Our time at the Tallgrass residency came just after installing a solo exhibition entitled,Â Look, itâs daybreak, dear, time to sing, presented at the Ulrich Museum of Art, in Wichita from August 19 – December 4, 2021.
The challenges of being with, communicating with and cohabitating with others are the core of the works we have created for the exhibition
In thinking about the entanglement of ways of life between species, and specifically birds and humans, we wanted to explore our place in, and responsibility for a shared world.
In our discussions with Sylvie Fortin, the curator of this exhibition, we reflected on our relationships with birds through the lens of âhospitality.â That is, the ways in which other species are made welcome â or not â in the places that we call our own.
One of the fundamental elements of this cohabitation is our relationship to the land. How, what we often call territories, are conceived, inhabited, shared, exploited and delimited.Â
The massive intensification of agriculture of the past century is grounded in an assumed entitlement to the world that has justified the transformation and destruction of environments. It is anchored in a logic that binds together the abstraction and appropriation of the world.
In this model, everything that is nonhuman â and often even humans â are considered as a potential economic resource.
Here land is defined as something that can be owned privately, and as an asset that can be exploited and speculated upon. It is considered exclusively from the perspective of human usage without consideration for other beings. This presents ethical problems, but increasingly these ethical problems are morphing into more fundamental problems of sustainability and even survival.
While we wanted to explore the dominant forces that shape our cohabitation with others, we were also interested in exploring practices and relations that offer an opening into better modes of living with. These relations are rarely simple or purely harmonious.Â
Richard Ibghy & Marilou Lemmensâ collaborative practice combines a concise approach to the form and construction of the art object with a desire to make ideas visible. For several years, they have examined the history of science and other forms of knowledge, including the language of economy, the magic of statistics, the capacity for models to impact the future, the aesthetics of data visualization, and the design of laboratory experiments. Their work tends toward the re-sensualisation of abstractions through objects and actions.
Recent solo exhibitions include the Grantham Foundation for the Arts and the Environment, Saint-Edmond-de-Grantham, Canada (2020-21), Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, USA (2019), VOLT, Visningsrommet USF Gallery, Bergen (2019), Audian Gallery, Vancouver (2018), Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Canada (2017), Jane Lombard Gallery, New York (2017), International Studio & Curatorial Program, New York (2016), Esker Foundation, Calgary (2016), and Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Montreal (2016).
After my father died, I set out to write a book about the decline of the North American monarch butterfly migration. I traveled thousands of miles, tracing the path of the butterflies he taught me to love as a child. I flew to remote forests in Mexico where the monarch overwinters. I drove up and down the California coast to interview scientists studying population collapse. I wandered through border towns in New Mexico where I chased butterflies down dusty roads.
But after two years of working on that book, something was still missing. I spent another year revising the manuscript, scrapping draft after draft. I tossed a lot of paper into the recycling bin. I learned how to make new paper out of those old drafts. Still, I didnât have a book.
The Tallgrass Artist Residency showed me something my travels hadnât: Iâd missed the prairie for the monarch. In my quest to figure out what it meant for the monarchs to lose their cross country migration, Iâd lost sight of the bigger picture. The prairie was missing from my story, just as it was missing from the landscape around me.
I traveled to Kansas with a different sort of project in mind. Instead of focusing singularly on the monarch, Iâd try to learn as much as I could about the prairie as a functioning ecosystem.
And rather than continue to write about my own grief, I wanted to create a space for other people to share theirs.
The idea behind my project was fairly simple: I left an open slot box at the Tallgrass Preserve for a month, along with instructions asking visitors to submit a short written memory about someone or something they lost. Later, Iâd soak their submissions in water, blend them to pulp, mix in some prairie seeds, and create plantable paper.Â
As with any idea, this was only simple in theory. I arrived at Tallgrass feeling like a writer trying on a pair of artistâs shoes. The success of this project was testament to the many wonderful people who helped bring it to life. Iralee Barnardâa local botanist, field guide author, and expert papermakerâspent hours teaching me about plants in the Flint Hills and experimenting with different methods of pulling paper pulp. Michele Kessler and The Nature Conservancy helped organize an afternoon of seed collecting on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Several National Park Service interns helped me collect, clean and sort thousands of seeds on a 90 degree day in August.Â
But this project would have never happened without the many people who graciously shared their stories of loss. I was humbled to read each memory before turning them into recycled paper seed cards. The project will be buried at The School for Rural Culture and Creativity this fall. These stories belong to the prairie now.
After returning from Kansas, Iâve been working to reimagine my own story. I now see the disappearance of the monarch migration as a part of a much larger narrative about the loss of the North American prairie. And I see my fatherâs death through a wider lens, having read so many stories of grief.
While standing next to the tallest grasses in the world, itâs easy to forget that half their growth is underground. The Tallgrass Artist Residency helped me recognize the roots growing beneath my story. I will never see the prairieâor my writingâin the same way again.Â
Sally Leaf is a writer and designer from Rockford, IL. She has an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Wyoming. Drawing on the sudden death of her father and the sharp decline in the migratory monarch butterfly population, her current book project explores loss on a personal and ecological scale. Previously, her work has appeared in Western Confluence, Prodigal Magazine, A Midwestern Review, and Grub Street Literary Magazine, where her 2019 essay was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
My practice is motivated by my familyâs story in relationship to land. I work within the restrictions of memory â using printmaking, sculpture, and photography to explore place as part of an intergenerational narrative about landscape, geography, and movement. A combination of documented sites and events, memories, and lived experience manifest through collage and installation.
Carley Schmidt is a multi-disciplinary artist motivated by her relationship to landscape. She currently lives on ancestral Ho-Chunk land in Madison, Wisconsin, where she is an MFA Candidate in printmaking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Carley has shown in the U.S. and internationally, including appearances in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Bulgaria. She attended the Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and was the Artist-in-Residence at NeâNa Contemporary Art Space in Chiang Mai, Thailand upon graduation from Gonzaga University in 2017.
During my time at the Tallgrass Artist Residency, I reflected on how to enjoy the process of creating again, tried new methods of making, and breathed in that familiar prairie air. When I first saw the images of the Tallgrass prairie, I remember thinking, âI want to get out and play in that.â So getting to do that, allowing myself to indulge in play and imagination, really helped spark and refresh my artistic practice. After being in the northeast for the past few years, being at Matfield Green felt like a celebration of returning home for me. Even though I had never been to Matfield Green, it seemed like a concentrated memory of what I love about being in rural spaces.
Chelsey Becker is a conceptual artist from Claremore, Oklahoma. She received her MFA in Studio Art from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. Beckerâs practice derives from her ties to rural cultures, blue-collar work, and generational afflictions, which has manifested in many art mediums, including photography, sculpture, writing, fiber, artist books, and performance.
The topics she broaches have become negated in the modern setting, because in the face of swelling urban sprawl and mutating technological advancements, crudities are viewed as an eyesore. However, beneath the roughhewn vernacular, regional hardships, family dynamics, and labor are the existential threads that ingrain people and communities together.
I made a pot of beans the first morning of my residency and wondered when was the last time this space held the aroma of simmering pinto beans. I wondered, when was the last time someone sliced a jalapeĂ±o into the pot? When was the last time someone sopped up their bean juice with a freshly made tortilla? I didnât go that far, but having just spent the previous five days with family, I was the beneficiary of a few New Mexican Frontier tortillas from the special delivery my mama made to my tĂaâs house in Emporia. A touch of Albuquerque in Kansas, a tale that has shaped the contours of my life. Do you think these walls remembered these smells? Well, not exactly these walls, but the bones of this place? Having undergone a complete renovation process by the current tenders of this space in the early-2000s, Bill and Julia saved it from certain collapse. I like to think the bunkhouse felt similar joys as I did. This building in its new configuration, with different amenities within, different colors of paint adorning its walls, welcoming me and my pot of simmering beans to my first artist residency.
Iâve been working on a book exploring these themes of home and belonging for Mexicans in Kansas; particularly focusing on the role of women in settlements like these. Part recovery project, part looking to push the interdisciplinary boundaries of oral history, archival research, and autoethnography, the book is held together by the history of Mexican railroad laboring familiesâ presence in Kansas. A topic still under-explored even as my stalled manuscript collects the equivalent of dust in my computerâs hard drive. Iâm glad Iâm here to paint not write, but I also know my writing is painting and my painting is writing. Iâm eager to find new ways of documenting our presence in narratives that can meander through the parts of us that sense more deeply, not only the parts of us that read and think. In my requests of the residency staff to meet with or learn more about the Mexican-origin folks who are connected to the history of this place, they reached far and wide connecting me to the people who might know more. On the constant hunt for images of Mexican laborers and their families, many of the responses from contacts replied, âIâm not so sure about the history of the Mexican railroad workersâŠâ And so Iâm back to bemoaning the limits of the archive. Grabbing fragments here and there. Though there have also been newer efforts to record these histories in the state. And Iâve also enjoyed making amazing new connections with descendants in nearby towns who have family and community archives to share with me. Like the gifts of time and photos Ray and Patrice Olais shared with me one afternoon in Newton. I thought that the reason people didnât know much about this history was the lack of monuments, but itâs clearly deeper than that. I should have known that given our nationâs current reckoning with monuments as a means to remember. Who gets remembered, who gets left out is always the question as statues stand to mark people, events or eras. I should have known that even given this structure is a testament to the Mexican presence in Kansas, it still continues to reflect back our absence. Unless, we dig. And demand remembering, and call-in the ancestors whose lives shape our present even as we may not know it all.Â
There are only about five bunkhouses still standing enough to be recognizable along the Santa Feâs line. And Matfield Station is the only one that has been renovated so as to be fit for human habitation again. The Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad had a variety of bunkhouses they would build often a mile out of town for their Mexican laboring railway workforce and their families all along their line. And the Santa Fe bulldozed almost all of them in the 1960s. The bunkhouses were rather the most humane structures of the lot, being actually constructed from brick and concrete with plastered walls instead of old boxcars repurposed as living quarters or railroad ties stacked as walls like were common amongst other, earlier Mexican settlements across Kansas. The bunkhouse is a glorious monument. All that remains of the physical evidence of company housing in Emporia are the decaying, halfway buried railroad ties once used as foundations for retired box cars now adorning new homesâ front steps as makeshift low fences. The fact that these bunkhouse plans were specific in their placement to town also provides insights into the level of separation, of purposeful segregation on behalf of the ATSF corporate powers that be. An upholding of white passenger train riders not wanting to see the shantytowns as they came into the station. How do we continue to segregate this history from our collective knowledge? While the bunkhouse was perhaps more warm in the winter, all of these structures shared the common experience of no indoor plumbing, no running water, no electricity. The modernization of the bunkhouse today makes for a lovely place to stay, especially for the train enthusiasts because the tracks are steps from this structure. Iâm grateful I donât have to run out there quickly to fix the track before the next one rolls by, or, as many once did, push the handcart up the rail to fix something before the trains came through again. I am grateful that I get to experience the trains moving through, and my only responsibility is to pause my thought, or my paintbrush, because the sound and vibrations call for it. Itâs a BNSF line now, the merging of Burlington-Northern and the Santa Fe in the mid-1990s is a history easily located and shared. Contrast this with the still too hidden in the shadows; the history of the role of Mexican laborers in this space.
When I walked in the green door to unit 3 there was a train rolling slowly by, which I could hear but not see through the drawn curtains over the door leading to the outside seating area on the other side of the bunkhouse. I was immediately struck by the energy of the place, the care and love of twenty-first century renovations while also feeling a deep reverence for its history. The ghosts of the walls that once separated rooms into five units instead of the current threeÂ Â hugged me as I began to get to know this tiny Kansas town. Donât blink or youâll be through it. I sat in the aroma of a fresh pot of beans for the entire first day of my residency and enjoyed beans for breakfast the next eight days. It was my attempt to share with the space, create a connection back to the people who once called this structure their home. It was my attempt to time travel back, to shorten the distance between me and them. To let these ancestors, kin to my ancestors, know that their backbreaking work on the rails was worth it. That some of us made it. That some of us hear the trains go by and know itâs only possible because of their manual labor that kept these rails working. That some of us are committed to upholding that labor with the dignity you did not receive during your lifetimes. The cricket sings outside the window and I think about how many generations of crickets have been here, who also sang to the workers as they rested after a grueling, physically demanding day of work replacing track. The Willowleaf Sunflower waves at me though the window, sometimes casting a shadow as it blows in the wind. It catches my eye as it sways even as sheâs still just a vibrant green stalk, not yet flowering. These sunflower descendants of the ones that kept Cipriana EnrĂquez company while she made beans and her husband Lalo fixed the track. And waved at Lucita Tetley while her husband Jesus worked outside the bunkhouse as she toiled inside. And, the crickets sang to Sr. Melchiadoes Mesa, Sr. Alfredo GarcĂa, and ZacahrĂas Beltran, and Patrocina and Severiano PalacĂoz who rounded out the first residents of this bunkhouse who expanded families here. ÂĄPresente! Who would have thought an artist whose interest in Mexicans in Kansas would be here a hundred years later writing your names? Getting to know us in the archive? Are the Willowleaf Sunflowers, and the other tallgrass prairie plants best at remembering the presence of those whose lives intertwined with theirs? Are their root systems the ways to better recount the intertwined and interconnected relationship my people have had with the prairie? What can we learn from the plantcestors who survived the installation of the track, who blow in the breeze of the wind of mother nature and the wind of the trains as they zip by so very fast? Who witness, from their outside vantage point, the windows rattle as Matfield Station shifts in response to the force of that steel. What does the prairie remember that we cannot seem to hold ourselves?Â
*An earlier version of this essay appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Art of KCF Newsletter
Traqueros: Mexican Railroad Workers in the United States 1870-1930, Jeffrey Marcos GarcĂlazo. University of North Texas Press, 2013.
Kandace Creel FalcĂłn, Ph.D. (she/they/their) is an interdisciplinary feminist scholar, writer, and visual artist. Their lifeâs passion grounds the power of narrative for social transformation. As a Xicanx femme feminist, KCFâs work is driven to disrupt conventional notions related to femininity. Drawn to mixed-media methods of painting, printmaking, fabric arts, and writing KCF brings together various mediums to make sense of the world around them.
As a former academic and mostly self-taught visual artist, their work is concerned with home and belonging, and the shifting nature of public/private dichotomies related to domesticity. Born in Kansas, and raised in New Mexico, she is a descendent of Mexican Railroad laboring families who came to Kansas to grow roots. She now lives and works in rural Erhard, MN.
The Tallgrass prairie is a landscape that evades expectations. While in the prairie, you are fully aware of your presence. Aside from the bison, you may be the tallest figure walking through the preserve. With nothing to block its beams, the sun casts deep shadows over your form: this is of interest to me. Shadows are a literal representation of our animal-like existence on earth, they are evidence of our materiality. Just the same as all other beings and things (with exceptions of transparent materials such as glass) on this planet, sunbeams halt at the presence of our bodies. Our shadows are just one distinct similarity we hold in common with boulders and storm clouds. Shadows, in this way, highlight flaws in the hierarchies that western culture sets from nature. I felt aware of myself in a strikingly different way in the Tallgrass prairie.
My residency took place in July. It was actually quite rainy the week I was there. As the week ended, the sun beamed strong and hot. Bugs emerged from the wet soil- the grasses were alive- bugs jumping, flying, and singing. I love that the longer you sit with the landscape of the prairie the more that you discover and the more you understand. I learned that the soil is quite rocky; it is full of bits of limestone. This is the reason that the prairie remained preserved over the years- it was unable to be tilled into farmable soil due to the rocks. Beyond the screen door of my bunkhouse room, the bugs clicked and clacked into a charming melody that could only exist within this place.
Matfield Green marks the halfway point between my now home- Boulder, CO- and my hometown- Louisville, KY. The literal in betweenness of the location of this place was attractive to me. I was also lured by the landscape; I had not spent time in the Tallgrass Prairie before. Due to the lack of immersion in the specific landscape, I packed along with me multiple supplies that would act as mediators to my understanding of the Tallgrass Prairie. I feel the need to understand a place firsthand before I can make work within it. Scientific glass rods, white cloth, an exacto knife for cutting the cloth, and mirrors were carried along from Boulder to Matfield Green. During my first few days, I was doing simple âacts of connectionâ with the supplies to develop an understanding of my position within this place. I placed mirrors into the grasses and documented the bugâs interactions.
I began to cut a pattern of squares from the white cloth to make shadow âdrawingsâ with the sunâs light.
I was reading Robin Wall Kimmererâs Braiding Sweetgrass. A quote stuck with me,
âScience can be a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts; it is a language of objects. The language scientists speak, however precise, is based on a profound error in grammar, an omission, a grave loss in translation of the native languages of these shores.â
I gathered the scientific glass rods that were with me and installed them outside of the bunkhouse, in front of the train tracks. A subtle blur of the landscape occurred when looking through the glass rods. How is our connection to the landscape distorted through the lens of western science? I am interested in this blur- the literal and metaphorical distortion of our understanding of our position within the landscape.Â
This work could not exist anywhere but within this place and time in the prairie. The rawness of the prairie inspired and provoked this work. The Tallgrass prairie is simple yet complicated and promotes an understanding of the world distinct from that of other landscapes. I am very grateful for my time spent there- and know it wonât be long before I am back.
Amy Hoagland is a Louisville, KY born artist. She is currently attending the University of Colorado, Boulder as a candidate for her Masters of Fine Art in Sculpture. Her work focuses on the entanglement that humankind has within nature, discussing how humanâs technological advancements are progressing Earthâs ever evolving structure.
Amy received her BFA from the University of Kentucky and was granted a 2017 Windgate Fellowship award presented by the Center for Craft. She has completed residencies with the Marpha Foundation in Marpha, Nepal, Casa LĂŒ in Mexico City, Mexico, and Firehouse Art Center in Longmont, CO. Amy has recently had several solo exhibitions: one as a visiting artist for the Kentucky College of Art and Design in 2019, at the Firehouse Art Center, and Arbor Institute in 2021. She has exhibited internationally in Mexico City and nationally including Los Angeles, Austin, Denver, and Portland.
Eleonora Edreva is an artist, writer, teacher, and collaborator born in Bulgaria, raised in Chicago, and currently living in Albuquerque. Eleonora strongly believes that our senses contain skills and ways of knowing the world that systems of power have been devaluing for centuries as part of their ongoing efforts to disconnect people from their bodies and capacities for pleasure and embodied learning.
Their artistic work orients around the idea that connection, play, and collective sensory experiences are strategies for bringing people more fully into individual and collective strength. To that end, they create interactive, participatory, and game-based experiences to invite people to playfully experiment with and rehearse collaborative, embodied, and emergent ways of navigating and noticing the world. Ele holds a B.A. in English from the University of Chicago and is currently working towards an M.F.A. in Art & Ecology at the University of New Mexico.
Ben Cosgrove is a traveling composer-performer whose music explores themes of landscape, place, and environment in North America. Ben has performed in every U.S. state except Delaware and Hawaii, and has held artist residencies and fellowships with institutions including the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, Harvard University, Middlebury College, the Schmidt Ocean Institute, and the Sitka Center for Art & Ecology. His nonfiction has appeared in Orion, Taproot, Northern Woodlands, Appalachia, and other publications. He is based in northern New England.
Ben’s fourth studio album, The Trouble With Wilderness, released on April 23rd, 2021, features twelve new compositions inspired by expressions of nature and wildness within the built environment. It was described by WBUR as “an impressionistic ode to the modest nature found in urban spaces”.
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 canât 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. Iâve 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
Iâd 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. Iâm 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 wouldnât have seen or noticed without their insights. It wasnât 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. Iâve even started a new series about prairie plants because of the experienceâmy 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.