The much anticipated Market Square Winter Art Installation—A Winter Landscape Cradling Bits of Sparkle—opens this Thursday and runs through April 12.

“It’s going to be stunning,” promises Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership (PDP).

Ninety artists applied for the Market Square Public Art Program, which is a three-year program designed to bring public art—and thus, we the public—to downtown during the winter. This project is an effort of the City Planning Public Art Division and the PDP.

“Market Square is the center of the city—even in the winter,” says Waldrup. “We want to develop it as a four-season attraction.”

This year, Jennifer Wen Ma was selected to create an installation specifically for Market Square.

Wen Ma spent the last year visiting Market Square to design the project. “She wanted to observe how people used and interacted with the space,” says Waldrup. “And she just wanted to see Market Square in the winter.”

Last year, Wen Ma got to experience Pittsburgh in the Polar Vortex. This year? She’s building the installation in single digit temperatures.

“We’ve really delivered winter for her,” says Waldrup.

Here’s a preview of what you’ll see: Wen Ma created a small forest right in Market Square. On an elevated platform, visitors will wind through a landscape of weeping willows, evergreens, fruit trees and bamboo.

And here’s where the idea transcends from a study in botany to an installation of art: the trees—which are quite alive—are painted black.

Tree activists, rest your fears: a charcoal-based ink was used. No trees were hurt in the creation of this sylvan scene—the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy was in on the gig. Other local groups involved are Flyspace Productions, the Office of Public Art, Building Studio Workshop and Lyla Nelson, a Pittsburgh-based glass artist.

The idea behind the black trees? To create “a stark landscape that is seemingly in a state of arrested development.”

Paint it black. Courtesy of Jennifer Wen Ma.
Paint it black. Courtesy of Jennifer Wen Ma.

“The winter season might seem dormant, but is an essential part of the cycle to engender life,” says Wen Ma. “It allows the planet to quiet down, accumulate and restore itself in preparation for the birth of spring that follows.”

As spring emerges, visitors will witness the trees budding and leafing out, which will contrast against the black backdrop of the branches and trunks.

The inspiration for Wen Ma’s work?

“The harshness of winter, history of Pittsburgh and personal need for rest and quietude,” says Wen Ma. “I wanted to create an installation that linked these elements and emphasized the powerful life force that renews.”

Wen Ma links the renewal of the earth with renewal of our city itself.

“This is the force that pulls blossoms from a frosted tree branch in the Spring, lifts a city from economic decline by encouraging innovative industry, and motivates people to re-emerge from a private slumber to embrace the creative energy within,” she says.

In 2008, Ma served on the creative team—she was one of seven—for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Her role was as chief designer for visual and special effects, an effort for which she was awarded an Emmy. Wen Ma was born in Beijing and now lives in both Beijing and New York.

Her installations have been featured at the Guggenheim, the National Art Museum of China and the Vancouver Art Gallery. She’s had her work at museums in Japan, Brazil, Italy, Australia—and now, Market Square.

There’s a ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday, February 19 at 2 p.m. with the artist and Mayor Peduto. Meet Wen Ma at an artist talk that evening from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the auditorium at 11 Stanwix Street. RSVP required: 412-391-2060 x237.

Visitors can experience this free public art installation every day until April 12. Representatives from the Office of Public Art will lead interpretative walks on site Mondays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m.

Last year’s Market Square winter installation was a huge success—it attracted some 10,000 Pittsburghers outside during the grip of the Polar Vortex—a feat perhaps only previously accomplished by the Steelers.

“Public art in the winter is unique to Pittsburgh,” said Waldrup in a previous NEXT article. “You don’t see this in northern climates.”

Woods wanderer who was an an editor at New England’s regional magazine, the research director of a Colorado newspaper and a farm hand in Vermont before returning to Pittsburgh to write about and explore her hometown.