Ojibwe artist to raise community-created sculpture outside Minnesota Capitol

Three leaves created for a piece by an Ojibwe artist
Three leaves that are part of the piece “Tree of Peace, Tree of Life, Tree of the Future" by Ojibwe artist Sharon Day, set to be unveiled outside the Minnesota Capitol on Sunday.
Courtesy of Sharon Day

As Sharon Day watched the protests and large-scale calls for change in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police, the longtime activist felt sidelined.

“These youth who led the uprising — they brought us to this brink of state change, real change in this country. (But) those of us who have health conditions or by age — because of COVID (we) were limited in what we can do," said Day, an artist and enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe. 

So Day thought of how she could make a statement, safely — how to express her thoughts and hopes for the future — and she was struck by the symbolism of a tree. 

“I had written a piece of poetry some years ago about trees ... and how they provide so much for us, and so I thought ‘Oh, maybe these thoughts for the future, what we want for future generations, maybe we should make leaves.’”

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The artwork that resulted — a 12-foot-tall driftwood sculpture Day calls “Tree of Peace, Tree of Life, Tree of the Future" — will be raised Sunday morning outside the Minnesota Capitol, with a ceremony starting at 9 a.m. and including face coverings and social distancing.

Shortly after Day felt the tree inspiration, she just so happened to stumble upon the perfect material for her sculpture.

“I saw this beautiful weathered tree ... that had washed ashore and I thought, ‘That’s the tree.' Instead of cutting a healthy tree down, we’re going to use this tree that’s already been blessed by the water and the sun.”

Day said it was a challenge to move the large piece of driftwood. 

“When we carried it from the lake, it was about a mile, and the whole thing was about 20 feet long. So we had to cut about a third of it off and figure out how to put it back together," she said.

As part of the project, Day invited people across the country to send hundreds of homemade leaves for the tree, with messages of hope. 

“Some of them are quilted, some are made from wood, some are made from paper and some of them have, in the centers, people have sewn medicines: sage, sweetgrass, cedar," Day said.

On these leaves are written messages of hope. 

“When you look at them you can see people took time to make each leaf. And while they were making each leaf they were putting in the energy that they hope and wish for. We can make that happen and that will happen," she said.

Day said the contributions give the piece a unique energy.

“I, as an individual, have a certain amount of power. But a hundred of us all with the same purpose in mind, that collective thought that we will send out into the universe, is what I’m looking forward to," she said.

“Ojibwe people, we believe that when you’re making something, if you put your thoughts and hope into a bundle that you are creating, that we can actually send love and respect into the future."

People are invited to bring their own leaves to include on Sunday morning, or write a message on blank leaves that will be provided.

After the Capitol event, the sculpture will travel to art galleries in Minnesota before going to its permanent home in Maryland, with the Piscataway people. 

Day said she is eager for people to see the final product. 

“The people who sent their leaf, they have only seen their leaf. But once they see it all put together. I’m hoping it will be really beautiful," she said.

Above all else, Day said she hopes to spread a message of love. 

“Love transcends everything. It transcends time. It transcends everything. That is the message we are trying to convey. We only protect that which we love," she said.