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Hope for Chicago’s Lost Wetlands

A new outdoor art installation channels Pullman’s bygone flora and fauna.

The nation’s first planned “company town,” Pullman has a well-documented soft spot for historic preservation and restoration, a tendency which usually sets the neighborhood’s historic groundbreaking in the 1880s as its benchmark.

Joanne Aono Photo: Courtesy of the artist

But an exhibition opening in Pullman this week has a much earlier moment in mind. Artist Joanne Aono’s solo exhibition, Wetlands Elegy (on view at Mosnart as part of the Terrain Biennial through November 17) is a lament for the lost terrain of Pullman. The site where the former factory town now sits was once part of the Calumet Region’s vast coastal wetlands. But land conversion projects during the Second Industrial Revolution left behind a patchwork of stripped marshes suffering losses in biodiversity. Additional stressors like the introduction of invasive species and climate change have only exacerbated the situation.

Wetlands Elegy kicked off earlier this month with Wild Things, Aono’s outdoor installation of bird seed mosaics honoring the extinct species that once called the Calumet Region home. These intricately arranged artworks are gradually dispersed, seed by seed, by wildlife and the elements, softly revealing the banality of extinction. But there’s an optimistic flip side: If you see the image has disappeared, it is a testament to the presence of wild things, and with them the possible hope for the restoration of Chicago’s wetlands.

One of Aono’s seed mosaics Photo: JB Daniel/Mosnart

In advance of the opening reception for Wetlands Elegy, we spoke with Aono about her work, the exhibition at Mosnart, and the 10-acre farm she runs with her husband in north-central Illinois.

What motivated you to become a farmer?

Part of my husband’s and my feeling about life in general is you should do what you can to live what you believe in. My artwork and farm work coincide in that they’re both labor intensive, and you never know what’s going to happen. We also use as little fossil fuel as possible, so we farm using draft mules — Loretta and Emmy-Lou, two beautiful mules who are sisters — who pull the equipment with us and help us to farm. We called [our farm] Bray Grove: “bray” because that’s the sound a mule makes and “grove” because we have so many trees here.

Ten percent of what we grow goes to the local food bank. We also farm organically and don’t use synthetic herbicides or pesticides. We are trying to build habitat for animals to live with us: We don’t shoo away the deer when they’re eating the vegetables, because they belong here.

Can you tell me about the seed pieces?

The next seed piece I am going to be putting down outside is Thismia americana, an extinct plant species that was only found in the wetlands surrounding Lake Calumet, in the Pullman area. It was discovered by a female PhD candidate, Norma Pfeiffer, in 1912 and then went extinct four years later. [The land it was found on was extensively altered by industrial development during those years]. It’s this tiny, little plant the size of a marble. It had no leaves or anything.

The seeds are washed away by nature or removed by animals, piece by piece, revealing a quote by conservationist Aldo Leopold from his book advocating for a “land ethic,” A Sand County Almanac. The piece works via extinction; having the image disappear mirrors the extinction process. I will periodically return and put in new pieces.

Aono’s work Photo: JB Daniel/Mosnart

Another project, Home Fields, started a few years ago as we were choosing and planting seeds for the farm, and I began reading more and more into the origins of [non-native] seeds and plants. It was about immigration into the United States and immigrant populations like my grandparents [who emigrated from Japan], who planted vegetable seeds native to their birthplace to grow what they wanted to eat.

What I would have loved to have done for Wild Things — but which is not legally permissible — is to have collected seeds from the local wetlands area. I spent a lot of time wandering around Indian Ridge Marsh, taking pictures and making notes. But for the seeds that I used, some — like the corn — is from my farm. The rest were chosen for color or texture or because there are certain seeds I know the birds of the area will like eating — red milo, black oil sunflower, and safflower seeds.

What other works will be displayed as part of Wetlands Elegy?

I drew endangered birds on the window glass of the transom of the building, which is where the gallery gets its name: “Mosnart” is “transom” backwards. The drawings on display inside are based on endangered wetlands species and are made with metalpoint, which is a very old process in which you use little metal pins to draw on a specially-treated surface. It creates a ghostlike appearance which [felt appropriate for] a series on extinct and endangered species. There’s a very muted palate in the pieces I’ve made for this exhibition — I don’t want anything to scream.

If I do a silverpoint panel I like to build up the surface of the paper so there is a texture to it. And while I’m thinking about what I’m drawing, I’m also feeling the resistance of the surface. I sometimes use two implements in one hand at the same time; I hold them like hashi, or Japanese chopsticks. A lot of my past work is about duality, whether the dualities of being a twin or the dualities of immigration; it’s a way of using two instruments at once [which are] going against each other.

Why an elegy?

Pullman is already built up and the big industry that killed off and polluted everything has already done its job. A lot of things about the wetlands are gone forever — that I see as a fatal end. That’s why I think it’s an elegy. But there are a lot of organizations that, along with the Park District, are trying to restore the marshland all the same. We are recognizing how important this region was to migration routes and everything else, how it’s a key area for extinct but also endangered species. So with any mourning, you have hope.

The opening reception for Wetlands Elegy is on October 26 from 5 to 8 p.m. at Mosnart.

DETAILS: Mosnart. Pullman. 5 p.m. Free. tallskinny.com/mosnart

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