By: Shelby Lawson
Did you ever collect something from nature as a kid, preserving it to recall cherished memories later in time? Capturing the beauty and wonder of the natural world through foraged finds is the mission of Cris Hughes (GSP), a local artist and Clinical Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Hughes’ art showcases 3D botanical compositions created from dried specimens of plants and insects foraged from nature. Using traditional pinning display techniques to arrange the specimens, she creates intricate and detailed collages, which she refers to as “natural portraits,” as part of her Secret Gardens CU art collection.
“When foraging, you really have to take your time and pay attention to what’s around you,” said Hughes. “I've seen how natural it is for kids to spot small things, and how unnatural it seems to be for adults to take the time to do such. In my art I try to encourage people to focus on the little things. People will often look at it, see some tiny details, then come back and look at it again to find more. I try to invoke that childlike sense of wonder and close attention to the world around you.”
Throughout the years, Hughes has consistently incorporated a collaborative element into her art, as the specimens featured in her works are often donated by individuals from various locations. This summer, she took this collaborative aspect of her art to a new level by conceiving a project that required a community-wide effort. Hughes, in collaboration with Julia Pollack, IGB’s Creative Program Manager and curator of the Art of Science program, and Wendy Dorman, a graduate student in the department of natural resources and environmental sciences, envisioned the project “Capturing CU in a Collaborative Collage: A Natural Portrait from Foraged Finds.” The project aimed to foster community involvement and appreciation for local flora and fauna through the creation of a massive collage composed of donated foraged objects from all around Champaign-Urbana. Their proposal received the Urbana Arts and Culture Program grant for 2023.
This summer, Champaign-Urbana community members were encouraged to collect natural objects from their backyards, gardens, personal collections, or during foraging events organized by the local parks district and contribute them to the project. Over 100 species of flora and fauna were donated, including flowers, plants, insects, mushrooms, and more. Hughes says that the diversity of donated items highlights how everyone appreciates nature in their unique way.
“I remember when we did the Farmer’s Market drop-offs, that I would leave out everything people had donated so everyone could see the diversity of items,” said Hughes. “And someone came up and asked ‘did somebody seriously donate a fly?’, and if I was actually planning on including it in my art. I think it’s amazing that somebody in the community connected with this insect that to someone else is totally polarizing. This piece mashes together people’s preferences and emphasizes how we all appreciate different things in nature, and I think that's a really beautiful thing.”
The massive collage, titled “Reflection”, was unveiled on September 23rd as part of an art show at the Anita Purves Nature Center. The piece stands over 3 feet tall, and required nearly 50 hours to construct. Everything within the collage was collected during the summer of 2023 to capture that specific moment in time, save for a single butterfly from a special collection donated to Hughes by local residents a few years earlier.
“From afar, the piece appears as this striking floral arrangement, but as you get closer you realize how breathtaking the detail of it is,” Pollack remarked. “You notice a bee perched on a flower, eggshells with insects crawling around them, a cicada hiding behind a flower stem. The more you look the more you discover. It’s a beautiful and mysterious experience that everyone should go see.”
As part of the exhibit, visitors can engage with a ‘StoryMap’ that accompanies the piece. Dorman created the map using ArcGIS, highlighting 46 locations where some of the foraged specimens in ‘Reflection’ were found, along with stories from those who found them.
“‘Reflection’ brings all of these amazing little intricate details together into a single statement, and then the StoryMap explodes it back into its pieces, highlighting the individual stories of the people that contributed to it,” explained Dorman. “The StoryMap emphasizes how the Urbana-Champaign community is profoundly connected to and cares a lot about the natural beauty around us. It’s a snapshot of a moment in this relationship between humans and nature, and I think that relationship runs deep.”
The art exhibit also features selected Art of Science images of seeds and leaves created by Pollack. The Art of Science is an IGB program that seeks to merge science and art. Pollack, who has served as the Art of Science curator since 2018, collaborates with researchers at the IGB to enhance their microscopic images and highlight the beauty and significance of their scientific work. Additionally, microscopic images of flowers, pollen, and beetles taken by the 2023 Pollen Power middle-school campers are on display at the nature center. Pollen Power is a weeklong summer camp hosted by the IGB, aimed at introducing middle schoolers to plant biology while providing strong female mentorship, especially to underrepresented groups in STEM.
As a final tribute to the communal nature of the piece, every visitor to the opening ceremony was entered into a raffle to select one lucky winner who would take home ‘Reflection’ after its debut at the nature center. ‘Reflection,’ along with the StoryMap, works from the Art of Science, and images from the Pollen Power campers, are on display at the Anita Purves Nature Center.
By: Shelby Lawson
Photos By: Cris Hughes