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Mimi Kato

Mimi Kato
Ever heard of the glossy buckthorn also known as Rhamnus frangula? I hadn’t until researching some of Mimi Kato’s work.

As an artist-in-residence at SPACES Gallery, Mimi Kato spent the summer of 2013 preparing for her installation at the gallery focusing on the runaway growth of the glossy buckthorn. The glossy buckthorn, or Rhamnus frangula, has been identified by the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves as one of the 10 most invasive and difficult to control non-native plant species. Introduced from Eurasia as shrubbery for fences, the plant grows rapidly, reaching heights of 20 feet. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) website, “Once established, these species aggressively invade natural areas and form dense thickets, displacing native species.”

Kato was first exposed to the challenge of non-native species a few years ago when she lived in Alabama. There she saw kudzu’s, also known as the “vine that ate the South” for its encroachment on some 7 million acres. Kato recognized kudzu from her native Japan admitting that her first reaction was somewhat nationalistic. “I thought: ‘Yay! Go, Japan!’ Plants that I knew were trying to take over.” She initially viewed the expanse of kudzu as a beautiful reminder of home, but soon realized how pervasive the plant was in Alabama.

Kato’s installations explore the challenges the glossy buckthorn presents as well as the difficulty in disposing of the waste generated from control efforts. Working with Jennifer Hillmer, the Cleveland Metroparks’ invasive plants coordinator, Kato came up with a plan to depict the time and energy costs dedicated to controlling the spread of glossy buckthorn. She picked a day in which members of the Metroparks’ Invasive Plant Management Team would be cutting the stems of mature glossy buckthorn surrounding the marsh and pond outside the North Chagrin Nature Center in Willoughby Hills. For each individual mature glossy buckthorn cut and treated with herbicide, Kato attached a reflective marker to a 7-foot-tall stake placed in the ground next to the severed stems. “I just want to know how much they can cut in a day.”

From August to October 2013, Northeast Ohioans could experience Kato’s work by visiting the North Chagrin Nature Center. After nightfall, they could shine a flashlight on the reflective markers, revealing the tremendous efforts involved in controlling one plant species in one area on one day. “I like the idea that they have to shine a light and the light comes back to them.”

Despite the plant’s invasiveness, there is no clear solution for what to do with the waste. Burning it would pollute the air, and they cannot mulch the plants because of the seeds. After calling multiple states to learn about their solutions to this problem, Kato came up dry. The only idea she received was to make animal shelters from the cut stems.

Discovering these invasive plants has made Kato interested in building awareness around the plants consumers are buying. She wants people to think about what they are buying and the potential consequences of their choices. “I’m not trying to force change; I just want people to think. Not knowing and participating is a scary thing. I didn’t think about it before. Tiny plants grow into something bigger. Let’s think about it.”