RORG’s Very Own Prairie Fire

The Prairie Fire sculpture with Purple Poppy Mallow. Photo by Layne Knoche.

By Kate Gardiner, RORG Communications Manager

If you’ve walked through the garden, you’ve probably noticed the sculpture – it’s red and wavy and pops up in several different parts of the garden. It’s beautiful, especially when it catches the setting sun. But did you know that it represents prairie fire? And that it was designed by a student?

The Prairie Fire sculpture was installed during the original Red Oak Rain Garden construction in 2006 and was designed by University of Illinois Fine and Applied Arts graduate Jennifer Astwood. Jennifer’s background is industrial design, in which she earned both her BFA and MFA. Her focus in that field stems from her passion for making functional art. She loves how sculpture makes you think and was inspired to create the Prairie Fire sculpture by how fire fertilizes the ground. Illinois is the Prairie State after all and prairie fires, she says, are “nature’s trick to creating a rebirth of our landscape.”

We reached out to Jamie Ellis, University of Illinois’ Natural Areas Coordinator, for some more insight on prairie fires:

“Prairies depend on fire. This ecosystem is characterized by tall grasses, an amazing diversity of wildflowers, and almost no trees. Illinois is the Prairie State, and once-upon-a-time, over half of Illinois was covered by the swaying grasses and colorful flowers of prairie. Most of what was prairie is now corn and soybeans.

Each year, usually during the fall or spring, large areas of the prairie burned. After plants went dormant in the fall and winter, fires were set intentionally or maybe accidentally by Native Peoples or occasionally by lightning strikes. These fires would roar across the landscape consuming everything in it’s path.

Spring brings rain and warm weather, and the deep-rooted, perennial plants of the prairie readily grow back after a fire. Soil is a good insulator, so the roots are safe from the flames. Fires clear the previous year’s plant growth providing space for new growth, and ash from the burn makes nutrients available for plant growth. Some plant species rely on the heat of the fire and smoke to stimulate seed germination. Many trees and shrubs are killed by fire, keeping the prairie open to the sunshine where these plants thrive.”

Prairie fires are very much a part of Illinois’ history. The Red Bison RSO on campus focuses on ecological restoration of natural areas. The name “Red Bison” comes from an old nickname for prairie fires because their “blazes looming on the horizon [were] reminiscent of huge, flaming stampedes of bison.” In the past, WILL-TV here at the University of Illinois hosted a television program called Prairie Fire. And Knox College in Galesburg, IL designated the prairie fire as its school mascot.

At the Red Oak Rain Garden, the Prairie Fire sculpture is made of Core-10 steel, which rusts to a degree and then stops. Jennifer chose this material because she wanted to create the reddish tint to “speak to the color of fire.” To make the sculpture, she worked with welders who constructed the sculpture by welding and forging the flames. She also coordinated with NRES Professor Tony Endress and Facilities & Services to map out the location of the sculpture. Pictured below are Tony and Jennifer, and Rick Wells, Rick Arnold, Eric Knisley, Ryan Welch, Tony, Jennifer, and Jim Smith. Note the mock up of the sculpture.

The garden was designed and installed by Natural Resource and Environmental Science students as a Building a Lasting University Environment (BLUE) project funded by Environmental Compliance within Facilities & Services in conjunction with the Environmental Council. Compliance also contacted Fine and Applied Arts professor Alex Fekete’s students to design a sculpture for the garden. Jennifer’s Prairie Fire design was chosen out of several competing student designs. The garden was officially dedicated on April 19, 2007 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Jennifer even credits the garden project with influencing some of her career choices. She explained, “Industrial Design is about taking a problem and creating a solution. This project embodied developing tangible art for a rain garden that can be touched and works with the landscape.”

Since her involvement in the project, she has gone on to become a Full Professor and the Program Director of Industrial Design at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She continues to work in the field of Industrial Design and develops and creates slip-cast ceramic work. She describes her work-life as “a fusion of design in different mediums.”

Jennifer has visited the garden a few times since graduating. Most recently, she came about two to three years ago in April. She even brought her students to visit! She attended a conference with them on campus and they were able to visit and see the garden. While the sculpture looked great, she couldn’t tell if the plants in the rain garden were still there and noticed that the educational sign was gone. Now that the garden has been renovated, we invited her to come back again!

Prairie Fire sculpture in 2020. Photo by Layne Knoche.

Overall, Jennifer said working on the Red Oak Rain Garden project and designing the sculpture was a challenging and wonderful experience and was amazing to be a part of it. We’re sure glad she was a part of the project, and we know her Prairie Fire sculpture will teach more University of Illinois students about the wonders of Illinois’ native prairies.

For more information on Prairie Fires, you can watch this video featuring Extension Educator Duane Friend:

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