Artist takes on destructive plants

Jim Proctor used walnut husk, catalpa seed hair, and live oak acorns for this small sculpture
Kris Drake

In the semester before his college graduation in 1992, St. Olaf art major Jim Proctor wasn't sure what role art would play in his adult life. He had started losing interest in his landscape paintings and was confused about where his imagination would take him next.

Obsessed with depicting nature in his work, Proctor gathered roots, plants, and branches and brought them into his studio for inspiration. One day, a piece of earth found its way onto the canvas.

"It was a whole eureka moment, I guess, where I realized that these things could be art themselves," Proctor explains in his cozy south Minneapolis apartment and studio, which is brimming with plants and books. "Rather than representing it, I realized I could work with it."

Proctor, who up until that moment had been quite traditional in his approach to art materials, put aside canvas and paints and began using nuts, burrs, acorns, and sticks. Out of these natural elements he created tiny, delicate sculptures. He can find humanity in the most unusual of places, making forest acorns look like warriors readying for battle, brandishing honey locust thorns as weapons. Calling his genre "botanical fiction," Proctor strives to make his sculptures look as if they were grown rather than pieced together.

In 2000, just eight years after Proctor adopted his novel approach, the Star Tribune labeled him the "most original sculptor to appear in these parts in a long while." Encouraged by his art show successes, the following year Proctor obtained a Jerome Travel and Study Grant and spent three months driving through Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Texas, and parts of Appalachia.

All along the way, he was gathering nuts, seedlings, twigs, and other natural marvels. His supplies, organized meticulously into boxes, line an entire wall of his studio. But most of what's gathered here wasn't found deep in the woods. Some of his best supplies have been scavenged from rest areas, public parks, and cemeteries.

Originally from Groveport, Ohio, Proctor, now 38, is a quiet, private, and orderly man who splits his time between his artwork and a part-time job at the Minneapolis Public Library. His time in the woods has led him to become more environmentally conscious, especially concerning buckthorn, a wooded plant that can grow up to 25 feet tall and is slowly destroying Minnesota's forests. Before he even knew about buckthorn's threat, Proctor had used the plant's dark, stringy root in many of his art projects.

Brought to Minnesota from Europe in the mid-1800s as a popular hedging material, buckthorn is so aggressive that it ends up dominating the understory of the forest floor, keeping grasses, other plants, and trees from growing, which in turn disrupts the ecosystem, says Ann Pierce, a terrestrial invasive species coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Buckthorn has already infested most of southern and central Minnesota's forests and is likely to spread northward soon.

"It's a big issue," Pierce says.

Proctor soon came to realize that if his place of refuge and source of art supplies was going to survive into the future, plants like buckthorn needed to be eradicated. One day, as Proctor worked inside his studio, where maple seeds hang from the ceiling, he noticed that the buckthorn's roots could be assembled to look like a dandelion, the plant that is the devil incarnate to many Americans trying to keep their green lawns perfect.

This struck Proctor, because the dandelion is a lamb compared to the buckthorn threat. "I just started to think that if I could tie buckthorn, this nondescript shrub tree you hardly notice, with the dandelion, a weed everybody knows and hates, and uses all this energy trying to get rid of, then maybe I could say something," Proctor explains.

He began experimenting with the idea of giant buckthorn dandelions, eventually creating one in the woods behind a colleague's home. The artist spent months debating whether he should share his giant dandelion with others. But in 2005, Proctor was granted a FORECAST Public Project Grant to make a whole forest of them.

After months of tiresome, delicate work, Proctor created The Buckthorn Menace: 16 faux dandelions, reaching 20 feet high, constructed entirely from buckthorn. The large dandelions, located on the Winchell Trail in Minneapolis's Seward neighborhood on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, were described by one viewer as looking "like malicious nests growing in the forest."

When Suzie Nakasian of Northfield heard about Protor's work, she couldn't believe her good fortune. A member of the city's Environmental Quality Commission, a citizen advisory group to the City Council, Nakasian was charged with educating the public on organic pest management, and one of the commission's biggest hurdles was getting people to understand that using chemicals to fight off dandelions shouldn't be a top priority.

"Here was this artist who understands the joke that Americans obsess over weeds that don't matter, and I thought this would be a great way to bring attention to the buckthorn," Nakasian remembers.

She made The Buckthorn Menace the centerpiece of Northfield's public education campaign and arranged for similar sculptures to be constructed on the campuses of Carleton and St. Olaf colleges.

This fall, a group of volunteers will gather at the two schools to take down the sculptures. That's okay with Proctor, who says the artwork wasn't meant to be permanent—removing it is part of the symbolism.

"I don't want to dominate the space forever, I want it to become what it should be," Proctor says. "So, it feels right to destroy them. It's just the way it has to be."

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