Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Library of Congress American Memory Archives

The photo above, by Dorothea Lange, comes with the following information:
The Rural rehabilitation client talking with county supervisor, Farm Security Administration (FSA), Tulare County, California. She says: "Someday I'm going to build my house. Right over there by that garden".
After discussing the Farm Security Administration show at the New Mexico Museum of Art, I discovered this amazing archival database of over 165,000 photographs from the program. The site also contains ample information on the collection, its artists and the process through which this work was obtained. The entire site is searchable; one could easily spend an entire week wandering through these virtual stacks of images, constantly surprised and moved by the what these photographers captured on film.

This FSA collection is merely one part of the astoundingly vast American Memory archives. If one could spend a week with the FSA photos, one could spend a lifetime among all the resources the Library of Congress has offered its audience here. There's no way for me to accurately describe the breadth of the material contained therein, only to say that it's a site that all citizens of this country (and beyond) should take time to consider and enjoy. Here's the American Memory archive's mission statement:
American Memory provides free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience. It is a digital record of American history and creativity. These materials, from the collections of the Library of Congress and other institutions, chronicle historical events, people, places, and ideas that continue to shape America, serving the public as a resource for education and lifelong learning.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Robert Frost and Oxblood

by Ian Halbert

I am at present reading Lawrance Thompson’s masterful and authoritative (as well as authorized – more on this below) biography of Robert Frost. Frost’s childhood was marred and terrorized by a consumptive drunk of a father, much consumed in his own erratic moods and Democratic party politics. Distant, cruel and petty his father would often completely ignore the future poet, busying himself with speech and editorial writing, as well as other campaign activities. When Frost was a little older, though, his father would bring the boy with him on his politicking errands. Frost watched his father labor in his errands and listened as his stump speeches seemed more and more to flag:

“He tried to excuse his father, by noticing new signs of illness. There was no question but that the chronic ailment had grown worse, and even his father seemed to acknowledge it, in a strange way. In his campaigning, whenever he passed near the slaughterhouse, he would stop just long enough to buy and drink a cup of warm blood ­– while Robbie, watching, would fight against nausea.” (p. 25 [1981 edition])

This all strikes me as an essentially rural, homemade and surely ancient cure for what ails you: replace like with like, i.e. homeopathy – in this case, blood with blood. While it may not always yield the desired results – tuberculosis was still little understood – there is something honest and even mythical about the ideas behind it. What’s most striking to me, though, is that this essentially rural experience was available to Robert Frost 125 years ago in the bustling and booming city of San Francisco. As I mentioned above, Thompson’s biography was “authorized” by the poet and one presumes that the source of this story is Frost himself. How many of our future urban artists will long remember a similar experience? How many of the rural?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Farm Security Administration Photographers in New Mexico

"Trampas, NM" (1943) by John C. Collier, Jr. 
The New Mexico Museum of Art is currently offering an exhibit of photographs taken during the Farm Security Administration program, which ran from 1937 to 1942. Though it was a program begun by the Department of Agriculture to aid farmers during the Depression, specifically in the Dust Bowl, both the scope and the manner of the Administration's programs was far reaching--as demonstrated by this collection of work focused on life in New Mexico. Here's the museum's introduction to the exhibit:
In the mid-1930s, the Farm Security Administration was established as a part of the New Deal. For ten years, the Information Division of the agency hired writers and photographers to provide press and educational information to the public. While photography was not the primary purpose of the F.S.A., its outstanding photography program is perhaps what the agency is best known for.

John Collier, Jack Delano, and Russell Lee all documented life in New Mexico for the F.S.A.  The exhibition in the Governor’s Gallery draws from the New Mexico Farm Security Administration Collection at the New Mexico Museum of Art. While the photographers documented both the environment and the people of New Mexico, this exhibition focuses on images of the people and events ranging from the Bean Day Rodeo in Wagon Mound, to mass at a Trampas church, to workers for the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe railroad.
The museum site provides this information on the photograph above:
“Man and boy sitting at a table sorting beans, potatoes sit on table also, both people have on bib overalls and long shirts.” In a portrait by Collier, the older man from Trampas in this image is identified as Juan Lopez.  A portrait was also made of Lopez’s 99 year old grandfather Romero.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Farmville Files: Songs From The Country

New findings from an ongoing investigation:

Exhibit F: Here's what they're singing down on the farm.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Making Music at Fur Peace Ranch

The Ohio Farm Bureau produces a phenomenal magazine for its members called Our Ohio. I recently came across a copy and was excited to find that they maintain a richly comprehensive website that offers articles, educational tools and videos covering agricultural issues, local food systems, ecology and the state's arts and culture. The Our Ohio site also presents extended video segments they created for Ohio Public Television. It's a fantastic site that's well worth visiting.

They led me to discovering Fur Peace Ranch, a place where "budding and seasoned musicians [can] immerse themselves for several days, and emerge with renewed inspiration and tangible progress in their music." The Ranch was founded by Jorma Kaukonen (an original member of Jefferson Airplane) and his wife Vanessa in 1989. It's located in Pomeroy, Ohio, nestled in the hills of Southeastern Ohio, and it attracts students and well-known faculty from around the world.

Click Here to watch a video from Our Ohio that gets to the heart of this close-knit community of musicians in Meigs County. There are also some great performances located here on the FPR site.

For the Weekend: Wendell Berry Reading From His Work

Br. Tom Murphy has run, for many years, an absolutely indispensable site documenting the work of Wendell Berry. Given Mr. Berry's famous stance against technology and digital culture, the site honestly offers itself as an unauthorized "internet resource." The irony, of course, is that this same technology has offered Mr. Berry's work to an larger, more varied, audience. For many, like myself, who have not been able to find a Wendell Berry reading within driving distance to attend, we can find the above video as a consolation.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mountaintop Removal: Humor and Sincerity

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c

Coal Comfort - Margaret Palmer

Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor

You know we live in a strange media moment when we can claim this as significant progress in the argument against Mountaintop Removal: Steven Colbert's faux-news program ironizing the issue for seven minutes.
...besides, most of the stream poisoning happens in Appalachia, and the only people it affects are the one remaining group that everybody still feels comfortable making fun of: hillbillies.
This is an segment that will cut pretty close to bone for a lot of rural and Appalachian viewers, myself included (our family farm is bordered on three sides by strip pits). Colbert, as is often the case, wields a brand of humor that is brilliant in the way it ventriloquizes official talking points. It's a sort of post-modern rendering of Don Blankenship's arguments we highlighted earlier in Appalshop's Mine War on Blackberry Creek.

For further exploration, the I Love Mountains organization offers a tremendous amount of information for citizens to educate themselves on the issue and take action in their own local communities across the country. It is a wonderfully designed site with a host of videos and widgets--and even educational resources for the classroom. Here's the most recent of the many videos on endangered mountains the organization has produced:

Monday, February 1, 2010

Gary Ernest Smith

Gene Logsdon's latest book, The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse, got me through the gap between this post and the last, when I was laid low by a nasty cold. Mr. Logsdon, alongside other established agrarians such as Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, have set the table for younger generations. In that literal sense, they have provided the reading material to go along with the organic food resurgence; however, in the figurative, it's unclear even from reading Mr. Logsdon's excellent survey of the agrarians arts who (save a few names) is set to inherit this mantle.  In a larger sense, this is one of the central questions I'm exploring on this site, so there's more thoughts on The Mother of All Arts forthcoming. 

But Mr. Logsdon's book is full of discoveries. Here's an excerpt from his introduction to the work of Gary Ernest Smith:
Smith grew up on a farm, a ranch actually, near Baker, Oregon, and eventually embarked on a career as a painter working on a commission. According to his bio (I was unable to get an interview with him), he was successful but dissatisfied. He was tired of painting what other people wanted him to paint. He returned for a few months to his boyhood home to contemplate his future. Although he had always painted some farm and rural scenes, now, fired up by recollections of his youth, he decided to concentrate on those subjects. He moved with his wife and children in 1978 to rural Utah. "All artists look for subject matter that they can consider personal," he was quoted as saying recently. "I guess for me, it was just looking out my window. I never needed anything else."

In the 1990s, he became renowned for his paintings of vast open sweeps of farm fields. Critics, in high praise, said that he was lamenting the passing of the farm landscape. They labeled the paintings pictures of protest.

It is difficult for rural people to think of these paintings as a form of protest. There are still vast acreages of tilled land to be viewed even here in Ohio, which is more densely populated than the states farther west where Smith usually paints. In every direction in our neighborhood, for example, there is in the seemingly unlimited expanse of cultivated dirt a signature Smith painting in the making. Rural people consider such terrain to be commonplace. So why are paintings of it considered so unusual?
Gene Logsdon's final question gets at the urban-rural question that always seems to be lurking around the corner from the rural-based arts that gain wider acceptance. We might visit his lengthy chapter on Andrew Wyeth as well, to see how, free from the rural artist's studio, these works can become conflated (sometimes simultaneously) with protest, pastoralism and "outsider" romance. 

To those ends, the web offers a lot of avenues for learning more about Gary Ernest Smith's work.  An exhibition of his new work, High Horizons, opened today at The Overland Gallery. The Medicine Man Gallery also offers this illustrated article on the 2008 show, Rural Life - From The Ground Up, that documented man's cultivation and manipulation of land in the rural West.