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Weaving art into nature

Grasslands have been a key part of healing the once-barren slopes of the Lehigh Gap.

A new art project on the grounds of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center uses those same grasses to beautify the area and celebrate the natives who once called the area home.

“Savannah Echo,” by Seattle-based artist Sarah Kavage, is an outdoor art installation. With help from three local assistants, Kavage wove grasses into long braids at the crossing of the LNE trail and Bobolink trail. The project is located about a mile north of the nature center’s Osprey House.

“My hope is to open people’s eyes to something that is ordinary, and all around but they may not notice,” Kavage said.

Over the past three years, Kavage has completed over a dozen projects at nature centers which make up the Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River. Her projects are part of an initiative known as Lenapehoking Watershed, which honors the Lenni Lenape people who lived along the Delaware.

Instead of paint or clay, Kavage does her art almost entirely with the grasses which grow at the project sites. Each project is different based on what grows at the site.

The grass at Lehigh Gap Nature Center helps tell the story of the reclamation of the mountain. Twenty years ago, no vegetation grew in that area of the Kittatinny Ridge, due to contamination from industrial operations in the area. In 2003, the nature center seeded grasses along the landscape. Those grasses have helped create new soil which helps prevent erosion and keeps heavy metals from entering the food chain.

Kavage has used braided grass in other projects, and she particularly likes the idea of working with vegetation which is playing a role in improving the mountain’s health. While her art is very labor-intensive, she says there is a restorative quality when she is deep in the process of braiding grass.

“It brings up questions about women’s labor, unseen labor, people doing work that is unseen. Grasses are a great metaphor for that, cleaning pollution out of soil and building soil,” she said.

Unlike her work on the West Coast, the braids contain many different types of grass. In Seattle, the grasslands tend to be more homogeneous. Western grasslands are also a lot drier. Braiding grass in the middle of a humid Pennsylvania summer presents new challenges. Among the grasses there are plants like milkweed which can’t be braided. Kavage instead uses the braids to draw attention to the other plants surrounding them.

“It’s a combination of hairstyling and gardening, using the braids to highlight different plants and species,” she said.

Three local women have helped Kavage complete “Savannah Echo.” They come from diverse educational backgrounds including art and botany. One of her assistants, local artist Shae Faust, said the project helps fill a need for art in the area.

“It’s nice to be able to beautify this area, and bring people in for the sake of art,” she said.

Through Kavage’s work, the Lenapehoking Watershed hopes to connect people with Lenapehoking, which is what the Lenni-Lenape tribe called their homeland. It seeks to direct the residents of the area to enjoy the benefits of enjoying its natural beauty and learn more about Lenape culture.

“Learning about the Lenape people and the many other indigenous cultures in the area has been one of the great pleasures of working on this project,” Kavage said.

Artist Sarah Kavage creates work using the grasses she finds at the sites of her projects. She recently completed a piece called “Savannah Echo” at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS
Sarah Kavage's work “Savannah Echo” at Lehigh Gap Nature Center uses the grasses which have helped rehabilitate the Kittatinny Ridge. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS