Winona artist Lyon Smith stands next to the second iteration of his sculpture, “Driftless Sanctuary,” an abstract environmental sculpture based on beaver architecture.

Transforming nature into art



Mother Nature has her own set of rules. She ebbs and flows, doing what she wants when she wants, and there’s nothing a person can do that can change that. Nobody knows this more than Lyon Smith, whose environmental sculpture “Driftless Sanctuary” will debut at Public Launch –– formerly Outpost Winona –– on Friday. The sculpture, created as a way to reinterpret the environment for public use, was instead subjected to the powers of nature itself, and Smith was left to adapt and remake the sculpture in a brand new way.

According to Smith, the idea for the sculpture goes back several years when he was looking at a beaver dam and thinking about how he could turn that concept into art.

“I wrote a grant to build an environmental sculpture based on my interpretation of beaver architecture, and I wanted to build it on land and make a place where people could experience a different environment than they are used to,” Smith said.

He was awarded the grant from the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council last year, and the first step for the project involved a series of sketches, laying out what the final piece may inevitably look like. From there, Smith began constructing a prototype of the piece near his cabin at Pollywog Slough. The first construction took several months and, to build it, Smith resorted to the same material beavers use themselves –– barkless logs.

“Beavers eat the bark off of trees, and then send the rest down the river,” Smith said. “These are their leftovers, and I thought that was a neat material to use.”

The abstract sculpture was a different kind of piece for Smith –– he has worked on wood sculptures and paintings since he was young, but they were all fairly traditional. After constructing the first version over a few months, and slowly learning how the piece would evolve, the plan was to move it and reconstruct the sculpture at Public Launch.

However, Mother Nature had other plans.

Earlier this year, Smith’s cabin was stuck in a blizzard, with massive snow drifts making access to the sculpture nearly impossible. For several months, Smith sat waiting, until the next problem arose –– the melt.

“I had a canoe, which I would use to canoe to my cabin,” Smith said. For most of the year, the cabin sits on the ground, but when the floodwaters rise, the cabin rises with it using floating tankers attached to the bottom. While the cabin was spared from the rising tides, the sculpture was less lucky.

“The prototype was washed away,” Smith said. “So I had to float around and pick it up piece by piece.”

Over the next few weeks, Smith took multiple trips around his cabin, picking up the pieces of the sculpture and moving them to the back of Public Launch, and eventually constructed version two of the piece.

It wasn’t all bad, Smith explained. “It’s all kind of an aesthetic experiment that transforms and evolves. Every time it’s built, you see different aesthetic changes you want to make,” he said.

On Friday, the third iteration of the sculpture will be on display at Public Launch, but the showcase will be more than just a gallery showing, Smith explained. Along with the sculpture itself, 12 photographs will be shown of the environment where the sculpture was envisioned and created, and several friends and fellow artists will be in attendance to share stories and talk with the community underneath the arching wooden structure.

“I want this to be a place for people to come and communicate with each other in a different environment,” Smith said. “It’s not like a fancy art show, just a casual, fun time.”

The presentation of “Driftless Sanctuary” is one of the first major exhibitions at the newly minted Public Launch gallery space, formerly known as Outpost Winona. Organizers of the space, now entering its third year of operations, was looking to evolve when curator Nate Bauman realized something about the building.

“While we were in the space and in Winona, we realized we were standing on native land,” Bauman said. “Outpost has some negative connotations in native cultures, and having two white men running a spot with that name felt wrong.”

Bauman and fellow Public Launch director Matt Fluharty went back to the drawing board, trying to come up with a name to emphasize what the spot was all about. In the end, their minds went back to the river –– the reason the spot was chosen in the first place.

“Here in the Midwest, Public Launch is a very immediate and recognizable term along the river,” Bauman said. “And this is a space that has offered a lot of artists a starting place that they would not have been able to get otherwise.”

And thus, the name “Public Launch” was chosen. The name also rings in a new era for the space, Bauman explained, as he and Fluharty move toward a more community-minded practice.

“A lot of folks think of our gallery as a two-dimensional gallery space,” Bauman said. “But now, you’ll see more of it outside of the walls. We’re moving toward having our boots on the ground, and going to folks instead of asking then to come to us.”

Inside the space, things will be changing as well, Bauman said. While gallery shows will still be frequent, visitors can look forward to fewer but more varied exhibitions and community events, run in conjunction with Public Launch’s other resident, Engage Winona.

Smith’s sculpture project, Bauman explained, is part of that initiative. The piece will show visitors the possibility of what can be done with art aside from simply hanging frames on the walls, and also show a new interpretation of what can be considered art.

“Art is more than a product. It’s about the stories that can be told,” Bauman said. “This is really helping Matt and I as well as everyone else in showing what can be done within the space.”

But what about after the show?

“I’ve been thinking about what will happen next. Maybe it should go back to where it was originally built, and then let Mother Nature do what she wants to do with it,” Smith said. “This isn’t something I’m trying to sell, but the result of trying to get an idea out of my head.”

The exhibition opening for “Driftless Sanctuary by Lyon Smith” will occur on Friday, May 24, from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m. at Public Launch, 119 East Third Street, Winona.The event is free and open to the public, and light refreshments will be provided by Boat House restaurant. For more information, visit or contact Matt Fluharty at


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