Installation view of Julie Farstad’s “Benton County Prairie, 10.07.23” (2023) and ceramics by Mitch Iburg. The foreground piece is Iburg’s “Anamnesis #24” (2023), and at right on the pedestal is his “Soil Survey (Vessels)” (2023). The ceramic wall piece is Iburg’s “Trace Fossil” (2021), made of foraged clays, porcelain, and 450-million year old Bryozoa fossils. (Photo by E.G. Schempf)
While the visuals are stunning in the Block Artspace exhibit “Finding Ground,” subtle fragrances also waft through the air along with sounds of crickets singing and fire crackling. Raechell Smith, Artspace curator and director, has recently stated an interest in curating thematically, which she describes as a “wholistic intuitive approach” to her subject. In the multisensory “Finding Ground,” Smith’s affinity for the prairie and nature inspired her to explore contemporary approaches to the landscape genre.
Kicking off the exhibit with a brilliant dialogue in the front gallery are works by eminent Kansas City photographer Philip Heying, Kansas State University professor of drawing and painting Erin Wiersma, and ceramicist Mitch Iburg from St. Paul. Heying’s photographic work was the impetus for Smith’s interest in parsing ecologies of the prairie and how the prairie is a unique landscape, especially due to conservation and preservation efforts. His photographs of the raw land embody the “sublime” notion that artists like Caspar David Friedrich emphasized in his romantic landscape paintings 200 years ago.
Wiersma’s and Iburg’s works bring physical aspects of land into the Artspace. As part of her process, Wiersma collaborates with scientists, taking part in burning practices in the Konza Prairie. Pulling paper across the landscape after a controlled burning, she picks up char from the fields and preserves its marks on the paper to put on display. Those two-dimensional abstract works are paired seamlessly with video performance clips titled “After the Burn,” which documents her process.
Iburg’s three-dimensional objects, made by firing clay containing 450-million-year-old Bryozoa fossils, appear both timeless and ancient. Works such as “Trace Fossil” hang on the wall in a grid pattern, while his earth-toned vessels are displayed on pedestals. “When we look at objects made by different cultures throughout history,” Iburg says, “we are also looking at their relationship to their surroundings… Artifacts made from wood, stone, clay, plant fibers and other natural materials reveal a shared story of human ingenuity, curiosity and reverence for the natural world.”
University of Oklahoma professor of Art Cathleen Faubert approaches her subject in a multisensorial way, and like Iburg, she uses centuries-old techniques. Using a small steam distiller to extract essential oils from plant material, she creates scents from the Oklahoma landscape. Faubert also uses plant infusions in alcohol to extract aromas; both techniques were used by alchemists in the Middle Ages. Viewers can engage their sense of smell and be transported to the Oklahoma prairie by dipping strips of paper into the jars of perfume.
Faubert photographically documents her scent-mapping experiments, a process, she says, which “invites me to start a fresh studio installation of the collected materials and investigation of the place. I document these photographically to share the mad scientist, yet sincere, efforts of the process behind the olfactory works. My hope is that the installation images, landscape photographs, short scent descriptions with scent notes, and the olfactory works themselves give the audience a perception of the place.”
KCAI professor of filmmaking and photography Cyan Meeks’ digital media work initiates a dialogue about social practices and landscape. Her documentary film “Reclamation Meridian” emphasizes a reclamation process of land in Marion County, Kansas, from the point of view of flora and insects. Meeks’ work also depicts the violence of cutting out nonnative invasive species from the land and asks complex questions: “How can I reveal truths that are beyond mere appearance or action? How can I depict geological time as opposed to modern concepts of temporal relationships?”
Julie Farstad, professor of painting at KCAI, painted an ephemeral mural directly on a wall in the Artspace, which breathtakingly captures the color and diversity of the prairie. Through the Missouri Prairie Foundation, Farstad learned about the “Coefficient of Conservatism,” in which every plant is given a number that indicates how intact an ecosystem needs to be in order for the plant to thrive and grow. In her layered mural, she focuses on a small and rare purple flower called the Downy Gentian, found in the Benton County Prairie in Missouri. “We felt like paparazzi, lining up to witness a plant. It was almost like a religious experience because it’s a precious, surviving plant,” she said. She sees her mural as a “love letter to the land and the people who steward it.”
Smith says that although she has researched topics related to the prairie and landscape for months, she has only scratched the surface. “It’s been an honor to learn from these artists,” she says.
It is apparent that we have so much more to learn from our ecosystems.
“Finding Ground” continues at the Kansas City Art Institute’s H&R Block Artspace, 16 E. 43rd St., through Jan. 26. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; Tuesday by appointment. For more information, 816.561.5563 or kcai.edu/hr-block-artspace/.