< Light Millennium: Imagining the Prairie - Paintings and Article by Marianne A. Kinzer
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Imagining the Prairie

Paintings and Article by Marianne A. KINZER

Chicago represents a triumph of human inventiveness and technology over nature. The height and grandeur of its buildings is an answer to the vast flatness of the Midwest. 

Nature's Multiform, oil on board, 30 x 40
The aesthetic of the wild -- variety, complexity, rhythm, repetition,
similarity but not sameness -- appeals to me.
Imaginative landscape painting, fall 2003

I arrived in the Midwest from Europe three years ago. My painterly style was rather abstract, but after discovering Chicago I set off on a new artistic path. I sketched city scenes, the lakefront, the skyline and the mall landscapes. After a while I asked myself, what was here before the city took over?  I learned about the prairie.

I soon realized that few people know what the prairie was, or know that pieces of prairie still exist, or care about it.  In the past, however, the prairie was a great theme of American literature and thought:

A Prairie Sunset


Shot gold, maroon and violet, dazzling silver, emerald, fawn,

The earth's whole amplitude and Nature's multiform power consign'd for once

     to colors;

The light, the general air possess'd by them -colors till now unknown,

No limit, confine-not the Western sky alone-the high meridian-North,

     South, all,

Pure luminous color fighting the silent shadows to the last.

1) Wildflower, oil on canvas, 40 x 45
If you stand still and look into the thick greenery of grasses and wildflowers on the prairie, you may be enchanted.
Imaginative painting, summer 2003

2)Prairie Sun, oil on canvas, 44 x 54
Prairies can endure hot summers and cold winters, but so can forests. What really shaped the prairie landscape was fire.  In today's prairie preserves, controlled burns limit the growth of bushes and trees. Imaginative painting, summer 2003

3) In the Wind, Mixed media, 21.5 x 29
You have to look onto the prairie in order to experience it.  Playing with the grasses, the wind draws spirals.
One of two imaginative works painted in the studio over an outdoor sketch

The Prairies

by William Cullen BRYANT


These are the gardens of the Desert,
The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,
For which the speech of England has no name--
The Prairies. I behold them for the first,
And my heart swells, while the dilated sight
Takes in the encircling vastness. Lo! they stretch,
In airy undulations, far away,
As if the ocean, in his gentlest swell,
Stood still with all his rounded billows fixed,
And motionless forever.--Motionless?--
No--they are all unchained again.
The clouds sweep over with their shadows, and, beneath,
The surface rolls and fluctuates through the eye;
Dark hollows seem to glide along and chase
The sunny ridges. Breezes of the South!
Who toss the golden and the flame-like flowers,
And pass the prairie-hawk that, poised on high,
Flaps his broad wings, yet moves not.

1) Spring Blooms, watercolor on paper, 23 x 29.5
Wildflowers in the prairie appear in communities of typical plants. One of the big differences between wild and planted vegetation is the variety. There is great diversity of life on a square foot in a prairie. This is one of the reasons why life seems to be more intense in the wild. 
Unaltered on-site work made in Wolf Road
Prairie in the spring of 2003

Exclusive Club, watercolor on paper, 23 x 29,5
This is one of the oldest plant communities I have been introduced to when discovering the prairie. These old plants have deep roots and survived many fires. This exclusive club of Prairie Dock, Rattlesnake Master, Compass Plant, various wildflowers and grasses would not let any other species penetrate their ranks.
Unaltered on-site watercolor drawing made in Wolf Road Prairie in the spring of 2003

For Walt Whitman the prairie and its tall grasses, not the grass of suburban front lawns but the coarse, tall, sturdy prairie plants, colorful and varied, symbolized American democracy as he imagined it: people being different, but not different in a hierarchical order:

The prairie-grass dividing, its special odor


I demand of it the spiritual corresponding,

Demand the most copious and close companionship

  of men,

Demand the blades to rise of words, acts, beings,

Those of the open atmosphere, coarse, sunlit, fresh,


Those that go their own gait, erect, stepping with

   freedom and command, leading not following,

Those with a never-quell'd audacity, those with

   sweet and lusty flesh clear'd of taint,

Those that look carelessly in the faces of Presidents

   and governors, as to say Who are you?

Those of earth-born passion, simple, never

    constrain'd, never obedient

Those of inland America.

I wonder what happened to the spirit of democracy, the strong middleclass of independent Americans, the proud owners of small businesses?  As for the prairies of the Midwest, it seemed they were lost forever. 

The prairies were plowed or overgrazed by enormous herds of cattle.  They disappeared under urban sprawl, were turned into golf courses, cemeteries, malls and parking lots.  They gave way to industrial sites and power plants. 

By 1930 Aldo Leopold woke up to the fact that almost all original native plants east of the Mississippi had been replaced by European crops, grasses and weeds.  He and other environmentalists started a movement that let to new interest in the original landscape of the Midwest.  Aldo Leopold and Ray Schulenberg are famous names among the people who began collecting seeds from the sides of railroads and cemeteries to restore prairies.

Other environmentalists fought relentlessly to preserve small enclaves of virgin prairie. Developers and city clerks still have a hard time understanding why some people do not want them to use certain "empty lots" for the sake of economic growth.

1) Prairie Dusk, oil on canvas, 44 x 54
The drama of the prairie lies in profound changes during the seasons and extreme weather conditions.
Imaginative painting created in the studio, late summer 2003

2) Wilderness, mixed media, 40 x 45

The wilderness is both appealing and appalling. Urban people have forgotten about the threats of the wilderness. They also lost touch with its beauty. Imaginative painting created in the studio, early spring 2000

3) Rhythm
Colored pencil and watercolor on paper, 25 x 33
Working outdoors in the prairie resulted in spontaneous mark making. Low flying grassland birds, prairie dog or ground squirrel, as well as the shy deer crossed my path early in the morning. Young grass moved in the wind while bushes stood waiting.
Unaltered watercolor sketch made in Wolf Road Prairie, June 2003

Thanks to environmentalists, the attitude toward landscape and wilderness has changed.   Maybe we need estrangement to be able to appreciate the "all but lost."

We are now able to look back and reconsider the values of the past.  We can see beauty in the prairie, because being lost in the wilderness does not pose a threat to us any more.   Frightening, instead, is the course of civilization.

In this situation, nature preserves give us pause from the stress caused by the highly artificial environment we live in.  Sanctuaries for the original landscape also help us to perceive and evaluate changes that have occurred elsewhere.

There are lessons to be learned in the wild that teach us about the interconnectedness of organisms and the beauty and energy of variety, and about the bliss of being part of nature. 

1) Breakthrough, watercolor on paper, 19 x 25
In early spring the land is barren. The soil is black and warm from a recent burn. Suddenly the colors explode in a forceful breakthough of awakening plants.Unaltered on-site work made in Wolf Road Prairie, early spring 2003
2) Spring Rain, watercolor on paper, 19 x 25
Spring is a time of breathtaking change.  Dead branches scattered on the prairie soon disappear under a blanket of fast-growing yellowish green.
Unaltered on-site work made in Wolf Road Prairie, early spring 2003

_ . _

All paintings by Marianne A. Kinzer

E-mail to Marianne A. KINZER: makinzer@lycos.com

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