Art Exhibition Celebrates the Natural Beauty and Rebirth of Chicago’s Industrial Southeast Side


If you hike or paddle in the right natural spot in Chicagoland, it’s almost as if you’re not in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. There are peaceful and verdant prairies filled with prairie blazing star, black-eyed Susan, compass plant, rattlesnake master, and big bluestem grass; waterways graced with herons, egrets, and American white pelicans; and forests filled with towering oaks.

And then there is Chicago’s Southeast Side, which was one of the largest steel producing regions in the world and a major manufacturing area. There’s beauty in abundance, but there are also the rusting remnants and industrial detritus of a long-gone age in which steel manufacturing was king and the natural areas of the Southeast and South Sides were damaged or otherwise blighted by heavy industry. If you hike or otherwise recreate at Indian Ridge Marsh Park, Big Marsh Park, and other natural areas in this region, you’ll see massive and rusty bridges, smokestacks, dilapidated factories, and other infrastructure, as well as the occasional pile of slag amidst a prairie filled with wildflowers and freight trains chugging through the landscape. When enjoying the outdoors, this was a fact of life for someone like me who was born on the South Side and who lived there for more than three decades. But the good news is that these natural areas are being reclaimed, remediated, and otherwise restored by the Chicago Park District, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and a wealth of nonprofit organizations.

There is a certain type of beauty and strangeness to this juxtaposition of the natural world and the remnants of heavy industry. Artist Tara Keating celebrates these qualities in her exhibition, The Reclaimed Landscape: Celebrating the Natural Beauty of Chicago’s Southeast Side. The 16-painting exhibition is ongoing through September 30, 2022, at the Ford Calumet Environmental Center (FCEC) in Big Marsh Park (11555 S. Stony Island Avenue, Chicago, IL 60617).

I checked out the exhibition and wonderful Big Marsh Park last Saturday and was not disappointed. Keating’s vivid and often colorful paintings are inspired by both the vast landscape of prairie, marsh, and forest and their animal inhabitants and the industrial remnants of heavy industry that exist in or near Big Marsh Park, Indian Ridge Marsh Park, Steelworkers Park, Hegewisch Marsh Park, and Marian R. Byrnes Park. I’ve hiked extensively at all of these spots except for Marian R. Byrnes Park. It’s a strange, but cool, experience to hike amidst such natural beauty and the remnants of heavy industry.

Keating’s exhibition is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until September 30, 2022. An exhibition reception will be held from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, August 6, 2022. Keating will discuss the inspiration for her work and her artistic process. The reception will also include a raffle of an additional painting (“Swoopy Berms”) to raise funds for Friends of Big Marsh.

Keating was kind enough to talk with me about her work and the exhibition.

Q. Looking back at your life, what made you interested in creating nature-focused art (with the understanding that not all of your work is nature-based)?

A. I’ve been an avid gardener for over 20 years, and that has definitely honed my interest in nature. Gardening makes me pay attention to insects, leaf growth, soil quality, and a host of other important minutia as well as immersing me in the palette of the natural world. The last few years, I’ve also gotten into birding, which is also enhanced by paying attention to details in nature. During the first year of the pandemic I spent time in the prairies and wild areas in and near Chicago, and the sheer joy of being outside during such a stressful time led to a body of work I call the Illinois Prairie series.

Q. What’s your process for creating a work of art? Where do you paint? En plein air? Indoors? Or both? 

A. The landscapes usually start with a series of day trips that involve picnics, walking, birding, and my Canon camera. Sometimes I will really fall in love with a certain view or way of looking at a place. I usually visit spots I am interested in painting multiple times and in different seasons. When I am getting ready to paint a place I gather all my photos together and review them to decide which day/visit/or season I want to base the painting on. I paint in my studio as the canvases I work on tend to be rather large. I do bring a sketchbook on my day trips, but the paintings are usually based on a few photos and also my memories of being in the place and time I am trying to capture in paint.

Q. Can you tell my readers about your exhibition The Reclaimed Landscape: Celebrating the Natural Beauty of Chicago’s Southeast Side? 

A. The exhibit is based on over a year of visiting Big Marsh Park, Hegewisch Marsh Park, Indian Ridge Marsh Park, Steelworkers Park, and Marian R. Byrnes Park. All of these areas were deeply affected by industry in the Calumet region. Some were factory locations, ore storage facilities, or slag dumping grounds. All of these parks have undergone environmental remediation and habitat restoration efforts and are now under the stewardship of the Chicago Park District. The exhibition includes 16 paintings inspired by the landscape and the animal inhabitants of these locales and offers up my view of the natural beauty offered on the Southeast Side of Chicago. I think the vistas I celebrate will surprise and delight people who haven’t explored the area and maybe don’t realize how much this side of Chicago has to offer. For example, how many people know that we get American White Pelicans, with a wingspan of up to 9.5 feet, in the city? They are amazing and beautiful to watch in flight.

Q. Other than the ones mentioned as part of your exhibit, what are a few of your favorite nature destinations in the area, and why?

A. Hegewisch Marsh Park is included in the exhibit and it is really one of my favorites. It doesn’t have a parking lot, so it’s easy to miss. You have to turn west off of South Torrence Avenue onto a sort of access road and park on the side of the road. But it’s worth it. It has a savanna which is a light-filled forest with a prairie flower and grass understory along with a beautiful marsh. This is where I witnessed a fall monarch butterfly migration event in which the forest floor was filled with butterflies. It was a magical day for me and led to the painting “Butterfly Migration.” Another favorite spot, that is further outside the city, is Middlefork Savanna in Lake County. Middlefork is a wonderful place for just feeling, listening to, and getting in touch with the Midwest prairie. There’s a canal that often has herons, egrets, and sandhill cranes in attendance, but I also enjoy the expanse of prairie grasses and watching the raptors overhead. Bring water and snacks, because once you start walking you can be out on the prairie for hours.

Q. Other than the exhibit, where you can your art be seen? If someone is interested in purchasing your work, how can they do so?

A. I will be giving an artist talk on the exhibit on Saturday, August 6 at 3 p.m. at the Ford Calumet Environmental Center at Big Marsh Park. It’s free and the public is welcome. 

In addition, I participate at a number of local art fairs throughout the summer. The work I bring to the art fairs is my abstract and nonrepresentational work and is different from the work in the exhibition The Reclaimed Landscape: Celebrating the Natural Beauty of Chicago’s Southeast Side.

August 6  Artist talk and reception at Big Marsh Park (3 p.m.)

August 20-21 Glenwood Avenue Arts Fest (Rogers Park)

August 27-28 Bucktown Arts Fest

You can also learn more about my work at my website.

Final Thoughts

I want to thank Tara Keating for talking with me about her work and artistic inspirations. Be sure to check out Keating’s exhibition, but also prepare to spend several hours at Big Marsh Park, which has an amazing bike park (five unique bike tracks to ride, including a paved pump track and both beginner and expert jump lines…Divvy bikes are available for rental) and a variety of formal and informal hiking trails that will take you along its many ponds, marshes, and other natural areas. More than 150 bird species have been recorded at Big Marsh, which some call Chicago’s Hidden Birding Mecca. The Ford Calumet Environmental Center, which opened in late 2021, is a beautiful education facility that has a wealth of exhibits about the region’s natural and cultural history and live animal exhibits that feature fish, toads, snakes, and turtles.

Copyright (interview text) Tara Keating

Copyright (opening and closing text) Andrew Morkes


Looking for some great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more. The book (306 pages, 210+ photos) is only $18.99. Click here to learn more and purchase the book.



I have been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job OpeningsNontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDsThey Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titlesThey Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. Stories about my work have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Southtown, Beverly Review, and Practical Homeschooling.

In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering CareersWhat Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).

My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.

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