This artist is turning invasive species at Johnson County parks into inspiration for her craft
A new initiative pairs an artist with conservation efforts to remove the invasive species of bush honeysuckle in Johnson County’s parks.
On a humid Tuesday morning in the last week of August, artist Kirsten Taylor drove to the trailhead near the marina at Shawnee Mission Park, the largest park in Johnson County, Kansas.
A few bicyclists rode the paved trails on the way to the wooded trails, popular with hikers, mountain bikers and birdwatchers.
“I've been traveling up to Shawnee Mission Park about two times a week,” Taylor said, “spending about four hours, a little more some days, each day.”
Taylor, a graduate student in ceramics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, was selected as the county Park and Recreation District’s first artist in residence. In August, she embedded with the natural resources team to focus on forest health and the impact of invasive species.
Since then, Taylor's work has been part of an effort to bring attention to Johnson County's work weeding out plants like the bush honeysuckle, which thrives in the Midwest. The art she creates will respond to years of conservation.
“My work focuses on humans and our relationship with nature,” she said, so an arts residency at a park seemed like a natural fit.
“I think about how we can be a part of the natural world around us and have a more beneficial relationship with the places we find ourselves,” she said.
Bush honeysuckle, a Eurasian shrub, was introduced to the United States in the 1890s as an ornamental for city landscapes. By the 1980s, scientists realized this exotic plant was highly invasive.
“Bush honeysuckle has been lurking for decades in the Kansas City area,” said the district’s field biologist, Matt Garrett.
These large, spreading shrubs have flowers that change from white to yellow as they age. Birds and small animals eat the red berries, and drop the seeds.
“It really, in Johnson County, took a stranglehold on a lot of our woodland ecosystems in the 1980s,” Garrett said, “and it just kind of accelerated through the 1990s.”
Bush honeysuckle, he said, crowds out native plants with its thick, tangled growth, and that makes it difficult for bikers or hikers on a trail. It also means the next generation of trees doesn’t receive enough light.
To date, about 500 acres of bush honeysuckle have been removed from the parks — smaller plants are pulled from the ground, and stumps are treated with herbicide. For larger areas, a prescribed burn is used to control it.
In 2019, a natural resources plan for the district added more funding to target the invasive species. At the same time, a master plan for the district’s public art program was also in the works, with the goal of inspiring a deeper connection to Johnson County and its landscape.
So, Garrett said, the two joined forces to create an art and natural resources residency. The first four or five years of the program will focus on land restoration, and educating the public about different threats to the park.
“It made sense to see if we could kind of tell our natural resource story with art in a unique way,” Garrett said.
During the residency, Taylor took photographs and short videos, collected plants, made natural inks from American pokeweed berries and walnuts, and harvested wild clay in a quarry, all with an eye on proposing a temporary project in September. She also worked closely with the natural resources team as they restored prairie, woodlands and other habitats.
Taylor spent hours exploring the park’s trails, including the popular Orange Loop, a 2.78-mile trail where her temporary artwork will be installed. It’s a trail that, until recent restoration efforts, was a tunnel of bush honeysuckle.
“In thinking about this complex web of people, animals, and plants in the park as a community, I was really struck by a symbol of a table,” she said — providing a seat at the table, having a voice, and the table as a site of nourishment.
Her proposal: a series of triangular tables topped with ceramic tiles with impressions of plants — a timeline, of sorts.
“And the plants will represent through time what species have gotten to thrive in this place where the park is now,” she described. “We’ll start with prairie plants, and then trees will come in. And then, of course, the honeysuckle will start to take over.”
Taylor’s temporary sculpture will be placed on a spot along the Orange Loop trail where it can be viewed from several angles.
“Art hits people differently than just interpretive signage or, you know, Facebook posts,” said Garrett, the district’s biologist. “I think it’s really creative and unique to be able to tell the story of the positive changes we’re making through art.”
Over the years, his team has taken aggressive steps to remove the bush honeysuckle, though there are about 2,500 acres of forest in the parks still to tackle. Garrett said the work will continue with a larger natural resources budget, more staff and conservation contractors, and working closely with nonprofit partners.
“So we’re just kind of getting started,” he said.
Kirsten Taylor’s work will be installed along Shawnee Mission Park’s Orange Loop Thursday, Sept. 29. She'll host a community drawing session with her natural inks on Saturday, Oct. 22 at Shawnee Mission Park, 7900 Renner Road, Shawnee, Kansas 66219.