As an artist, I’m enthralled by tallgrass prairie. Its beauty, rich ecology, and fascinating history are the essential ingredients in what I believe makes a compelling landscape. As a nature lover, I can’t get enough of it. I find it moving to set foot in a true prairie remnant where I can ponder the profusion of flowers and grasses and imagine how the patch of prairie in front of me could once have covered millions of acres.
In 2013, after falling in love with several prairie remnants and restorations in the Chicago area, Illinois’s grasslands began calling to me. I was inspired to seek a wider view of the nearly extinct ecosystem that gave Illinois, my mother’s home state, its nickname the Prairie State. Over an eight-year period, on more than a dozen trips from my home in Athens, Georgia, I was able to explore and paint many of the sites that hold the last .01% of Illinois’ original prairie, culminating in my 2021 exhibit Picturing the Prairie at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Works from that exhibit plus several new pieces are featured here in a celebration of the conservation legacy of the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission. The commission was created by a far-sighted act of the state legislature in 1963 to “assist private and public landowners in protecting high quality natural areas and habitats of endangered and threatened species.” Since then, over 600 important ecological sites have been protected, providing refuge for hundreds of species of plants and animals, and offering Illinoisans, and visiting artists, a glimpse of Illinois’ landscape before European settlement. Eighteen of those preserves are in this exhibit.
The paintings range geographically from the shore of Lake Michigan to the southern end of the state. They illustrate the visual variety found in remnant prairies based on physical characteristics such as topography and soil, their management history, and the ephemeral qualities of weather and season. The larger canvases were painted in my studio while almost all the smaller works were painted on location, sometimes rather quickly. Together, they represent multiple aspects of the tallgrass landscape I’ve come to cherish. For example, as a southerner more accustomed to densely forested environments, I find the long views in prairies irresistible. I’m equally fascinated by the relationship between humans and nature that has made it possible for prairies to persist east of the Mississippi River. Modern Illinois prairies not only require protection from development and farming; they must also receive substantial human care to keep them from being choked by invasive plants or shaded out by trees. That stewardship continues a long history of human influence on this grassland ecosystem. For millennia, Indigenous people adapted Illinois’s landscapes to their advantage, favoring prairies over forest through their use of fire. After a long absence, fire is again being used as one of several tools for maintaining and restoring prairie remnants, something I’ve been fortunate to capture in my paintings. By re-embracing the traditional role of prairie stewards, we humans will ensure that the distant views over the profuse blooms of intact remnant prairies can be experienced long into the future.
Illinois Nature Preserves featured in the Exhibit