Art History

Watch Now: A Calming Oasis in Laura’s Gardens in Normal | lifestyles | Pro Club Bd

NORMAL – What was once “Jesse Fell’s backyard” is now a wooded resting place along the Constitution Trail and a soon-to-be stopover for butterflies.

Laura’s Gardens is an integral part of the Illinois Art Station, 101 E. Vernon Ave., Normal. However, you don’t have to be on an Art Station program to enjoy the shady oasis of maple, cedar, and other trees along the Red Granite Trail.

“What’s so exciting about this trail is that it’s open to the community, whether they’re here for the Illinois Art Station or not,” said Hannah Johnson, Executive Director of IAS.

“One of my favorite things about starting my position here is seeing how many people traverse the trail daily and connect from one part of the community to the next, including the Constitution Trail.”

Hannah Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Art Station, left, and Laura Berk, founder and president of the IAS Foundation, walk the pedestrian walkway that leads through a wooded area at the Art Station.


The forest can be accessed from Vernon Avenue next to where the Constitution Trail meets the road or from the Linden Street parking lot. If you are not there for an IAS program, park in the Town of Normal parking lot south of the IAS on Linden.

If you rode your bike there, walk your bike on the pedestrian path. No skateboards, inline skates or scooters are allowed. Only service animals are allowed.

The gardens are named in honor of Laura Berk, founder of the Illinois Art Station and president of the IAS Foundation. Once affiliated with Illinois State University, the Art Station is now an independent, non-profit organization that relies on grants and donations.


Master Naturalist Susan Kossman works on plantings at a Monarch Waystation, which is a collaborative effort by volunteers from the University of Illinois Extension Master Naturalist and Master Gardener programs.


Berk was inspired to start the Illinois Art Station after visiting the Children’s Museum of the Arts in New York.

“I was so impressed with the provision of hands-on visual arts for all children, with a special focus on underserved and at-risk children, delivered by professional arts educators,” Berk said while walking along the trail recently.

The nature area is an added bonus.

Watch now: Hike through history at Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park

“Historically, it’s Jesse Fell’s backyard,” noted Normal founder Berk. After serving as the Custer Brothers Nursery for many years, the property was purchased by John and Marilyn Freese, who preserved the property, she said, outlining its history.

When the Freeses decided to sell the property, they looked for a nonprofit group that would continue to maintain it, Berk said.


The natural area is named Laura’s Gardens in honor of Illinois Art Station founder Laura Berk.


The natural area offers a “very important integration of fine arts with nature, the opportunity to learn about ecology with the ambiance of this beautiful property and the calming effect it has on children, young people, actually all of us,” she said .

Members of the University of Illinois Extension’s Master Gardeners and Master Naturalist program are working to develop a butterfly and pollinator garden. Stone slabs wind through the garden.

“We have a lot of milkweed that is establishing,” along with other perennials and annuals that provide nectar for butterflies, explained master gardener Cindy Langrall.

“Year two gets better, but by year three you really want to come and get the photos,” she said.

Although the day was warm, the temperature in the shady forest was noticeably and refreshingly cooler. Children involved in an art station program ran through the woods during their lunch break.


Children from a youth camp run through nature area at the Illinois Art Station in Normal. The path is open to the community even if you are not participating in an Art Station program.


“While we have camps and programs throughout the summer, the kids love to hit the trail and get on this trail through the property so they can hit the trail on their own,” Johnson said. “They are never out of sight, never too far from the activities that are going on, so they can really gain that agency and self-exploration as we engage in the arts together.”

If you want to participate in both the art making and the nature area, you can make art on Saturdays from 10am to 2pm, for preschoolers through 14 years old, for a fee of $8 per artist. Visit for more information.

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