Four-year-old Annabelle Johnson is no art critic, but she knows what she likes. And she really likes the large pink lotus blossom cradling a swaddled baby that she discovered under a willow tree yesterday in Leslie's Retreat Park in Salem.

"My daughter loves it," Cindy Johnson said. "She was having a tough day, and it put a smile on her face."

There were a lot of smiles yesterday in the large public park along the North River canal as strolling visitors came across nine works of public art that seemed to have sprouted overnight like wild and crazy mushrooms.

From the North Street to the Flint Street ends of the park, walkers stopped to gaze, laugh and scratch their heads at a dog digging its way under the fence to the doggie park, three fishing poles dangling over the canal with trash on the lines and a 5-gallon water jug slowly dripping on a suspended metal flower in the park's gazebo.

"Oh, very, very cool," said Geoff Murfitt, who came with his sons Ben, 3, and Aaron, 1.

"They're great," said Donna Mackenzie of Danvers, who brought her greyhound, Tye, to the dog park. "Very thought-provoking."

It is all the work of students at Salem State College who took an intensive, one-week summer course on "Sculpture — Mixed Media." They chose the park as their canvas and created works that reflect a particular spot in the park.

"We actually went over to the park and had them pick out a location," said Ken Reker, an art professor at the college. "Most of them are about issues that have to do with man and his interaction with nature."

The class did a similar project two years ago when it floated artwork near the ferry dock at the Blaney Street landing.

This summer's work was installed on Tuesday. By early yesterday, the reviews were coming in. One walker called the daily newspaper, and another posted photos on Facebook.

"It's just kind of cool," Johnson said. "You go on a walk and see something unexpected."

"The thing I love about public art," Reker said, "is you're dealing with an audience you wouldn't normally deal with in an art gallery, and it's a wider audience. Their responses to the work, I think, sometimes are more complex."

The student art was constructed from whatever materials they had at home or could acquire easily. There is a lot of recycled material mixed with odds and ends like PVC piping and police tape.

"Our field trip was to Home Depot," Reker said.

The work was done by students Charley Ammerman, Marissa Cerretani, Amber DelTorchio, Gerald Hersh, Devon Rose, Diana Hernando, Nashua Rosa, Rachel Rosen and Sijie Wang.

The park art, which was built to withstand wind and rain, will be up for two weeks. It all comes down Aug. 3.

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