William Dennisuk and three helpers were waist deep in the Huron River in early June, installing a lightbulb-shaped metal sculpture near where the river enters the U-M Arboretum.

The bronze rods caught the sunlight beautifully for the still and video photographers documenting the installation of the last piece in Dennisuk’s three-part Vessel Project. The documentation turned out to be more essential than anyone realized: within a week, the Arb sculpture was swept away, and another in the pond at Gallup Park was vandalized.

A Detroit-area native, Dennisuk trained as a painter at what’s now the College of Creative Studies and at the Art Institute of Chicago. He says he’s lived in Finland “on and off for the past twenty years,” working and teaching, but he spent much of the past year in Ann Arbor as the 2009-2010 Roman J. Witt Artist in Residence at the U-M School of Art. He gave a series of lectures on key public artists–“Robert Irwin, Maya Lin, Andy Goldsworthy…Claes Oldenburg from the Sixties, Noguchi before that”–while working to win permission for his water-sited sculptures.

Dennisuk says he hoped to get people to “think of our public places in a different way, and not just say, art has these designated spots–like in front of the museum, or in front of a bank, or in the lobby. Maybe [art] could also be in nature, and maybe this could be something that starts a dialogue–‘Why is this here?'”

The Gallup Park piece did spark conversation, though perhaps not at the level Dennisuk hoped: “What the hell is that?” musician San Slomovits, walking along the shore, heard an angry canoeist ask as his vessel approached the piece. “Another of Obama’s good ideas? Like health care reform? Like that was a good idea!” No federal money was used to create the sculpture, but by the time Slomovits returned from a walk, someone had tipped it over. A passing woman asked a group of boisterous teens cannonballing off the bridge into the river to tip it back up. They tried but found it too heavy.

When the Arb piece vanished the weekend after it was installed, Dennisuk initially thought it might have been stolen. In fact, he’d had the misfortune to place it in the river just before a two-inch rainfall swelled the Huron to its heaviest flow in ninety-four years (see “Rising Tide”). Though the piece and its anchoring weights totaled more than a thousand pounds, the flood swept it away. River regular Mike Kelley reported finding it days later, “jammed into the fallen tree on the far side of the river, half submerged.” As the Observer went to press, Dennisuk was out of town, and the art school was still trying to figure out what to do about the two sunken artworks (the third remains safe in the Lurie reflecting pool on North Campus).

The school made much of the fact that Dennisuk’s were the first public sculptures ever approved for placement in the Huron. But twenty years ago, Kelley installed his own unapproved work downstream from Dennisuk’s site. After experiencing what he believed to be a divine vision while tubing down the river, he placed rocks in two arcs across the riverbed, forming a heart shape whose bubbling interaction with the water he has painstakingly tuned and maintained ever since.

After decades of wading in the Huron, Kelley was not surprised that Dennisuk and his helpers underestimated it: “The problem” he says, “is they didn’t understand the physics of the river.”