Prairie and Native Plant Careers

Julie Farstad

Professor of Painting
Kansas City Art Institute
Kansas City, Missouri

Where did you study and what was your major field of study?
I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from the University of Notre Dame and my Master of Fine Arts in Painting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Briefly describe your current job.
As a professor in the Painting Department, I teach Sophomore Painting, and a drawing and social practice class called Cultivation: Drawing Intentional Relationships with Plants at the Kansas City Art Institute. As a practicing artist I make artwork that explores my relationship with plants, among other things.

How do you use your native plant and/or prairie knowledge in your career today?
In my ongoing public project, Flowers for Marlborough, I make large paintings of native plants and hang them on the boarded up windows of vacant buildings to draw attention to the ecological and economic blight of my neighborhood. Simultaneously, I want these works to remind us of the prairie that was once here, celebrate the beauty of native plants and encourage people to learn about them and plant them in their yards. I also make art installations that include live plants, paintings and drawings of plants, eco prints, and portraits of my children to explore the experience of tending- tending to my children, tending to my plants- over time.

What is the most satisfying aspect of your current work?
I love teaching students and sharing my passion for painting and plants with them. I also love painting in my studio, studying the anatomy and history of native plants, and sharing that enthusiasm with my neighbors.

What native plant/prairie classes or trainings were especially important to your career?
I do not have any formal training in any plant science. I am a nerd, and when there is something I am curious about, I dive into it deeply. My plant education started with drawing. Learning about plants through drawing them has been extremely important for me because it helped me to slow down and truly observe them. It led me to ask questions about how different parts functioned and think about why they might have evolved to be this way. I have also learned through gardening in my own yard. When I began to garden, I asked myself what was here before this grass? And that led me to native plants. Trial and error in my garden through the seasons has been a great teacher. I view my backyard as a horticulture lab and viewing it through this lens turns the land into a classroom. I also love researching- so I got my hands on as many native plant books as I could and studied them. Online research led me to virtually attended many MPF and Deep Roots webinars and events. I also spend many hours observing plants at the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center in Kansas City during all seasons. Additionally, I love listening to the podcast Cultivating Place, by Jennifer Jewel. I end up researching the guests and topics she discusses.

What other subjects have you studies that have been important to your career?
Painting, social practice, and site specific art making.

Please describe volunteer or field work that was formative to your education and career.
Adjunct teaching in higher education is almost the same as volunteering, right? I taught as an adjunct at several institutions in the Chicago area before I got my full time teaching job in Kansas City. Working as a studio assistant to many artists during my education was also extremely important to me. In 1996 and 1997, I was a studio assistant for Maria Tomasula, who includes flowers in her magnificent paintings, and sitting in her studio, watching her paint was one of the most formative experiences for me.

What materials and technology are must-haves for your field?
Drawing and painting materials. My phone, which has a good camera and plant identification apps. Plant podcasts and audiobooks to listen to while I paint.

What advice would you give students or others wanting to go into your field?
If you would like to be an artist who explores plants in their work, it really helps to study painting and drawing in college and take electives in plant sciences if you can. Read, watch, and listen to everything about the subjects you are curious about. Meet other people who are into the same thing and talk to them about their work. Approach everything as an experiment. Redefine a good work of art so that it’s not the piece that others like the most, or the one that seems “the best” technically. Define good work as the work in which you wrestled with a problem, tried something new, and learned a lot.