By David Markham
Old dry-stacked stone walls sometimes still seen snaking through Kansas prairies and woodlands were the inspiration for an ephemeral art piece called “Restoring Refuge” recently created at Kill Creek Park by a duo of artists selected for JCPRD’s 2023 Art and Natural Resources Residency.
“When undisturbed, these stones are home to the unsung heroes of the prairie, like reptiles, insects, and small mammals, explained artist Cydney Ross, who is completing the residency with fellow artist Alix Daniel. “For us, it’s an homage to what few prairies remain and those who continue to lose their homes. It may not be our fault as individuals that prairies are nearly extinct, but it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and protect what remains.”
“In this second year of the residency program, we are seeing that art, in fact, is a powerful tool in the field of conservation – as a way to educate, create curiosity and inspire stewardship,” said Superintendent of Culture Susan Mong. “A great opportunity exists here to help community connect to these efforts personally and see the impact in their everyday lives. A rare remnant prairie exists at this park and because of this project, there is more awareness and appreciation for the efforts that JCPRD takes to preserve and protect prairies in the region.”
Ross and Daniel began this residency in late February, and completed their ephemeral piece in late April after an immersive experience with the JCPRD Natural Resources Team at Kill Creek Park, led by JCPRD Field Biologist Matt Garrett.
“Restoring Refuge” involves an elongated structure made of alternating cedar poles and dry plant material, which stretches across a portion of KCP’s prairie restoration directly west of the Russell and Helen Means Observation Tower. Native seeds, clay, and soil are used for small sculptures and details incorporated into the piece. Windows allow visitors to view prairie-inspired sculptures made during an early May community engagement workshop conducted by the artists as part of the residency.
There are signs along the paved paths to direct the public to the sculpture, which can be viewed from multiple vantage points, including from the top of the tower. Kill Creek Park is located at 11670 Homestead Lane, Olathe.
“We spent the first half of our residency sketching out ideas and prepping our materials in the Bloch Barn near the Kill Creek Streamway trail system,” Ross said. “It was an idyllic setting for our ideas to run wild. Once we had our plan in place, it was time to begin building on the prairie. Alix and I spent countless hours building the framework for the large serpentine structure on site. We wove native grasses, vines, and dried plant stalks, like Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Grape (Vitis sp.), Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), and seed paper into the structure.”
Since they were working with unfamiliar materials and techniques, Ross and Daniel consulted with two professional artists from Kansas City.
“We met with weaver Dani Hurst at her studio in The Bauer, a historic warehouse in the Kansas City Crossroads.” Ross said. “She answered our questions and gave us the confidence to experiment with natural materials. Dani also gave us insight to which plants work better for weaving than others, like Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) saplings and non-native invasive honeysuckle vine (Lonicera japonica). We also met with Kelsey Pike of Pike Paper Craft for a half-day workshop where we learned to create colorful seed paper. This paper is full of prairie flower seeds that is compostable and can be planted.”
Ross described the KCP staff and natural resource team as “incredible collaborators.”
“They harvested hundreds of small trees, like Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and Dogwood (Cornus sp.), that threaten to shade out prairie habitat,” she said. “At our installation site, they mowed a 160’ x 60’ oval with pathways that connect to the paved trails,” she said. “This was the footprint for our sculpture.”
In the long term, the plan is for “Restoring Refuge” to disappear into the prairie and be replaced with native flowers.
“We are excited to see the prairie eventually swallow up the sculpture,” Ross said. “The change over time and ephemerality is the real magic of this art piece. I want the human element to eventually fade from view by the end of summer, only to reveal itself again in a new form, come fall once the vegetation has died back. We look forward to aiding the JCPRD natural resource staff towards the end of the year when we will burn this section of prairie, and the sculpture along with it. The disturbance from intentionally burning this site will encourage fire-dependent native seeds to germinate the following spring.”
When she began the residency, Ross had two objectives.
“I wanted to work with natural materials, and I wanted the sculpture to be reclaimed by the prairie over time,” she said. “For me, the challenge was to trust that the form would reveal itself after spending several weeks on the prairie. Of course, it did, because the prairie is full of endless inspiration.”
Another part of the art residency involves a companion exhibit at the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, 8788 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park, which will be on display beginning the first full week of June.
“This provides another way for the community to connect to this residency program and the artistic response if they are not able to make the trip out of Kill Creek Park,” Mong said. “Accessibility is important to us so there is also a video on our website that allows one to experience the piece virtually. We also have a video to allow the public to hear directly from artists and JCPRD staff about the project as well. The link can be found here for both videos: Art and Natural Resources Residency | JCPRD.com.
JCPRD’s Public Art Committee is already planning for its third annual Art & Natural Resources Residency in 2024, which will feature the role of water in park systems, specifically the role of the streamway system that runs through Johnson County communities.
Mong noted that the JCPRD Public Art Program depends on private support from community members who believe in this work and in the power of art to transform communities and bring joy.
“We have heard gratitude for the work JCPRD is doing in this area and also heard some fun reactions from those discovering Kill Creek Park for the first time because of this project,” she said. “In fact, over half of the individuals who attended the community engagement event in May had not ever been to this beautiful park. We invite the public to support this project and others like it at the upcoming Meadowbrook Park Festival on June 2 (see related story) which raises money to support the JCPRD Public Art Program, she said. “Or you can simply make a gift by going here: DONATE — Johnson County Parks Foundation.”
“We are finished with our hand in the sculpture,” Ross said. “Now we will visit every couple of weeks to see how it’s changing with the seasons. We strongly encourage folks to visit the sculpture mid-June when the Pale Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) are in peak bloom on the adjacent remnant.”