Unknown Illinois: Faces Tell The Prairie's Story | WGLT

Unknown Illinois: Faces Tell The Prairie's Story

Oct 18, 2017

There are some new faces in the prairies around McLean County—ceramic faces, that is.

The idea to tell a visual history of the prairie through faces came from local artist and Illinois Grand Prairie Master Naturalist Mikki Michele.

Michele said she was inspired by representations of Native American life while visiting the Dickson Mounds Museum in Lewistown while taking the Master Naturalist training.

The actual Native American burial grounds there have been closed to the public for many years. “What is left are all these wonderful representations of the culture, and it’s all done by artists,” Michele said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.

She added, “In the back of my head it was fermenting, what can I add as an artist?”

Michele’s Prairie Faces stare out from posts at the Illinois State University Horticulture Center, the Heartland Community College Gardens, both on Raab Road in Normal, and the Sugar Grove Nature Center in Shirley.

“There is a commonality and similarity in prairies. I thought, how can we distinguish one prairie from another prairie?” Michele said. "So I thought about the people who traveled through Illinois when it was all prairie. That took me back to the 1700s and 1800s.”

Some of the faces are of historical figures, such as young Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Supreme Court Justice David Davis.

As an attorney, Lincoln rode the court circuit into McLean County, probably along Indian trails through the prairie. His friend Davis also practiced law in central Illinois and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Bloomington.

Artist Mikki Michele stands next to a ceramic face of a Traveling Preacher in the Heartland Community College Gardens. She worked on the face with her 13-year-old granddaughter.
Credit GLT News/Judith Valente

Others faces represent people who would have roamed the prairie, including a Potawatomi Indian, a trapper, a trader and a roving preacher.  

The faces at Sugar Grove Nature Center depict members of the Funk and Stubblefield families, early pioneers in McLean County.

The project was a community effort. It involved the Inside Out artists’ collaborative, which provided plastic face forms and clay; Heartland Community College, which provided a kiln; local school children, who helped paint the faces; and veterans, who dug the holes for the posts on which the faces rest.

For Michele, the effort marks the culmination of a career in the service of art. She majored in art at ISU and taught art for 25 years in Unit 5 schools. Now retired, she continues to offer classes at Normal’s Adult Recreation Center (ARC).

What immediately strikes a visitor is the naturalness of the faces. Michele said she and the others who worked on them started with photographs of actual people from pioneer time.

The expressiveness of the Potawatomi Indian’s face is striking—it looks as though the lips might part to speak at any moment—as are the pink roses adorning Mary Todd Lincoln’s hair and the mustache on the traveling preacher.

One of Michele’s favorites is the “Prairie Woman” wearing a blue bonnet. “She typifies the amazing women who came out to the frontier,” Michele said.

Frontier men and women often came from New England, where they were used to seeing meadows. Here, they encountered something they’d never seen—prairie grass as high as 10 feet tall, Michele said.

She added, “When they would stop at night, men would go around and tramp the grass down around the wagon."

The women would “have a fire, keep the kids right by the fire, get them fed and put them back in the wagon," Michele said.

Ultimately, the pioneers succeed at tilling the prairie and turning it into a plentiful source of food, as it continues to be today.

"But it was formidable back in the day,” Michele said.

At the Heartland community garden, the faces are closely embedded among plants and flowers.

“We try to put them in places where they kind of peek out at you,” said Janet Beach Davis, a Heartland earth sciences instructor who helps curate the garden and worked with Michele on the project. “They’re kind of fun to walk around and find.”

A favorite of both women is the Potawatomi Indian. 

The Potawatomi Indians “were great runners, hunters and fisherman and traders of goods. The Potawatomi were called 'the peaceful tribe,'” Michele said.

The preacher’s face is the work of Michele’s 13-year-old granddaughter and is distinguished by his ample mustache. “As she was doing it, she said it reminded her of her uncle who is a preacher,” Michele said.

There are a total of 22 faces at the three nature centers.

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