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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Patricia Johanson's design of the Sego Lily, the first dam in the world designed as a sculpture, is under construction on Parleys Trail in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Sometimes life imitates art, but occasionally an artist's vision can depict real-life history.

Environmental architect and landscape designer Patricia Johanson didn't grow up in Utah, but she has become an amateur historian of the state's rich Mormon culture.

It was that intellectual curiosity that inspired her to create a history-telling artistic rendering of the early pioneer trek into the Salt Lake Valley by designing and supervising construction of the Sego Lily at Sugarhouse Park — what is believed to be the first dam in the world designed as a sculpture. The project is now a registered state dam.

Johanson's design fuses art, science and engineering technology resulting in what will be the Sego Lily. The project will feature 30-foot high walls that will channel potentially catastrophic floodwaters under the eight-lane roadway along 1300 East through a sunken corridor into Echo Canyon.

She said the design combines flood-control structures with wildlife habitat, a public trail, a safe highway crossing and a historical narrative that depicts the journey of the Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley. The Sego Lily element of the project was designed as an homage to the Utah state flower that symbolized the pioneers' survival of their first winter in the valley.

At the time, food was scarce and the Native Americans taught the pioneers to eat the nutrient-rich bulbs of the wild lilies, she explained. History indicates that settlers were able to survive the harsh winters by eating the potato-like bulb, she said.

“They didn’t die because of this flower,” Johanson said. “It’s not the beauty of the flower. It’s the practicality of the flower.”

"One of the reasons I like the story so much is they were such acute observers and they were such great environmentalists," she explained. "When they came West, they didn't just shoot every animal they saw. They didn't destroy things just for the fun of it. They knew that there would be other wagon trains coming after them."

Johanson also designed the Draw at Sugar House, which was completed in 2014. She is currently supervising the construction of the Sego Lily phase of the project.

The trail in Sugarhouse Park will tie in with the sego lily artwork on the west end of the park. On the Sugar House side, the tunnel will be 45 feet wide, then narrow to 25 feet on the Hidden Hollow side.

In preparing her design, Johanson diligently studied the past in order to develop a better understanding of the events and landmarks that were important in the development of the Salt Lake Valley.

The Draw at Sugar House Park links the sculptural Sego Lily dam, she said. The north petal of the Sego Lily, which has three-story high walls, tips over to become an overlook, while the south petal forms a bus shelter and a low wall along the highway that offers a view of the plaza and entrance to the pedestrian crossing below, she noted.

At the center of the “lily” will be a miniature Great Salt Lake, she added.

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The Sego Lily section of the project cost about $1.2 million to build, with $750,000 going for the canyon segment. Completion is scheduled for next month, she said.

An accomplished artist in addition to being an eco-engineer, Johanson has also designed nature and history-oriented projects in Dallas; New York City; San Francisco and Petaluma, Calif.; as well as South Korea. She said the Sego Lily project is one that provides practicality — i.e. flood control — along with interesting historical perspective.

"This is a much more functional project than people realize," Johanson said. "It does the job, but it also tells a story."