MOUNDRIDGE — Although they are placed in plain sight, not everyone notices the twisted metal sculptures in a section of reclaimed prairie northwest of Moundridge.
A pair of 15-foot tall chairs are surrounded by figures of butterflies on stalks of grass — all designed and created by Ann Zerger and her husband, Chip Parker.
"We wanted it to be like everything else in the prairie — if you don't stop and look, you don't see it," Zerger said.
Those who do notice the sculptures often comment on their presence in the middle of hundreds of acres of fields and farms.
"People walk up to me in the grocery store in Moundridge and go, 'you live out there on that corner where all those butterflies are. I really like those,'" Parker said. "There's a smile that people get when they see it."
Zerger, who is in her 15th year of teaching classes such as photography, sculpture, metalsmithing, art history and elementary design at McPherson College, had a career as a physician's assistant before devoting her life to art.
"I'm a figurative artist, so that background really helps," Zerger said.
Parker's path led him from being an architect for IBM to striking out on his own to design both residential and commercial structures independently.
The couple formed Prairie Works Design Studios, working together to design, fabricate and install fine art pieces, commissioned sculptures and architecture for both urban and rural environments. The business is run out of their home — the same one in which four generations of the Zerger family has lived.
"This is where I grew up. My dad was born here," Zerger said.
The outbuildings on the farm now serve as a studio, gallery and workshop for the couple's creations. Smaller sculptures are situated in landscaped gardens, but the pieces in what Zerger and Parker term their "eco-art sphere" are the main showpiece.
The metal sculptures of butterflies and chairs sit on land that was farmed 20 years ago, but now has been taken out of production.
"What we did here is reclaim the pasture," Parker said.
After connecting with the University of Kansas' Monarch Watch program, the couple planted milkweed to encourage monarch butterflies to find their way back to the farm as they migrate.
"I remember, as a child, running around through thick prairie (grass) and there would be butterflies all around," Zerger said.
Providing a habitat for the monarchs has brought other insects and animals to the area — including deer, coyotes and golden eagles.
"We have really seen a lot of butterflies coming back — all kinds, not just monarchs," Zerger said.
The couple used steel and copper to create sculptures that would withstand wind, weather and fire while blending into the landscape.
"The whole idea was taking wire and twisting it, just like a little child would to make a wire piece," Parker said.
The chairs were formed on a bigger scale to put viewers in the mindset of a child.
"That was a way of getting people to be at a different level and start exploring the prairie," Zerger said.
Parker noted the steel used for the chairs also represents the human intrusion onto the prairie with the railroad.
Another chair — this one 35 feet tall and made of branches found around the property — has fallen over and rests on the ground. Given the ephemeral nature of that work, it was decided not to try and repair it.
"Now, it's starting to look really bizarre," Zerger said.
Zerger and Porter encourage both individuals and groups to come out and view the eco-art sphere, which can be especially scenic just after sunrise or right before sunset.
"At different times of the year, it changes," Zerger said. "...It's really nice when the moon is up, too."
The chairs and butterflies were installed in 2016, and the couple plans to add crane sculptures that move with the wind in 2020.
"This is just the beginning," Parker said.
Another purpose of letting part of their land go untouched is to restrict development, and the couple said they would like to get other landowners to set aside blocks for similar projects.
"The art is a way of getting people to enjoy the prairie," Zerger said. "The intricacy and fragility of the prairie is so easy to overlook."
For more information about Prairie Works Design Studios, visit http://www.pwdstudios.com.