Inside JCPRD: Discover the magic of “Symbiosis,” by Matthew Dehaemers, currently on display at Shawnee Mission Park through August

A dramatic nighttime view of local artist Matthew Dehaemers’ artwork, “Symbiosis,” which will be on temporary display near the southern entrace to the Theatre in the Park in Shawnee Mission Park through August.

By Superintendent of Culture Susan Mong

Amazing things happen when you set an artist free to create a temporary art piece that celebrates the magic of theater and beauty of nature. Matthew Dehaemers, a local artist from Shawnee, Kansas, did just that with his piece entitled, “Symbiosis,” currently on display at Shawnee Mission Park. Matthew was inspired by the prairie ecosystem and specifically the complexity and beauty of the soil. Today, just one-half percent of original prairie still exists in the United States and it is an ecosystem that JCPRD and the artist care about preserving for the health of our region. Matthew also saw a strong connection between complex root systems and the world of theater, the symbiotic relationship that exists on stage and behind the scenes to pull off a successful production and bring a musical production to life.

“Symbiosis” includes an interactive experience of entering the tree structure to read the poem, “The Soil of Life,” by Saumya, which has been etched in the tree stump.

This stunning temporary artwork will be on display at Shawnee Mission Park through August, located near the front entrance of Theatre in the Park but also intersecting with the trail system within the park,  allowing visitors to take it in during the day or in the evening. Either way, it is a magical experience that Matthew envisioned, reclaiming a tree that was slated for removal and transforming it into a massive visual representation of the root system beneath our feet. Matthew also incorporated plexiglass, steel, glass, and lighting elements. This piece also includes an interactive experience of entering the tree structure to read a poem, titled, “The Soil of Life,” by Saumya, that has been etched in the tree stump. This is the first temporary art installation as part of the JCPRD Public Art Program. Future temporary art will occur at the site annually as a way to add a fun, interactive, and magical component to this much-loved community tradition.

A daytime view of Matthew Dehaemers’ artwork, “Symbiosis.”

Part of the goal of the JCPRD Public Art Program is to celebrate creativity and the artistic talent that exists within our region. Matthew is a great example of the local talent we have right here in Johnson County and our community is richer for it. This piece embodies the vision of the public art program to inspire a deeper connection to place through interactive, immersive, and inclusive experiences.  So, as you make your way through summer, be sure and include a visit to “Symbiosis,” as a “must see.” Visit this art piece by bike, by foot, or by car and be sure and take in a Theatre in the Park production while you are at it. Both will inspire you and bring a smile to your face.

Local artist Matthew Dehaemers of Shawnee.

And to help you get to know Matthew Dehaemers, the artist behind this piece, here are seven questions answered:

  1. Who was a key mentor to give you the courage to go into this field? 

Art is something I have always done since a little kid. All along the way grade school, high school, college, graduate school, I have always had a teacher/professor that I have connected with. Kind of like a trapeze artist….each of these points in my life has been a trapeze bar that would allow me to swing to the next.

  1. Why is public art important to our community?  Why does it matter?

Public art plays a major role in helping a community enhance its unique identity. Public art has an opportunity at times to reflect back in a creative way on a community’s own history. Public art is about place making. It can work to compliment a public space by inviting people in with interactive art.

  1. What about this project is special to you?

“Symbiosis” is special to me because to is strongly reflective of my own daily practice and experience as both an artist and a caretaker of our farm’s 12 acre remnant prairie. There is so much to value and protect within our natural environment both above and below ground. This gives me an opportunity to invite people into an interactive sculptural experience and share with them that important stewardship of our land.

  1. Where does your inspiration come from? 

Our 12-acre remnant prairie on a daily basis is ever changing with different grasses and colorful forbes emerging.  I am inspired to no end by the wonders of this natural environment. In many ways it seems magical and It inspires me to create a magical/theatrical like experience for the public.

  1. Where do your ideas come from?  How do you ideate?

Often ideas for a specific project come through an investigation to understand a specific space to be utilized, the audience it is for, and the possible stories to be told about a community’s own history whether history created by us or by nature. Sometimes I can be inspired by something I have seen or experienced in my daily life. Sometimes it can be a simple as a shape or a word that sets off a chain reaction, a brainstorm of thought. Often, I can visualize in my mind what I see the sculpture becoming…creating my minds version of a three-dimensional structure, and I am the 3D printer.

  1. What is the best way to step into this career/field?  What advice would you give?

 You’ve got to love what you do whether it be art or any other career for that matter. That love of and desire to create is the basic catalyst for making new things, to not be afraid to try something that doesn’t work but growing and learning from it for the next project. Seek out those older and more experienced than you. People that you could find yourself saying… ’I want to be or do what they are doing.’ Ask questions and learn from them. Learn from your fellow peers.

  1. Any exciting projects coming up that you want the community to know about? 

My long-term goal as I am a few years into taking care of our farm–in particular the prairie, is to create an outdoor open-air sanctuary on the edge of the prairie. A place for people to learn about our disappearing prairie, a place someone might want to have a yoga class, get married, or be a place for meditation. I would love to share the peace of the prairie which does wonders for my own physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

You can learn more about upcoming projects that will celebrate the unique spaces within Johnson County parks, trails, and facilities, highlighting the unique ecology and history of our landscapes.  Go to our website to learn more or be added to the Public Art e-newsletter list: