AIRat40: Discover Sycamore Haven on the Elm Lick Trail

By Bernheim

Artist Lee Emma Running working inside the hollowed Sycamore tree on the Elm Lick Trail.

In the course of a 40 year period, inspiring art from diverse artistic mediums have been created through Bernheim’s Artist in Residence program. But one of the most uniquely site-specific installations created to date took place this past fall by 2020 Artist in Residence Lee Emma Running.

Running’s creative practice as an artist responds to the specifics of the natural world. Her work while in residence was inspired by the American Sycamore tree after she discovered a huge, hollowed sycamore, large enough to stand inside, rooted in the middle of the creek bed on the Elm Lick Trail. It was also here, where Running discovered the fuzzy seed pods of the sycamore that when burst open, displays a miniature honeycombed pattern that shifts in scale as it’s moved around.

The interior honeycombed pattern of the fuzzy sycamore seed pods.
Sycamore Hatch detail. Photo by Crystal Ludwick Photo, LLC.


Running’s discoveries of this ancient tree symbolizing strength and protection inspired two mediations on the American Sycamore. The first is Sycamore Hatch, the colorful, transparent, window installation installed along the top three layers of windows in the Sassafras room of the Visitor Center. The beauty of this piece is its ever changing presence and evolvement as the light moves through the space on an hourly, daily and seasonal basis.

Interior detail, Sycamore Haven. Photo by Crystal Ludwick Photo, LLC

One purpose of the Visitor Center installation is to draw visitors into the natural areas, where they can discover the second of Running’s mediations on this tree. Occupying the inside of the majestic hollowed sycamore on Elm Lick Trail, Sycamore Haven is an interactive sculpture where one experiences the gilded, patterned network of the seed pod, hand-drawn in copper leaf inside the smooth areas of the sycamore trunk. Because many of the creeks in the area have copper in the natural mineral content of the water, Running felt it was appropriate to use this metal for illuminating a pathway inside this tree, between the water and the sky.

To create this experience, Running first hiked an 8-foot and secondly a  10-foot ladder, two miles into the Elm Lick Trail where this hollowed sycamore can be found along the creek bed. She worked inside the interior of this tree on most weekends during her fall visit, often spending 6 hours at a time on the ladder. This delicate network of copper leaf was applied with rabbit skin glue, a non-invasive process that did not introduce any toxins into the environment.

And just like Sycamore Hatch, Sycamore Haven seamlessly blends with the landscape and its copper leaf will patina, evolve and change over time. Hikers along Elm Lick Trail will come upon the quiet sycamore, but only those who look inside will have the surprising gift of this natural cathedral with an interior honeycombed pattern, which in many ways represents a metaphorical ‘map’ for the growth of this beautiful tree that is hundreds of years old.

With Sycamore Hatch and Sycamore Haven, Running created a paired experience of the American Sycamore for the adventurous visitor to Bernheim. Housing works of art in locations beyond the arboretum will draw visitors out into the wonder of the woods, and provide a special reward to those who make the trek. The Elm Lick Trail is a challenging, 5 mile trail that has several steep sections, stream crossings and weaves through grasslands, valleys, oak-hickory and beech-maple forests. It is the perfect 2- 3 hour winter hike! Discover the beauty of this experience yourself!

Hear more about this amazing installation from artist Lee Emma Running.

Lee Emma Running is a Drawing, Sculptor and Installation artist, as well as Full Professor of Sculpture at Grinnell College Department of Art and Art History, Grinnell, IA. Running was awarded the 2017 Iowa Artist Fellowship by the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. In the past two years, Running has completed two major projects using botanical samples from historic herbariums to create large scale installations on windows. Running is additionally the Director of Center for Prairie Studies at Grinnell College.


2020 marks the 40th anniversary of Bernheim’s Artist in Residence program and the value that art adds to the natural environment. Established in 1980, this internationally renowned program annually awards artists the opportunity to live and create site-specific work inspired by their total immersion experience at Bernheim. Throughout 2020, we are celebrating the contributions of the program’s past that has allowed our visitors to experience nature in a new way while enhancing awareness of Bernheim’s mission of connecting people to nature.

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