Artists create home for birds, learning opportunity for Manhattan community

Artist Aaron Traher builds a habitat for barn swallows. The structure nears completion. (Courtesy photo)

Coloradan artists Aaron Treher and Delaney Gardner-Sweeney are spending this August in the flatlands of Kansas.

The two artists, who have specializations in environmental studies, join Kelly Yarbrough, director of community programming at Prairiewood Tallgrass Preserve and RetreatHouse, to build a home for barn swallows in the area.

Prairiewood is a nature preserve located in Manhattan that contains around 500 acres of prairie used for lodging, event spacing, outdoor learning, nature trails and more. The preserve earned a visiting artist grant from the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission which is funding Treher and Gardner-Sweeney’s project.

Treher’s structure will become a home for barn swallows to enhance a portion of Prairiewood called Walnut Pond.

“The Walnut Pond area has been this unplugged, casual gathering space for guests, but we haven’t really done any formal programming down here before,” Yarbrough said. “This project that Aaron and Delaney are working on has kind of been the first galvanizing point for some gathering.”

Treher is attaching a structure carefully and specifically designed to house barn swallows in a pavilion next to Walnut Pond. Treher and Yarbrough hope the attachment creates a space that can provide learning experiences for community members who use the pavilion.

A design image created by Treher to imitate what the Barn swallow habitat structure will look like when complete
A design image created by Treher to imitate what the Barn swallow habitat structure will look like when complete. (Courtesy photo)

“A lot of my work deals with the overlap of people and animals,” Treher said. “So I primarily focus on different kinds of infrastructure that serve as niche habitats for animals and animal communities. Barn swallows nest in human structures, so the idea is to bring that to Prairiewood and Walnut Pond as a way to get people thinking about the relationship between people and nature.”

Gardner-Sweeney assists Treher wherever necessary. The artist and environmental studies graduate previously worked on projects with Treher.

Yarbrough said she’s excited to provide learning opportunities through this new structure.

“A lot of people know barn swallows as pests because they don’t want them housing under their apartments or structures,” Yarbrough said. “Actually, they eat pests, so Aaron [Treher] is bringing to light some of that relationship between humans and barn swallows.”

As a visual artist with involvement in local art groups and initiatives, Yarbrough said she’s also passionate about the artistic component of the project.

“I’m excited thinking about where [this project] fits into the Manhattan community,” she said. “It pushes the boundaries of what people think about in terms of public art.”

In an effort to provide learning opportunities for the Manhattan community, Prairiewood previously hosted various in-person events, including yoga, bird walks, activities for kids, art galleries and more.

While event planning looks different this year, Yarbrough said she posses high hopes for the Walnut Pond space and new structure. She said one idea is to use the pavilion as an outdoor learning space parents can use if they are homeschooling their children this year.

Treher and Gardner-Sweeney’s residency with Prairiewood ends the last day of August, but both said their passion for this project and the opportunities it provides will continue.

“Something I really like to do is be that connective tissue that provides a venue for future collaborations, future partnerships and all kinds of things,” Treher said.

This Sunday, Prairiewood will host a “Culture & Conservation” event to explore the role of artists and creative inquiry in prairie research and conservation.