tree was the perfect symbol of “how something can be beautiful and also serve a really important function.”

“With climate change, shade is literally life saving,” Schmitt said. “Trees soak up a ton of carbon dioxide and are saving the entire world. There is so much that trees do that not only make the neighborhood more beautiful, but functionally, a lot better to live in for everybody.”

Iler was also aware of recent research suggesting that some patches of forest are home to “mother trees” that share resources with surrounding trees and even warn them of potential threats, via chemical signals.

“Mother Tree” won’t do that, but Schmitt expects it to serve a practical function in addition to its aesthetic and symbolic qualities.

“It will slow down a lot of that traffic on Kalamazoo Street,” Schmitt said. “So many kids go to that park. Lives might be saved and injuries prevented by cars just slowing down. If you want to make a corridor thrive, you have to have slow traffic.”

Iler made a reference sketch, but the surging limbs and epic proportions of the sculpture taking shape in St. Johns bear little resemblance to his humble drawing.

His creativity bubbles up mainly during the process of building. He calls it “sketching in metal.”

“I start with a drawing, but I sculpt by letting something build itself, letting it become what it wants to be,” he said. “That’s what makes it fun for me. Once you actually start to make something, it will tell you things you didn’t even think of asking it,”

With “Mother Tree,” Iler has grown fully into his dream life. During the pandemic, his motorcycle business went dry and he decided to make a living as a full-time artist.

It wasn’t the first time he bet on himself.

“I’ve always been an artist,” he said. “I was the one who was drawing on the desk, the one they said wasn’t going to amount to anything.”

He comes from Drummond Island, but his family moved to New Mexico for much of his childhood. He was back in Michigan by fifth grade.

He started as a tattoo artist, to make ends meet, but when the recession tightened, he got a job at a car parts shop in Owosso. By 2008, he was working at a gas station, building motorcycles on the side, when he got tired of working for other people and started his own motorcycle shop.

“You’ve got metalworking, painting, leather work, all these things I love to do, rolled into one,” he said.

His passion for creating large sculptures on the side developed into a series of public works, beginning with a “splash of aluminum” at a park in St. Johns and a “little aluminum man” climbing a ledge in Grand Ledge.

In 2018, Iler created a 25-foot-tall brown trout sculpture for village of Baldwin in Lake County, billed as the “world’s largest brown trout sculpture.” Iler had found a brown trout sculpture in New Zealand that was 20 feet tall, so he upped the ante in Baldwin to 25 feet.

The trout is an airy, dynamic head-turner that RoadsideAmerica.com called “an artistic, but not unpleasing, depiction of the humble campfire fish.”

Iler’s life tilted more decisively toward art after his 2021 stint on “Metal Masters,” which he called “surreal in the moment, but fun.”

He stuck it out for an entire season, fulfilling tasks like making a mobile in 10 hours, getting used to working under pressure.

He was shocked by the torrent of feedback he got from being on the show, from as far as South Africa.

“It took me by surprise,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I had touched people on the other side of the world. But as an artist, that’s what you’re trying to do — put your work out there into the world and get recognition for what you do. That’s what we do as human beings. We want recognition for the things we put into the world.”

Iler’s 25-foot-long brown trout, installed in 2018 and billed as “the world’s largest brown trout sculpture,” has become the prime attraction and civic emblem of the village of Baldwin, Mich., in Lake County.
Iler’s 25-foot-long brown trout, installed in 2018 and billed as “the world’s largest brown trout sculpture,” has become the prime attraction …


Art corridor

Rummaging through hundreds of laser-cut shards of bark Thursday, Iler seemed unfazed by the magnitude and complexity of “Mother Tree.”

“You’re always trying to outdo yourself, make something more beautiful than what you’ve already made,” he said.

As a highly visible outdoor sculpture, “Mother Tree” has to be as graceful as a goddess, but built like a tank. Iler, McGinniss and another trusty helper, Kenneth Wesner, used every trick they know — and some new ones — to fuse form and function. As the sculpture’s head took shape Thursday, a sturdy brace was still visible behind the Mother Tree’s slender neck. In the coming days, the brace would be hidden by sweeping steel swooshes that morph from locks of hair to bark-covered branches.

The flakes of bark and skin are made of weathering steel, an alloy that doesn’t need painting and develops a rich, orange-and-brown, rust-like patina. With the passing of the seasons, the earthy colors of the trunk will sharply contrast with the eternally silver, stainless steel leaves.

Leaves are a reliable way to identify tree species, and this specimen is no exception.

“They’re Mother Tree leaves,” Iler explained with a smile. “They’re roughly like a deciduous tree, a little bit like a maple, but it’s also its own species.”

Iler used the same leaf design when he built new bike racks in front of the Allen Neighborhood Center across Kalamazoo Street from Hunter Park. The leaf-shaped racks, painted in fall colors, were installed last week.

“I thought that by making the bike racks look like the leaves that were on the ‘Mother Tree,’ that would be a good way to tie that area together through the artwork,” Iler said.

In that spirit, Bouraoui hopes the “Mother Tree” will boost an ongoing effort to make Kalamazoo Street a corridor for public art. In 2020, Prospect Place got grants for colorfully painted bus stops in front of Hunter Park and Foster Park, closer to downtown.

“It’s a smile when you go past them,” Bouraoui said. “Those were our first points of light.”

In 2021, artist Brian Whitfield painted an eye-popping mural on the east wall of the new Allen Place development, home to the Allen Neighborhood Center, a medical clinic, the Eastside Lansing Food Co-Op and 21 mixed-income housing units. The mural was featured in a story on urban development in The New York Times. A year later, a third arty bus stop was added in front of Allen Place.

A week ago, one block east of Allen Place, new murals went up on the garage doors of a bike co-op.

Public art often gets a bad rap as an all-too-easy diversion of attention, and money, from more pressing needs and problems. But after all the programs and activities that have been put in place on Lansing’s east side over the past 20 years, from community gardens to a medical clinic, it’s hard to dismiss “Mother Tree” as a mere distraction.

Bouraoui, Schmitt and the sculpture’s other supporters hope it will send a strong message: People who live in a mixed-income neighborhood with more than its share of struggles deserve a nice place to live, like anyone else.

Schmitt moved to Lansing’s east side in January 2020, “an awful time to get to know any community.”

“When I first got here, I saw all the trees and assumed this neighborhood had a ton of money,” Schmitt said. “When I learned the average income of the neighborhood, I was shocked that it was such a working-class area and a place where so many people struggle with food security.”

During the pandemic, he could often be found, sitting at a small table in his front yard, reading.

“One thing that struck me is how many neighbors would stop and talk with me,” he said. He quickly learned about the multifarious activities and projects that knit the area together.

“It was so clear this was a community I would love to be in,” he said. He became president of Prospect Place within a year of joining the meetings.

“The fact that I could be here, making $32,000, and still be able to live in a place that I really enjoy, is, to me, really emblematic of the community we’re in,” he said. “To me, the tree represents how beauty, function and a good life should not be reserved for those with money.”

“Portrait of a Dreamer” (aka “The Gearhead”), Iler’s monumental sculpture at the crossing of Michigan Avenue and Museum Drive in downtown Lansing, deftly meshes mid-Michigan’s manufacturing prowess, represented by gears, with its high-tech brainpower, embodied in the figure’s huge cranium.
“Portrait of a Dreamer” (aka “The Gearhead”), Iler’s monumental sculpture at the crossing of Michigan Avenue and Museum Drive in downtown …


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