Visitors to Westwood Hills Nature Center in St. Louis Park have learned to keep their eyes open for the whimsical woodland art created by Chelsey Bahe, a nanny with a knack for nature.
She makes her creations out of grass, bark, leaves and sticks — and when the wind blows, they’re gone.
“I think that’s kind of what makes it special,” said Bahe, 32, who lives in Hopkins. “You never know who’s going to see it, or how long it will be there.”
Bahe isn’t a trained artist. But she’s created more than 900 artworks at the nature center, many of them marvelous in their creativity and attention to detail.
Her work is so prolific and popular that the center has incorporated the outdoor art into its children’s nature programs, said Becky McConnell, a naturalist at the center.
“Chelsey has done programs with us discussing her art with the children, and then they make their own,” McConnell said. “It’s really fun — it makes our center unique.”
Bahe began visiting Westwood Hills about two years ago, when she was the nanny for a pair of 3-year-old twins (she now cares for a 4-month-old infant). “We had to get outside because they were really high-energy,” she said.
Bahe and the twins were taking a walk in the woods when she noticed a stick with an interesting shape.
“I started playing with it, and before I knew it, I had made a picture,” she said.
Soon art was appearing every day on the flat tops of four tree stumps along the center’s woodland trails.
Members of the park’s staff were delighted — and mystified. They didn’t know who was creating the owls, squirrels, cats and other critters. Some of the works were recognizable as portraits of people and scenes at the park.
Finally, after several months of scanning the daily procession of visitors, the staff fingered Bahe as the mystery artist. She ’fessed up.
“The variety is wonderful,” McConnell said. “You never know what she’ll create, or what materials she’ll use. The best part for me, as a naturalist, is coming across it with a group of kids.
“Seeing their delight and the spark in their eyes, just to find that added treasure in the woods, is really wonderful.”
On a visit last week, Bahe quickly pieced together a cat out of twigs and grass while her infant charge napped.
“It’s really cool to see people discover the artwork and hear their reactions,” she said, kneeling as her fingers quickly and expertly tore and shaped bark, pine needles and grass. “I think it has encouraged other nannies to bring their children outside and let them get dirty.”
In fact, Bahe has a well-thought-out philosophy on the importance of play for children — and adults.
“I believe in the power of play, especially play that takes place outside,” she said. “Play is something that we choose to do, not something we’re instructed to do. Nature art is kind of like my play. I think it’s important for children to see adults playing outside, getting dirty and trying new things.
“Last week, I met a lady who told me she thinks my art is an expression of love and that it is like a little gift left behind for others to find,” Bahe said. “I really liked that description, and I think it’s amazing that I have this connection with so many people I don’t really know and may never know. I like that I am able to bring a little joy to a stranger’s day.”
Bahe has photographed most of her creations. The photo collection can be viewed on Instagram under the username natureplaynanny.