My first steps into the tallgrass prairie were at the National Preserve in the Flint Hills just north of Strong City, KS. However, my introduction to this beautiful and complex ecoregion began months earlier when I was applying for the Tallgrass Artist Residency and hoping to be selected as the eco-exchange artist. At that time, I was devouring any natural history writing about the region that I could find. In learning about the tallgrass prairie, I couldn’t help but consider comparisons with the longleaf pine forests that once covered almost all of the southeast, including the area of Alabama where I live. So, when I stepped out onto the prairie on a warm and humid day in July, these two perspectives, (1) being an Alabama-easterner and (2) having learned about the natural history of the prairie and Flint Hills region, helped inform my perceptions and my artwork.

You might wonder what similarities there are between an eastern pine forest and the prairie. More than you would expect! Except for the widely spaced longleaf pines, both ecosystems have an abundant variety of low growing, non-woody plants which are maintained by regular burns. And both ecosystems have been reduced to just scattered pockets across a historically very large range. The similarities and differences helped me understand the tallgrass prairie. For one, in the east, it’s easy to think of the sky as just a backdrop behind trees. Shapes of blue coming through on a sunny day. Or bright oranges and reds between silhouettes of trees at sunset. But in the prairie, the sky is an omnipresent ethereal volume that you stand in and that extends in every direction toward the horizon. The sky on the prairie is 70% or more of the landscape.

Another spatial difference that struck me as important is how the prairie is both immensely open and minutely detailed. If you can stand the chiggers, the best place to experience this is sitting down in the prairie grass. From that position, you can look out to the horizon and simultaneously investigate an intricate micro universe full of complex relationships between plants and insects all around you. In contrast, its difficult in the forest to experience these extremes because of trees create a much more closed sense of space.

The challenge for me was developing images that address these and the many other remarkably intertwined features one encounters in the Tallgrass. My drawing “Inland Sea” is the first serious attempt. The images’ overall shape is an octahedron, composed of two stacked prisms, connected at their bases. One pointed up and the other downward. I imagine the whole of it as something like a terrarium that’s sampled from the flint hills landscape. The top prism encompasses the sky and grass covered hillside. The lower prism holds most of the subterranean geology.

The title “Inland Sea” came to mind as a descriptor for the expansive and swelling hills that characterize the region, and for the currents of wind that bend the grass in running patterns across them. The title also acknowledges the regions geologic past, specifically the ancient sea that once covered almost all of middle North America and has left the hillsides filled with fossils of extinct sea life. Descending through the layers in the bottom prism, I created a space for that ancient sea floor and the exotic animals that lived there.

The residency has given me a lot to reflect on. I have several more sketches that I would like to adapt to more finished drawings when time permits and a few other lingering questions. One of the questions that stands out in my mind has to do with the harmony I perceived in the Flint Hills between human interests and natural processes. How people there coopt the natural cycle of fire, regeneration and grazing to draw a living from the land. I keep wondering how this idea might be adapted to the longleaf forests of my home state.

Reading List:

Where the Sky Began by John Madson

Bryce Lafferty is an artist and educator based in Jacksonville, Alabama. His watercolor drawings, that center on his interest in the natural world, are represented by Momentum Gallery in Asheville, NC. He is also an Associate Professor at Jacksonville State University where he teaches drawing and painting. Although originally from the Northeast and having received his MFA from the University of North Texas, Bryce currently lives in Alabama with his four children. He is enamored by the abundant variety of ecosystems and geologic features to be discovered in the Southeast.