In the fall of 2021, I attended the Chop Wood Carry Water residency in the driftless region of northwest Illinois. This residency is organized by Nance klehm. I had several goals/intentions for this time and one of them was to learn more about the landscape of Illinois. Klehm leads give-back activities in which residents work together with the land learning, talking, and immersing themselves in soil, plants, and animals. One of these activities involved harvesting seeds from prairie plants in order to re-distribute them in the prairie that Klehm is re-establishing.

While we were separating the seeds from their stems and husks, I realized I could save some of these materials and make paper with their fibers. I had made paper with plants in grad school at a studio called Fresh Press and worked with prairie plants before, specifically big blue stem and sunflowers. I saved the stems of grey-headed cone flowers, wild quinine, penstemon, rattlesnake master, compass plant, and ironweed.

Illinois’ nickname is the Prairie State. It was once dominated by 22 million acres of grasslands which housed a rich diversity of plants and animals. As of today, only one-ten-thousandth of the state’s original prairies, or roughly, 2,500 acres, remain.

I wasn’t entirely sure how I wanted to engage with the fibers but I knew I wanted to do something cyclical. I landed on the idea of using the paper to make lanterns that I would bring back to Klehm’s land. I had never made a lantern before so the project was a bit daunting. I took the fibers to Fresh Press and processed them into pulp. I brought the pulp home. My friend was giving away some light fixtures that were shaped like gourds and I figured I could use them as a mold to construct the lanterns. This ended up working pretty well, the prairie plant fibers are strong.

I brought the lanterns back to the prairie in the fall of 2022. During one of the evenings there, the residents gathered and carried the lanterns with me into the prairie. We hung them onto some tall angelica plants and watched the sunset dim the world around us. The moon was bright and clear, maybe even a full moon. The lanterns looked like tiny suns, the candles inside them emitted a hot orange glow that was unexpected and magical. We stood in the prairie and talked among ourselves making observations about the land. When it was time to go, the lanterns guided us out of the prairie and back to the barns.