Beyond reflection: Minneapolis artist combines art and ecology

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As the old saying goes—art _reflects_ life. In Jim Proctor’s world, art and life intersect.

When I visited Proctor in 2005, he had recently finished his first buckthorn installation, The Buckthorn Menace (TBM), along the western shore of the Mississippi River Road in Minneapolis. Before TBM, Proctor was more used to creating smaller, hand-held sized compositions from natural materials such as seeds and roots and other materials collected from his travels…and manipulating them in ways that make them look exotic, almost otherworldly. One piece involved Proctor applying catalpa hairs and rose thorns to sugar maple seeds. The final result were two sugar maple seeds redesigned into spiky, exotic-looking specimens that resemble what you might imagine maple seeds would look like if they dressed like Mongolian warriors.

With the creation of TBM, Proctor stumbled onto something unexpected—giant public sculptures of dandelions made from buckthorn that not only helped clear the woody plant from infested areas, but also served to raise public awareness about buckthorn’s seedy invasiveness. Now, buckthorn isn’t the only thing spreading. Interest in Proctor’s buckthorn sculptures has spread, as well.

This fall, Proctor finished two installations on the Carleton College’s Cowling Arboretum and on the St. Olaf College campus in Northfield, MN. These new sculptures were realized due to the combined efforts of Proctor, the college communities and the wider Northfield community.

These projects, co-sponsored by the Carleton and St. Olaf and the Northfield Environmental Quality Commission (EQC), blossomed when Suzie Nakasian, a community resident and co-chair of the EQC, discovered The Buckthorn Menace in a past issue of Thicket! and invited Proctor to create new displays in Northfield.

At the time, Nakasian was working to raise local public awareness about the proper use of synthetic chemicals . “The City Council unanimously passed an Organic Pest Management Policy (OPM) early in 2007, and they asked the EQC to help educate the public about the organic practices used in the City’s management of municipal land and about the proper use of synthetic chemicals in those special cases when they are warranted. “The question facing all of us is how can we care for our lands (including the eradication of buckthorn) and in an environmentally responsible way?”

On seeing Proctor’s sculptures for the first time Nakasian recognized a new way to draw attention to both the problem of invasive plant species, which ones we ought to worry about and why “When I saw [Jim’s] gargantuan dandelions, I said ‘now here’s a weed worth worrying about!” The project offered to raise public awareness about the environmental menace posed by invasives, while at the same time engaging the public in the only durable solution to that problem. “Art to the rescue!”

*Community and School Connections*
Proctor and Nakasian wrote a grant and worked in consultation with Carleton’s Arboretum managers and St. Olaf’s Natural Lands Managers to find areas within each site that would benefit from the sculptures. Some of the factors in choosing the location included visibility, work and volunteer logistics, and how the areas themselves would benefit ecologically from the clearing of buckthorn to make the sculptures.

In Proctor’s view, one of the aftereffects of the Carleton site (within the Cowling Arboretum) is that the area cleared of buckthorn resulted in re-connecting planted maple/basswood forest area with a prairie area called Postage Stamp Prairie. While walking along a path that lines fifteen dandelion seedheads born of pulled buckthorn, he points out an area around the path and the creek and the sculptures he describes “used to be an impenetrable thicket of buckthorn.” In addition to buckthorn, another “wall” of Japanese lilac was discovered—and removed—at the north end of the area designated to be cleared.

“The density [of the Japanese lilac] was totally striking,” Proctor says. “It was really gratifying to break down that wall…and create a core area of quality that can be expanded on over time, if people continue to be engaged in the future.”

Myles Bakke, Manager of the Carleton’s Cowling Arboretum, supported the project by helping Proctor and Nakasian select the area of what locals call “the upper Arb” where the sculptures would be built and by hauling brush, providing tools and helping find sources for volunteers. He notes the location where the buckthorn sculptures was chosen in part due to its visibility—along a walking path often visited by community
members.

“It was doable [there] because we had a lot of young buckthorn. Also, the site was practical in the sense that the buckthorn could be removed on a scale that made sense for the number of volunteers involved.”

Nancy Braker, director of Cowling Arboretum, notes that the site chosen for the sculptures is “ecologically important” and adds that potential for the sculptures to attract fresh volunteer interest “is tremendous.” She “hopes [volunteer efforts] will continue and that local people and student workers will get involved with the Arboretum.”

As Braker, Bakke, and Proctor sit together around the Arboretum’s office breaktable, Proctor suggests a good time to organize volunteers would be when the sculptures are taken down next fall. (Each dandelion sculpture features parts of destroyed buckthorn assembled on a trunk of buckthorn that is still living and needs to be removed.) He says he would like to see removal of the sculptures followed by some kind of planting with a native shrub like bladdernut or black willow—to fill in gaps left from a heavy duty buckthorn removal.

*Next Year Follow Up*
The buckthorn sculptures connect two important dots in terms of buckthorn management—public awareness and community action. Proctor recognizes that there is a process involved with his sculptures.

“It’s ironic,” he says, “that there has to be a threat to Nature to bring people together.”

As a result of this project, Nakasian organized neighborhood residents and community volunteers, student groups from the local Art Tech Charter School (who worked in the rain), and the 7th grade Science Classes of the Northfield Middle School, and volunteers from the two local colleges. The colleges bought hand pruners, hand saws, gloves, and tape. After the project these materials were donated to Friends of Hauberg Woods, and DuFour’s Dry Cleaners in downtown Northfield generously loaned 400 pairs of cloth gloves for the project’s volunteers.

Proctor says this project was different from previous projects because he was working on multiple sites. It was difficult to describe the work as part art and part ecological action to various audiences during different stages of the work.

“Communicating the process is difficult,” he says. “I want to show people the entire process, but it’s hard for people to understand how you turn buckthorn into art until they actually see it. Until they actually see it, and it’s made very concrete, there’s nothing like
having examples on hand for people to discover the idea.”

Nakasian says she didn’t know how much fun pulling buckthorn was until she tried it. “It’s satisfying…you absolutely get the sense that you’ve accomplished something really important. It’s satisfying in the way that working in a garden can be, but even more so for what it teaches us about the lands around us. Working on natural can change how we relate to the environment! Having worked on this project, I now look at a familiar wooded hillside in the Carleton Arboretum, for instance, and IT not only looks different to me, I look differently at it! I see things I simply did not see before: a buckthorn tree is subtly different from a lilac, and now I see them distinctly. If we can foster a change in how people, and particularly kids, see the environment, perhaps we can foster the desire to preserve and protect it as well!”

Nakasian says the installations have helped create a conversation about buckthorn and invasive plants. “People are still talking about it. The scale of buckthorn in Northfield is too big for any one person to handle. The only solution is an organized, activated effort. Art is a good way to make these connections.

To view more images of _The Buckthorn Menace_ and/or other works by Jim Proctor, visit _http://www.mnartists.org/artistHome.do?rid=7438_

Neil Cunningham works for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture as a specialist and for the Biological Control Program.

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