I arrived around sunset at the Matfield Station bunkhouse after a long day of driving across the great plains, and as I opened my car door I was immediately hit by the aroma of the prairie. I canâ€™t even pinpoint what this smell is; maybe a certain flower, a grass, the soil itself or a medley of it all, but it feels like a sweet balm. I came to the Tallgrass Residency in late May, hoping to find some calm after a crazy-busy academic year (of learning how to teach and cope in a pandemic), and yearning for time to work on specific projects as well as experiment with new ones. I also came because I adore the prairie.
I had never spent time in the Flint Hills before, only having driven through Kansas en route to elsewhere. Iâ€™ve gotten to know the prairies of Minnesota, having worked at a long-term ecological research station for several summers helping with research on prairie ecosystems. I know enough to appreciate how rare it is to experience a large swath of untouched prairie, and this is the marvel of the Flint Hills. The beauty of the rolling prairie dotted with rocks and flowers stunned me in its vastness.Â Â
Iâ€™d forgotten how to identify prairie plants and birds, something I studied for a time while a young adult. It felt good to pry at my memory and reawaken that part of my brain as I wandered the paths of Matfield Station, tended so well by the McBrides. Tradescantia, Penstemon, Scissortail Flycatcher, Mississippi Kite, and so much more.
One of my projects entailed photographing ecology researchers in the field, at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve as well as the Konza Prairie Long Term Ecological Research Station, near Manhattan, Kansas. Iâ€™m so grateful for the time I got to spend with each researcher, hearing about their studies, seeing the locations of their field work, and collaborating on the portraits. There are many marvels I wouldnâ€™t have seen or noticed without their insights. It wasnâ€™t necessarily the point of our interaction but it deeply enriched my experience. I saw rolling fields dotted by distant bison, creeks filled with flint and hidden Topeka Shiners, and heard Bobwhites calling from the tall grass all around me.
I felt charmed by the plants, then by the people I met. The folks in Matfield Green were warm and welcoming, and the researchers I met to photograph were invariably fascinating and generous as well. The richness of the landscape and the arts in the area astounded me.Â The time allowed by the residency to just absorb the landscape, play, observe, and get to know the area was invaluable to my practice. Iâ€™ve even started a new series about prairie plants because of the experienceâ€”my time in the Flint Hills continues to have reverberations in my work. The landscape there is quietly stunning, an ocean of prairie.
Areca Roe is an artist based in Mankato and Minneapolis, Minnesota. She works in many media; primarily photography as well as video, sculpture, and installation. A recurrent theme in her work is the interface between the natural and human domains. She is an Assistant Professor of photography and video at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Areca received her MFA in Studio Arts, with an emphasis on photography, from University of Minnesota in 2011. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and since 2015 she has been a member of Rosalux Gallery, an artist collective in Minneapolis. Roe has also received several grants and fellowships in support of her work, including the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant and the Art(ists) on the Verge Fellowship. Her work has been featured on sites such as Colossal, Slate, Juxtapoz, WIRED, National Geographic and Fast Company, and in Der Spiegel Wissen magazine.