Smile Politely

Monk in Retrospect celebrates a passion for the prairie

Installation of Monk in Retrospective at IMC, Urbana. A collection of photographs of David Monk are on a white wall.
Debra Domal

Monk in Retrospect, the eclectic exhibit of words and images created and inspired by Prairie (Dave) Monk currently installed at the Independent Media Center’s gallery, defies easy labels. It is a photography exhibition, a screen printed clothing capsule collection, and a library of press clippings. It is also a scrapbook of memories filled with images of milestone moments, personal and environmental. But for this reviewer, it is collective love letter to the man whose commitment to prairie preservation in East Central Illinois, has been unrivaled.

Like  so many of us, David Monk came to C-U as a student and stayed. Born and raised in rural Australia, Monk “stayed largely because of a deep commitment to a rapidly dwindling prairie ecosystem.” With degrees in agricultural science and education, he has “been instrumental in promoting the preservation of some of the last remnants of prairie in East Central Illinois.” When he first arrived, Champaign County “had already lost most of its 600,000 acres of prairie heritage to drained farmland and development.”

“What is life about if we cannot know and enjoy our own heritage? Do we have to bow completely to the economic dictates in which every inch of prairie soil is valued for row crop production? There is an aesthetic value to the prairie. It is beautiful in its own right.” —David Monk, 2003.

Even at first glance, this exhibit speaks to Monk’s rare mix of talents and influences. An educator, scientist, and preservationist, he is also an artist, “who interprets the natural and cultural landscape.” You may know him from his WEFT radio show, The Prairie Monk, his impromptu tours of the pocket prairie he cultivated across from the street from the studio, or the many stories spoken and printed about his work with Heartland Prairies Project.

A framed tan and white prairie screenprint surrounded by photos of Dave Monk at different times in his life.

Photo by Debra Domal.

Among the walls of photographs and prints, you’ll find some hidden gems that speak to his life and work in surprising and wonderful ways.  Examples of art created by Monk’s mother sit beside vases of prairie grass and Black-eyed Susans.

Enlarged prints and banners of fields of coneflowers hang on the walls. A table is covered with smaller photos, native flowers in vases, and other items for viewing and sale.

Photo by Debra Domal.

Screenprinted t-shirts, like most of the art shown at Monk in Retrospect, are available for the price of a donation. 

A selection of t-shirts saying preserve the prairie in earth tones hanging on a white wall.

Photo by Debra Domal.

Monk in Retrospect is well-suited to its location. It is cozy, informal, accessible, and part of a larger commitment to serving our community and our prairie. The focus may seem to be on the past, but the message to continue on with the work, both the art and the conservation, is clear. 

Photo by Debra Domal.

Photography allows Monk to artfully capture the story of the East Central Illinois prairie through the dual lens of nature photography and environmental activism. 

Newspaper clippings, photos, and other Dave Monk memorabilia attached to a large white wall.

Photo by Debra Domal.

Among my favorite hidden gems, is the bag of Prairie Monk coffee beans. 

Table against a paneled wall with copies of exhibit programs and donation baskets and vases of Black-eyed Susans.

Photo by Debrea Domal.

Standing at the small table right outside the gallery walls is the guest book which visitors are invited to sign. While it feels too intimate to include a photograph of it, or to share the exact words within it, I am happy to give you a sense of it. It contains gratitude from former students and community members who felt transformed by Monk’s teachings, actions, and friendship. Like the exhibit itself, It contains stories that are both deeply personal and of global impact. 

It is impossible not be inspired by what you see and read at Monk in Retrospect, just as it has never been possible to leave a conversation with David Monk without absorbing his contagious energy and wisdom. 

Monk in Retrospect has arrived at the IMC as Monk himself faces a terminal illness. This fact adds a bittersweet layer to each photograph and clipping. And while it is not what most would consider a traditional art exhibition, it offers a lesson in the art of remembering, and the art of paying tribute. To put it simply, share your gratitude wihile it can still be received. 

If you are able to, you can take a piece of this shared history home with you, where you can continue to be inspired to moving foward on your own path through the prairie. Exhibit programs, beautifully designed by Smile Politely’s own Cope Cumpston, are available for $5 and are well-worth the price. 

To watch videos of David Monk doing what he does best, check out this website.

Monk in Retrospect
August 14-28
Independent Media Center
202 S Broadway Ave, Ste 1
F 2 to 5 p.m.
Sa + Sun 2 to 5 p.m.

Top photo by Debra Domal.

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