Buckthorn has taken over many acres of Illinois forests and parkland, and now the fight against the invasive species has taken over the side of the Evanston Art Center.

In honor of Illinois Invasive Species Awareness Month the art center is displaying a new outdoor mural, Ask Me About Buckthorn, on the Side/Lot – the east side of the building – through June 23.

Volunteers featured in the mural (from lef) Margaret Nelson (not visible in this photo), Celia Michener, Bob Crews, Sue and Howard Gartzman, Catie Lott, Sigrid Pilgrim, Sheila Davis, Charles Smith, Wendy Pollock, Libby Hill, Betsy Jenkins, Jerry Herst, Julie Dorfman, Leslie Shad, Doug MacDonald, Allison Sloan, Tony Rothschild, Tim Sonder and Judy Pollock. Credit: Audrey Avril

The creator is artist Holly Greenberg, a professor of art at Syracuse University in New York who is on sabbatical in Evanston researching sustainable arts practices.

The mural features a selection of local Evanston volunteers who have been responsible for removing invasive plant species and restoring native habitat in local public green spaces. Its title pays tribute to the ongoing battle to remove European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), which makes up 32% of the Chicago region’s tree canopy.

“When I moved to Evanston last summer I had never heard of buckthorn, and I’m sure lots of folks here haven’t either,” Greenberg said. “I think the best way to move forward in protecting our ecosystem is by educating community members so they can make changes in their own backyards.”

‘I want to celebrate these warriors’

While the mural is designed to raise awareness about the problem of invasive plant species and the importance of native plants to the survival of local pollinators, it also celebrates the unsung heroes of habitat restoration in Evanston. 

Since joining the Evanston community in 2022, Greenberg has been working with local volunteers at Ladd Arboretum, Harbert-Payne Park, the Edible Evanston Food Forest and the Forest Preserves of Cook County. She gathers buckthorn to use in her art and says she now has more than enough to sustain her studio practice for many years.

The mural’s images of volunteers are considerably larger than life. Credit: Holly Greenberg

“I started to feel real gratitude towards the volunteers who I work with, who have been doing this habitat restoration for years,” Greenberg said. “In the blazing summer heat and freezing winter cold, they are out there year after year digging up buckthorn. So I thought, ‘I want to celebrate these warriors,’ and I decided to photograph them and make a large mural with as many of the main stewards and volunteers as I could fit.

“I also thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for other Evanstonians to see their neighbors and friends in the mural and say, ‘Hey, why are you in that mural?’ And this could lead to a conversation about the importance of native plants, pollinator habitats and how to get involved in the movement.”

Side/Lot is a curatorial project of artists Mat Rappaport and Anne Hayden Stevens. The new mural is in conjunction with an art installation by Greenberg at both branches of the Evanston Public Library that features buckthorn seedlings “invading” the library.

Accompanying the library installations is a video slideshow that explains the importance of native plants and how to identify buckthorn, and highlights the work of volunteers throughout Evanston.

‘These plans have to go anyway, right?’

Greenberg said a little over a year ago she had the realization that her art supplies were contributing to the environmental crisis. Before this, she hadn’t really given much thought to where her materials came from, what rivers were being polluted by mining the cadmium red, cobalt blue and titanium white in the tubes of paint.

“That left me with a big question mark and challenge,” she said. “At the time I was just starting to get into native plant gardening. The flip side of native plants is non-native invasive plants that destroy local ecosystems. So I decided this would be my new art material. These plants have to go anyway, right?”  

She now generally forgoes manufactured art materials in favor of harvesting invasive plants to create works of art that highlight the importance of creating native plant habitats for other living creatures. 

Buckthorn seedlings “invade” the Evanston Public Library as part of Greenberg’s art installation. Credit: Evanston Public Library

For her library project, Greenberg took small pieces of buckthorn to her apartment where she washed them and set about trying to incorporate them in her art.

“I had used other types of invasive plants such as English ivy, clematis and daylily to make sculptures, but buckthorn is very uncooperative,” Greenberg said. “It doesn’t want to bend, so it was proving difficult to weave with. So I decided to just stick the buckthorn straight to the wall without doing anything to it. It has very beautiful inky black roots and so it ended up looking quite striking just covering my wall.” 

There will be a free public reception to celebrate the Side/Lot mural from 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 10, at the art center, 1717 Central St. Refreshments will be served and a pop-up native plant sale will be hosted by Evanston’s Shady Grove Wildflower Farm.

Belinda Lichty Clarke

Belinda Lichty Clarke works as the alumni engagement director at Medill at Northwestern and is a freelance writer. After graduating with a master’s from Medill in 1994, Belinda worked in public relations,...

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