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With the help of a crane, Davey helped install the tree for Women and Their Work's THIRST art display above Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas

A THIRST for Attention: Drought Persists in the Southwest

February 4, 2014

Mother Nature has Texans holding on to their very last drops of hope.

Unfortunately, many residents of Southwestern states are familiar with the serious challenges associated with drought; in Austin, they've suffered through it for a few consecutive years. The extreme drought conditions they're facing have presented historic problems for the city. From watering restrictions and risks of running out of water, does any reflection of optimism exist?

Although the future for drought-stricken trees is questionable, raising awareness is possible to achieve, thanks to the hard work and determination of Austin-area organizations.

Women and Their Work, a 35-year-old nonprofit, multidisciplinary organization, encourages artists to create new pieces via visual and performing arts, theater, film or music. Its gallery features 2,000 square feet of space for exhibitions, but one particular concept had a "thirst" for a new, even bigger environment.

Tibetan prayer flags THIRST in Austin
Prayer flags mirror the image of the dead tree Davey crewmembers helped install for THIRST. Crewmembers also helped loop the 14,000 flags 2.5 miles between Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge and the 1st Street Bridge.

"THIRST is the biggest exhibition we've ever done," says Executive Director Chris Cowden, referring to its collaborative piece designed to recognize Austin's depleting water source and terrible, ongoing drought. "Approximately 300 million trees have died," Cowden says, "and more continue to die."

To best depict the stark reality of drought's effect on trees, the project needed a strong visual artist component. Upon receiving an invitation to submit a proposal from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation-established by one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century-Women and Their Work gathered a team of professionals to deliver a polished result.

Visual Artist Beili Liu, Clayton&Little Architects' Emily Little and Norma Yancey and Landscape Designer Cassie Bergstrom worked together to determine a call to action through art. Their solution? Position a dying tree just high enough above a lake its roots cannot reach the water.


It was the strangest request Dan Hunsicker had ever received.

 THIRST flags at Pfluger Circle in Austin
Pfluger Circle displays 14,000 prayer flags to raise awareness of drought's impact on trees in Austin, Texas, and beyond.

While Bergstrom had worked with Hunsicker, district manager for Davey Tree service's local Austin residential office, on a past project, the company had maintained a good, well-known reputation among THIRST contributors. So when the installation process required large tree moving equipment to transport the designated dead tree to its temporary exhibition site, Davey naturally received the call for assistance and a bit of expertise.

"THIRST was an extremely arduous project," Cowden says. "Once we found the tree-38 feet tall, weighing 2.5 tons and located in the middle of a pasture-we had to figure out how to install it."

The tree's peculiar combination of immense weight and extreme fragility presented a challenge. How could Davey help by transporting the project's centerpiece so gracefully as to keep its branches intact to ultimately create a stunning silhouette?


Before its removal, transport to and display above Lady Bird Lake, the dying tree required a bit of cleanup.

THIRST in Austin at night

THIRST, the art installation shown illuminated against the white sky, raised awareness about the impact drought will have on Austin, as well as memorialized the loss of 300 million trees in Texas as a result of drought. Photo: Ben Aqua

Davey crewmembers first removed its leaves, then used a supersonic air tool to remove debris from the roots. Upon removing the tree, Davey finished off its new appearance for the exhibit by applying a second coat of white paint to its bark.

The tree's midnight journey to Lady Bird Lake required a lot of patience and planning. "Getting there was challenging," Hunsicker explains, describing the three-lane width of space required to transport the tree down the interstate. However, the tree arrived on site safely by 2 a.m.


THIRST arrived to Lady Bird Lake for a reason. The lake, located in the center of Austin, maintains a constant water level throughout all seasons, which suggests frequent passersby may not assume drought is a concern. But THIRST proved otherwise.

Women and Their Work unveiled THIRST at night, illuminating its white silhouette against the dark, night sky. "It looked as if the tree was floating above the water at night," Hunsicker says.

Tens of thousands of people saw the exhibit during its display from Sept. 29 through Dec. 18, 2013. According to Cowden, THIRST spoke to people in a visceral way. "Art can change people's behavior as well as affect the world. Even though it's difficult to scientifically access,art changes the way people think about things."

Want to learn more? Watch a documentary about THIRST here.

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