Thursday, December 20, 2012

Kenyon Gradert To Discuss Midwest Culture On NPR This Morning -- Join The Conversation!

Photograph by Robert Josiah Bingaman; via fly over art tumblr

This morning from 11 to noon Central Time, Kenyon Gradert will appear on the NPR program Saint Louis on the Air to discuss Midwest culture. Also joining host Don Marsh: Mike Draper of the extraordinary art/clothing store RAYGUN. He recently published The Midwest: God's Gift To Planet Earth. It's going to be lively and wide-ranging discussion.

If folks have questions for these guests, they can call (314) 382-TALK (8255) or send an email to

Kenny would love to hear the questions and comments of Art of the Rural readers -- those within the Midwest and beyond. As his Course on Midwest Culture pieces suggest, this region has a particular rural ethos, and a unique rural-urban connection, that will make for an illuminating conversation this morning.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Course on Midwest Culture: Midwest Realism in the Contemporary Novel

Selection from the cover of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections

By Kenyon Gradert,  Course on Midwest Culture Editor

The consistently excellent N+1 recently published a wonderful piece by Nicholas Dames. In “The Theory Generation,” Dames paints the generational portrait examined by a string of some of today’s most popular American novelists, undergraduate English majors in the heyday of academic literary theory now attempting to engage its ambivalent legacy. About half of the novelists cited are New Yorkers; more are native or transplanted Midwesterners (often from scholarly families, interestingly).

Jeffrey Eugenides cites the influence of his hometown Detroit in his life and his writing, the setting for his award-winning Middlesex. Cal, the novel’s protagonist, attempts to come to terms with his family’s conflicted Greek-American identity in Detroit and eventually escapes to San Francisco to come to terms with his own intersex identity. The novel received praise for its lucid engagement of the American Dream, an idea that gained mythic stature with Midwestern Gilded Age figures like Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie and one whose decline is especially vivid in Midwestern rust belts like Detroit. Both haunted and inspired by his city, Eugenides commented in a BOMB interview with Jonathan Safran Foer "I think most of the major elements of American history are exemplified in Detroit, from the triumph of the automobile and the assembly line to the blight of racism, not to mention the music, Motown, the MC5, house, techno.”

St. Louis’ own Jonathan Franzen (with a more ambivalent relation to his hometown) semi-autobiographically tells of a suburban Midwestern family attempting to navigate changing times in his renowned The Corrections

A novelist not mentioned by the article who could fit the demographic of theory-heavy realists is David Foster Wallace. Though born in New York and a professor in California, Wallace grew up between Champaign and Urbana, Illinois as his father taught within the state’s flagship university.

Ben Lerner, born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, sets his Leaving the Atocha Station as a sort-of reverse of Eugenides’ abandonment of Detroit. The protagonist Adam, a slacker poet and escapee Midwesterner on fellowship in Madrid, “invents fictional alibis for others—such as the ‘fascism’ of his kind, liberal Midwestern father. ” Free in Madrid, he remains fixated on familial roots.

Lorrie Moore; photograph by Linda Nylind

Lorrie Moore wasn't born in the Midwest, but teaches here and sets her novels in the region. What’s more, Dames latches on to such a setting by using “Midwest” as a worthwhile description of the realist style that contrasts with the metropolitan university stylings of Theory:

Take, for instance, the protagonist of Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, a young woman named Tassie raised in rural Wisconsin, who describes the shock of her first term at her state university:

"Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of sunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie."

The deadpan Midwestern humor, so pointedly stark in its syntax, brilliantly evokes the moment of initiation into Theory.

With an American populace marked by quick and constant geographic flux from education and career-pursuits—well-exemplified by these novelists—it is remarkable that the Midwest still holds such adjectival power in first-rate literary criticism. This small coterie of realist, theory-drenched novelists may have transferred their geography to their style, osmosis-like. Others may argue Dames relies on hackneyed stereotypes of the “prosaic Midwest” when the region has sprouted its fair share of magical realism too.

Richard C Longworth, Senior Fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism (an excellent work featured on my bibliography) summarizes on his blog The Midwesterner: Blogging the Global Midwest:

In earlier days, much Midwestern literature was super-realistic: the work of Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell come to mind, not to mention the wonderful work of black Midwestern authors such as Richard Wright and Lorraine Hansberry. But later writing reveals an urge to the bizarre, a sort of magic realism absent from the epics of the South or the hard-boiled policiers of the West. Keillor uses this. So does the baseball writing of W.P. Kinsella, such as Shoeless Joe (the inspiration for Field of Dreams) and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. It's no accident that Ray Bradbury's Midwestern youth led to so much his work.

Perhaps we’re witnessing a shift back to the region’s realist origins. Perhaps, more likely, the Midwest is blooming into a wide proliferation of literary style just as in other regions, where Ray Bradbury’s spaceships and Lief Enger’s miracles can exist alongside the different realisms of Franzen et al. Regardless of style, the Midwest still serves as ambivalent setting or temporary home for some of the nation’s finest writers. Not quite dead yet; perhaps alive and well.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Listening: Lambchop - "Nice Without Mercy"

Kurt Wagner of Lambchop standing with his Beautillion Militaire 2000 series of paintings

The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut is so deep, so overwhelming, that for many of us it's been a moment of re-orientation and reflection, of counting blessings and extending a hand to help in what ever distant way we can. 

One of those forms of grief and support has been folks' sharing of music and art in various mediums. On Facebook, The Alan Lomax Archive and Association for Cultural Equity offered a stirring "Peace in the Valley" by Joe Savage and, last night, Saturday Night Live's cold opening began with the New York City Children's Chorus singing "Silent Night." Such moments remind us that, while in the midst of national mourning, something as seemingly-insignificant as a piece of art becomes the thing we need the most.

Below, I offer "Nice Without Mercy," a song from Lambchop's acclaimed Mr. M. While Kurt Wagner's lyrics within Mr. M often meditate on the loss of his friend Vic Chestnut, these songs, to my listening, are less about a particular context and more about a process of grief, redemption, and the unexpected beauty and compassion we find along the way:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Notes From The Field: The Hayloft Gang and Early American Radio

The "Kentuckians" at a road show, 1936; The Hayloft Gang

By Jennifer Joy Jameson, Notes From the Field series Editor

If you’re hooked into some of the recent the films showing on PBS, you may have heard about or seen The Hayloft Gang: The Story of the National Barn Dance, a documentary produced and directed by Stephen Parry, which premiered on public broadcast television stations in the fall of 2011. Narrated by Garrison Keillor, the film highlights the rise of WLS Chicago’s National Barn Dance, one of the most popular and influential programs on early radio.

When I first heard about the film I was finishing graduate school, researching country music. I knew that it was airing on my local Kentucky Educational Television, and even that one of my professors, Michael Ann Williams, provided commentary in film, yet without television access I had no way to see the film. So, it came and went.

The cast of the National Barn Dance, 1937; The Hayloft Gang

Because of stories similar to my own, the producers of The Hayloft Gang have recently launched a crowd-source funding campaign with United States Artists, now through December 31st, in an effort to raise the funds for music rights and the clearance to allow the film’s distribution beyond PBS via digital downloads and DVD. With that funding, the documentary can be screened in schools and libraries, and be made accessible to the general public.

I believe The Hayloft Gang is worth watching and supporting because, to start, it challenges our common notion that Nashville and the American South are the origin point for country music—both traditional and popular. First broadcast in 1924, and spending its 36-year lifespan in the heart of Chicago, the National Barn Dance was truly a “national” event, as it preceded Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry by nearly two decades, and brought together mountain string bands, folk balladeers, polka trios, and cowboy singers from coast to coast. It also established the careers of a broad range of musicians—from the Appalachian ballads of Bradley Kincaid, to the Western sounds of Patsy Montana and Gene Autry, to the high-powered, Midwestern yodels of the Cackle Sisters.

The National Barn Dance was unique in that it offered something for both its rural and urban constituents. Farming families would tune in to the program to get a sense of the pulse of the nation. It also spoke to the thousands of migrants who moved from the farm to the city to find new work and new ways of life in an increasingly changing society. As one of the first radio programs to have a live audience, urbanites packed into Chicago’s Eighth Street Theater each week to relive the square dances of their agrarian past. With equal listenership in both the country and the city, it was precisely the advances of radio technology that helped sustain the musical traditions of the past, and revived it in dynamic ways for a diverse audience, including immigrants and other newcomers.

The Hayloft Gang includes rare film footage and home movies pulled from the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection, among other respectable repositories. It also benefits from the historical and cultural context provided by some of country music’s most noted scholars, and—perhaps, most importantly—insights and anecdotes from a few of the former listeners and performers. One of the film’s best moments includes the memories and scrapbook photos of a former listener of the program named Helen Geels Loshe, a member of the Geels Family Band in Indiana. Helen recalls how, after seeing Patsy Montana in some of the National Barn Dance fan magazines, she tried to dress like Patsy by cutting up and painting her work boots to look like proper cowgirl boots. The personal narratives collected in the film reveal the depth of the radio show’s influence in a more profound way than any other possible measurement.

Director Stephen Parry articulates the necessity of this collaborative fundraiser:
Our goal has always been to bring The Hayloft Gang to audiences beyond public television. […] We’re grateful to have received some prestigious grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, ITVS and other donors, but with recent cutbacks in arts funding, this just hasn't been enough. Our production budget only covers the costs to license and clear the music rights for a limited PBS broadcast.
As in the crowd-funding tradition, supporters can receive some great rewards for their financial support. All donations made through USA Projects are tax deductible and eligible for matching funds. Read more about the film on The Hayloft Gang website.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Readings: Mary Oliver: "Cold Now"

selection from a photograph of the poet by Rachel Giese Brown

Cold now.
Close to the edge. Almost
unbearable. Clouds
bunch up and boil down
from the north of the white bear.
This tree-splitting morning
I dream of his fat tracks,
the lifesaving suet.

I think of summer with its luminous fruit,
blossoms rounding to berries, leaves,
handfuls of grain.

Maybe what cold is, is the time
we measure the love we have always had, secretly,
for our own bones, the hard knife-edged love
for the warm river of the I, beyond all else; maybe

that is what it means the beauty
of the blue shark cruising toward the tumbling seals.

In the season of snow,
in the immeasurable cold,
we grow cruel but honest; we keep
ourselves alive,
if we can, taking one after another
the necessary bodies of others, the many
crushed red flowers.

"Cold Now" appears in the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection American Primitive, first published by Back Bay Books in 1983. The poet was born in Maple Heights, Ohio and currently resides in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Further biography, context, and poems by Mary Oliver can be found at The Poetry Foundation.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Notes From The Field: “Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard” and the Don Wahle Collection

By Jennifer Joy Jameson, Notes From The Field series Editor

The interesting part about any ethnographic study is putting the pieces together, stepping in and out of a culture or history that may or may not be your own in order to share it with others.

San Francisco's adventurous record label Tompkins Square recently assembled the three-disc set Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time & End Time Music, 1923-1936, arranged and annotated by Nathan Salsburg, Curator of the Alan Lomax Archive. There’s an interesting story of lost-and-found to this release. Salsburg writes in the liner notes:
One evening late in March 2010, my friend Joe called. He told me that his friend Chris had been on a dumpster job that day, helping clean out the house of a recently deceased hoarder. The hoarder had had some 78-rpm records, and Chris had brought a few home. Joe was there for dinner and he put him on the phone. “What kind of records?” I asked. “Old-timey stuff,” Chris said.
Just hours before everything at the Louisville home of the late Don Wahle was to be sent off to the landfills, Salsburg arrived to find boxes upon boxes of dirtied and molding 78s of both rare and popular country and hillbilly recordings collected by Wahle since the 1950s. Salsburg’s efforts to uncover these musical artifacts, working alongside the clean-up crew, became his own sort of archaeological dig as he found himself gathering and assembling clues of Wahle’s own aesthetics, interests, and desires.

In the liner notes, Salsburg admits his prior lamentations of a bygone era of record collecting, or “The Great Southern Record Canvass” as he calls it—something Mr. Wahle surely thought about, too. A longtime Louisvillian himself, Salsburg told me that the sheer serendipity of coming across Wahle’s fragile collection, in his own city no less, served as a reminder that golden eras are, in fact, fluid in time and space.

After the discovery, Salsburg and friends started the work of gathering Wahle’s history from whatever scribbled correspondences and musical want-lists were found. He and others looked for next-of-kin, but no one stepped forward. Salsburg states, “We don’t know what he did for a living, what he looked like, or virtually any other biographical details apart from his record collecting.” 

Wahle’s want-list, courtesy of Nathan Salsburg

But what’s more interesting is how the story of Don Wahle’s music collection leads to other narratives of life lived; through hard times, through good times, and through those very American ideas of end times.

While utilizing and acknowledging the curatorial model set forth by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (famously organized into “ballads,” “social music,” and “songs”), Salsburg and his contributors steer clear of the legacy of mystifying the American experience as gathered in song. Rather, the set’s conceptual framework is “inspired by the life-cycles of the predominantly rural Americans that made this music.” Salsburg starts the process of interpreting these multiple histories through his careful and researched annotation. Thoughtful essays in response to the music and to Wahle (but mostly to the music) written by Editor of The Old-Time Herald, Sarah Bryan, music journalist Amanda Petrusich, and Southern writer John Jeremiah Sullivan, continue that work. The essays and annotation strive not to speak for the music, but to wonder about it. For the “Play Hard” disc, Sarah Bryan asks:

What about Mr. Wahle? What was his kind of fun? He was a collector, so we can assume that something about the process of seeking and acquiring gave him pleasure. […] Maybe the jollity of these records was for Don Wahle something like the moonshine skits were for listeners during Prohibition: a way to acknowledge, if not quench, a thirst for something just out of reach.
The songs tell enough of a story on their own—like my favorite two-part tune from the “Work Hard” disc, “Flat Wheel Train Blues,” recorded in Georgia in 1930 by Red Gay and Jack Wellman. Parts 1 and 2 set the scene for everyday life on the locomotive yard. Fiddles move the steam engine forward, producing a sweet rhythm while the singer hums verbal work-song encouragements that allude to the honest memory of a railroad man.

We can only know so much about Don Wahle. We don’t know why he decided to collect cowboy and hillbilly records while everyone else was buying up the glamorous sounds of big band and hot jazz; or why he furiously circulated requests for certain records but didn’t seem to ensure their care and sustainability; or why it is that, even as a member of a robust and communicative culture of record collectors, we still have so many questions about Wahle. What we do know is that Wahle was part of a grand tradition of giving new life to old stories. John Jeremiah Sullivan, in his notes for “Pray Hard,” writes:

The old songs are so easily lost. […] If this gathering of them is all that remains of Don Wahle, let nobody say he lived for nothing.
Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time & End Time Music, 1923-1936 is available in three-disc sets on CD or LP from Tompkins Square or from your local independent record store. Thirty-five of the 42 sides are from Don Wahle’s collection (19 of which are un-reissued), and the remaining sides are from the collections of Joe Bussard, Frank Mare, and Christopher King. 

Folks can read more about salvaging the Wahle collection on Nathan Salsburg’s Root Hog or Die website. We also recommend perusing the Tompkins Square catalog. This label is bringing archival and contemporary music together in exciting ways; their book/cd set He is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes was recently nominated for a Grammy in the Best Historical Album category.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Making Connections: Community Radio In Appalachia

Making Connections reporter Sylvia Ryerson

By Rachel Beth Rudi, Digital Contributor

This week from the Rural Arts and Culture Map, we bring a story that's floated to us on the airwaves from atop Mayking Peak in Letcher County, Kentucky: a service of Appalshop, WMMT is a radio station broadcasting a wide range of music and news throughout communities in Central Appalachia. The writing of this piece, for instance, is being fueled by volunteer DJ Old Red's early bluegrass and country show, "First Generation Bluegrass." 

One WMMT program, Making Connections: Diversifying our Future shares with its listeners stories and commentary promoting a self-sufficient, multifaceted Appalachia. Making Connections has been posting PlacesStories updates since 2010, giving voice to regional agriculturalists, artists and policy workers and exemplifying just what a group can do with the digital mapping tool. From the "About Us" website:
While coal mining will play a role in the central Appalachian economy for many years to come, the industry continues to mechanize creating a dramatic drop in jobs – it currently represents less than 2% of employment. Analysts also project that recoverable coal reserves in the region could run out in 20 years.
Now is the time to develop a more diversified and sustainable regional economy that supports the current generation of coal miners while creating new jobs in new fields. We have no shortage of strengths to build upon, including our rich cultural traditions, unparalleled natural landscape and strong sense of family and community. To move forward we must honor our past while focusing on a future that provides healthy and productive lives for our children and grandchildren.
Making Connections' coverage frequently highlights Appalachia's especially high rates of residents without high-speed Internet; a recent audio story entitled "Like A Car Sittin' on Bricks – Broadband in Appalachia" was created by Sylvia Ryerson and Mimi Pickering to further examine the problem. Reads the description:
The Federal Communications Commission's Eighth Broadband Progress Report finds approx. 19 million Americans, mostly rural, lack access to high-speed Internet. In Central Appalachia the digital divide is stark: in West Virginia's McDowell and Mingo Counties, upwards of three-quarters of the population do not have access; in East Kentucky over 50% in Leslie and Breathitt Counties are without it. So why is it so hard to get a good connection in the mountains? What will this mean for the future of our communities? And what can we do to change this situation?
An essential part of the answer is that, as with many disputes over political policy, there is significant disagreement between the haves and have-nots in a thing's true worth or function. In this case, access to high-speed Internet is still largely regarded by those who have it as an earned luxury, our heavy reliance on it an addiction by which we're jokingly embarrassed. But as Ms. Ryerson points out, quality Internet service is a vital utility of everyday information dispersal, not a superfluous iPhone app, whether combed for a student's homework assignment or used to relay local safety concerns.

As artists who try to push against traditional, institutionalized limitations on accessibility, education, and diversity of art, and who place our critiques, our manifestoes, and our subversive work onto the Web, "Like A Car Sittin' on Bricks" hits home and keeps this important issue on the table. We highly encourage readers to listen to Ms. Ryerson's reporting (if you are able), and to then expand on this conversation in your own communities. Please also explore Making Connections' other PlaceStories installments, as many fine productions come from these folks.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Weekly Feed: Rural America Contemporary Art, Poor Kids, The Changing Face of America

Each week we share selections from our Rural Arts and Culture Feed on Facebook and Twitter. What are we missing? Please drop us a line, and we'll add your links and connections to the Feed.

By Rachel Beth Rudi, Digital Contributor

Setting a tone of thankfulness, we have this Wendell Berry interview with Diane Rehm via The Boiled Down Juice. "I think people don't take care of things they don't have affection for. And so affection, for me, begins all the arguments."

• Great news: the first issue of Rural America Contemporary Art is now online – art, fiction, essays, and the work of Norwood Creech, artist/painter/printmaker/photographer:

Beans, Corn, and Clouds by Caraway, Arkansas

Via Harry Smith's Old, Weird America: "The Carter Family recorded twice "Single Girl, Married Girl," the first time at their very first recording session in 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, and the second time a few years later, in 1936, in New York City. It's striking to hear the differences between the two 

Poor Kids is an unflinching and revealing look at what poverty means to children. It broadcasted last week on FRONTLINE. Full documentary below:

Watch Poor Kids on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Seminal art critic Dave Hickey decries the affluence and self-indulgence plaguing much modern art: 

"Art editors and cirtics – people like me – have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It's not worth my time."

Hickey says the art world has acquired the mentality of a tourist. "If I go to London, everyone wants to talk about Damien Hirst. I'm just not interested in him. Never have been. But I'm interested in Gary Huge and have written about him quite a few times."

If it's a matter of buying long and selling short, then the artists he would sell now include Jenny Holzer, Richard Prince and Maurizio Cattelan. "It's time to start shorting some of this shit," he added.

Some thoughts, via The Association of American Cultures (TAAC): "Culture at its best should be about the dialogue by which diverse strands of thought become relevant to diverse people, and that is a matter oc actively connecting art to the realities of people's diverse lives. Right now our cultural sector seems to be failing at that mission, to its own detriment."

MSNBC has reported tremendous news: "One of the nation's top coal companies, Patriot Coal, has just announced it will stop all of its mountaintop removal mining operations following a historic settlement with activists and environmental groups."

Sonya Kelliher Combs and her students, in collaboration with the Alaska Native Heritage Center, recently displayed these new multimedia works created at her recent master artist workshop at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center

From Toner's Bog to the Nobel Prize, Irish poet Seamus Heaney reading his ars poetica of agricultural practice, "Digging." Find more links to Heaney material at the Poetry Foundation & Poetry Magazine.

Friday, November 23, 2012

On Black Friday: Chain Store Blues

[Today we're thankful to have the opportunity to offer this repost from Nathan Salsburg's Root Hog or Die, an extraordinary radio show and music blog that we've written about previously. This piece concerns The Allen Brothers' "Chain Store Blues," which also appears on Nathan's recently-released 3 CD/LP compilation Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard. The song is indicative of how these selections -- whether joyous or solemn -- feel utterly contemporary, and of how they reveal elements of our cultural history too often forgotten. AOTR's Notes From The Field editor Jennifer Joy Jameson will be sharing a full feature on Work Hard soon.]

By Nathan Salsburg

An energetic, if short-lived, protest movement of the late 1920s and early ‘30s flexed against the encroachment of chain-stores — evidence that the “buy local” concept is of some vintage. Although several chain-store blues were recorded in the pre-war recording era, however, only the Allen Brothers’ 1930 plea for support of independent “home stores,” entitled “I Got the Chain Store Blues,” was released.

Perhaps the labels assumed that the chains, many of which sold their records, wouldn’t take kindly to such sentiments. By 1930, Chattanooga, Tennessee — then the base of operations for the Sewanee-born Lee and Austin Allen — was home to a Sears Roebuck, a Montgomery Ward, and a McLellan’s five-and-dime. Other stores like Woolworth’s, J.C. Penney, and the A&P (“Where Economy Rules”) had infiltrated many smaller towns, prompting “trade-at-home” campaigns and legislation to limit what the chains sold and where they sold it.

W.K. Henderson, the sensational personality behind Shreveport’s radio-powerhouse WKHK, threw his considerable weight behind the movement: “We have attempted to bring to light the ruinous and devastating effect of sending the profits of business out of our local communities to a common center, Wall Street…. appealed to the fathers and mothers — who entertain the fond hope of their children becoming prosperous business leaders—to awaken to a realization of the dangers of the chain stores‘ closing this door of opportunity…. insisted that the payment of starvation wages such as the chain-store system fosters, must be eradicated.”

[Two perfect post-Thanksgiving companions: Fiddlin' John Carson's "The Farmer Is the Man" (who feeds them all, he sings) and "Chain Store Blues" which begins at 3:07]

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Weekly Feed: El Teatro Campesino, Protecting The Reservation, Realities of Local Food, and more

 El Teatro Campesino Founder Luis Valdez

Each week we present a compendium of links and perspectives offered daily on our Rural Arts and Culture Feed. We encourage folks who have upcoming events (local or national) to contribute to The Daily Yonder Calendar

By Rachel Rudi, Digital Contributor

El Teatro Campesino has created powerful, boundary-crossing work in San Juan Bautista, California for over forty years. Below, composer Daniel Valdez discussing Cancion De San Juan: Oratorio of a Mission Town.

Story One: The Research from El Teatro Campesino on Vimeo.

From the Cancion De San Juan online exhibition:
Through CANCIÓN DE SAN JUAN: ORATORIO OF A MISSION TOWN, El Teatro Campesino and composer Daniel Valdez hoped to honor history’s forgotten voices by telling human stories through music and images – evoking the moments and memories of real people who lived and died staking a claim to this little corner of the world. Together these stories, researched and collected by current residents of San Juan Bautista, were woven into an epic tapestry that unfolded as a paean to the rise, fall and constant rebirth of a small town in all its multicultural glory. CANCIÓN DE SAN JUAN: ORATORIO OF A MISSION TOWN explored the many transformations experienced by the people of this region – and their perseverance, resilience and stubborn refusal to cease existing in the face of overwhelming odds.
"I wish a lot of people could see this. This is something that's going on in the reservation: This don't look too cool." Appalling news from Wyoming: 

Loophole Lets Toxic Flow Over Indian Land, Elizabeth Shogren, NPR

"A hundred years ago, when extension was founded, one-third of our nation's population was involved in agriculture.... We need extension today, more than ever, because our society is growing not only in size, but also in the nature and complexity of its problems:"

Extension Programs, Now A Century Old, Remain Relevant as They Face New Challenges, Speaker Says, Scott Carlson, Chronicle of Higher Education 

Shelby Grebenc, a Colorado poultry farmer in her teens, writes beautifully in The Denver Post: "If you want sustainable, wholesome, pasture-raised organic, hormone- and antibiotic-free food, you have to support it. You cannot get these things by talking about it and not paying for it."

A must-read: During World War II, the Rowher and Jerome camps in Arkansas housed over 16,000 Japanese Americans. An intern at the University of Arkansas's Institute on Race and Ethnicity considers the legacy of these camps and their relation to contemporary American life:

Reflections on Rowher, Jessica Yamane, The Boiled Down Juice

"Even as cities from Philadelphia to Chicago to Detroit mobilize to hydrate the food deserts, it's becoming clear that even if you make fresh produce affordable, people may not buy it."  

"Kultivator is an experimental cooperation of organic farming and visual art practice, situated in rural village Dyestad, on the Island of Oland on the southeast coast of Sweden. By installing certain functions in abandoned farm facilities, near to the active agriculture community, Kultivator provides a meeting and workign space that points out the parallels between provision production and art practice, between concrete and abstract processes for survival Kultivator initiates and executes  meetings between idealism and realism, hoping that fruitful cooperations should should take form." 

"The joy is not just for me, it's for others too. The colors do that. Mural art is transforming small-town Martin, Tennessee." 

Colorful Murals a Welcome Addition to the Landscape of Martin, Sandy Koch, NWTN Today 

Welcome to Shelbyville "takes an intimate look at a southern town as its residents – whites and African =Americans, Latinos and Somalis – grapple with their beliefs, their histories and their evolving ways of life:"

Mark Your Calendars: The 2012 Rural Arts & Culture Summit will happen this June 5–6, in Morris, Minnesota, hosted by the Center for Small Towns at University of Minnesota-Morris. We will be sharing much more on this event in the coming months -- please plan to join us there!

This week in 1975, Waylon's "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" was the number one country single in the land. Via the essential Southern Folklife Collection:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

On the Map: The Lexicon of Sustainability

Family at a Lexicon of Sustainability pop-up art show; Douglas Gayeton, KQED blog

By Rachel Rudi, Digital Contributor

In this week's update from our Rural Arts and Culture Map, The Art of the Rural is pleased to share two videos posted by Alejo Kraus-Polk, a researcher with The Lexicon of Sustainability: "This is the Story of An Egg" discusses with California farmers the uncomfortable truth behind marketing catchphrases like "cage-free" and "free-range," and the promise of "pasture-raised" eggs; "Foraging" chronicles society's straying from eating with the seasons and leaning heavily on conventional agriculture, then follows present-day foragers into North American forests and waters. Both videos focus on the original definitions and gradual manipulations of agricultural and culinary words and terms, the subtle power of language and the empowerment that comes from dissecting it.

We have written about The Lexicon of Sustainability before, as we're continually struck by how their work promotes the above ideas with an elegant balance of sharp photography, handwritten words and flowcharts, and enhancing audio. Tejal Rao of Grist magazine detailed the creation process:
[LS Founder Douglas] Gayeton got the idea for the Lexicon project about two years ago, in the middle of a dinner party, when a guest butchered the definition of "food miles." If Gayeton could define and build out the language of sustainability, he thought, he could give people the tools they needed to bounce around real ideas. To make a change. Gayeton identified 100 key terms and began visiting the farmers, fishermen, foragers, and chefs across the country who could help him define them. "I simply spend time with them. I don't know what I'm doing in advance and I don't storyboard anything. I just listen." 

The artist shoots an average of 1,000 photographs with each of his subjects. He then prints the photos out, cutting and pasting up to 100 of them together to create a massive collage (the smaller pieces are four by five feet; the larger ones cover a wall). From here Gayeton takes the stories of his subjects – their thoughts, recipes,ramblings – and writes them down on a sheet of glass, which is layered on the collage and shot again, the text floating dreamily above the image. This painstaking process, even with the assistance of a small team, takes Gayeton about three weeks.
Each still shines, and the films shimmer. Crisp presentation grounds the stories, philosophies, etymologies, and we watch ideas and reclamations build on screen. Ultimately, the Lexicon of Sustainability brings us all to square one and irons out the words we use, or have heard, or haven't heard, or have mispronounced, before handing us our language back, newly accessible, meaningfully enhanced, and wrinkle-free.

Be sure to explore the Lexicon of Sustainability's website, and to follow Mr. Kraus-Polk on the Rural Arts and Culture Map for more posts. Below, "This is the Story of An Egg" and "Foraging." Enjoy!

Lexicon of Sustainability: This is the Story of An Egg from lexicon of sustainability on Vimeo.

Lexicon of Sustainability: Foraging from lexicon of sustainability on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Supporting The Daily Yonder: Keep It Kickin'

Today I'd like to share news of The Daily Yonder fundraising campaign to Keep The Yonder Kickin'.

I imagine that most readers of this site are familiar with The Daily Yonder -- and for good reason: its writers consistently provide the most comprehensive coverage of rural culture, local and national policy, and everything rural in between.  

It's impossible to overstate its importance, how our national dialogue on rural issues is informed and given a consistent foundation through the work of editors Julie Ardery and Bill Bishop.  On a personal level, the Yonder's example helped to give me the inspiration, and to realize our collective right, to begin a project like Art of the Rural. 

I am sure I am not alone in that regard; if we think back to those digital dark ages -- the internet circa 2007 -- then we can appreciate the scope of The Daily Yonder's sustained contribution to our national dialogue about rural America. 

Folks can help Keep the Yonder Kickin' in a number of ways, and there are some fun Yonder-specific perks for your contribution: seeds, walking tours, banjo lessons, and lots of Yonder gear. If circumstances allow, please consider supporting their work. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rebuilding The Front Porch: An Interview With Patrick Overton

Savannah Barrett with Carlos Urlona at the Working Group meetings; Shawn Poynter

[Editor's Note: today we both welcome a new writer to the Art of the Rural staff and begin a new series of articles. We are excited to feature the work of Savannah Barrett, a writer and community arts advocate who has taken lessons learned in urban and international locales and applied them to rural contexts. She's currently completing work on a Masters in Community Arts Management at the University of Oregon. We are proud to count Savannah as our Community Arts Editor.

Her first piece is also the inaugural entry in a series we are calling "The State of the Rural Arts" -- reflections, interviews, features, and online installations that will seek to articulate the historical context surrounding this question while also expanding our common understanding of who, and what, constitutes "the rural arts" in contemporary America. As Savannah mentions below, this investigation springs from the imperatives that emerged from The Rural Arts and Culture Working Group.

By Savannah Barrett, Community Arts Editor

As a native of rural Kentucky, I have been witness to both the blessing of belonging to a country community alongside the entirety of my extended family; and to troubling and significant changes in this community and our distinct cultural traditions. These changes have taken place amidst a mass exodus of industrious young people who have left in search of quality education, employment, and social resources; and in response to a lack of investment in those fundamental needs in their home community. These experiences have led me to pursue a career in the rural community arts field. As a graduate student, I have struggled to piece together the history and dimensions of this domain, and found that history difficult to unravel and my field difficult to locate. There are few signposts in this work, yet I have been fortunate to find “my tribe” and my discourse among members of the Rural Arts and Culture Working Group. It was while there, while we collectively struggled to name our movement and identify our narrative, that I was connected with Patrick Overton.

I had discovered Patrick’s book Rebuilding the Front Porch of America while searching library databases for information related to Robert Gard and to the history of rural arts programs in the Cooperative Extension Service. I knew his work to be concerned with both the dynamic history of rural community arts development and with contemporary rural cultural policy. Patrick Overton is the Director of the Front Porch Institute in Astoria, Oregon, and has pursued community cultural development as practitioner and scholar for 35 years throughout the United States. In 1990, he defended the rural arts when called to Washington D.C. to testify in front of the House Appropriations Sub-Committee on the Interior on behalf of continued Federal support for the National Endowment for the Arts. There he conveyed that Rural Genius was one of the most important natural resources in our country, that it is one of our greatest sources of innovation, and that this resource was at risk. Twenty-three years later, I set out to ask Patrick about the current state of the rural arts, about rural genius, and about how those of us who are advocates and practitioners for rural arts and culture should move forward. 

For those interested in building a movement of folks committed to sustaining, honoring, and growing rural arts and culture, we must be cognizant of the significant historical efforts by the rural arts pioneers that have laid our groundwork, or as Patrick refers to it, the Old/New work: the Lyceum and Chautauqua movements; Alfred Arvold, Baker Brownell, Robert Gard and others who pioneered the rural arts programs of the Agriculture and Cooperative Extension; the community cultural development movement; local arts councils; and the practitioners, both in small and large communities, who have advocated for recognition in cultural policy. One of the first things Patrick told me related to the history of the rural community arts movement, and the distinctive differences between this movement and the more popularly understood community arts council movement:
The minute you add rural/small communities to the history of community arts development, you have to push the history of the movement back from the 1950’s to 1826 with the beginning of the Lyceum movement. Now when you look at the community arts movement, you can stop in the 50s, because they really can be understood as two very different movements. A lot of what we call community arts today began as the symphony movement in the middle of the last century and evolved into what we know today as the arts council/local arts agency movement.  But the community it served was usually a large metropolitan areas. When you start talking about rural arts, rural/small community arts development, I go back to the Chautauqua and go all the way back to the Lyceum. I think it is essential because that is a distinction that we have failed to make. They really are distinctly different movements.”
What sets the community arts development movement apart from the Arts Council Movement is the emphasis on self-improvement and self-education.  “The community arts development movement has such a rich tradition and it’s a tradition that is very much about understanding art as a noun (a thing you have or own) and citizens as patrons, but rather understanding art as a verb and citizens as participants. And it’s that element of participating in the arts that really is distinctive difference between the two. Not that you don’t participate in the arts in the fine arts in large metropolitan areas, but there’s a level at which participation in a small community setting has a very different take and feel to it.”
Understanding the history unique to the field of rural arts helps to illuminate the challenges of our contemporary work. Rural Community Arts work, historically and presently, is slow to ripen. While we certainly need more capital and resources in this field, our work also requires human investment. Similar to the argument for slow foods, rural art and culture necessitates patience and planning. Wormfarm Institute farmer and artist Jay Salinas describes this through the use of his word Cultureshed, which he defines as 1. A geographic region irrigated by streams of local talent and fed by deep pools of human and natural history. 2. An area nourished by what is cultivated locally. 3. The efforts of writers, performers, visual artists, scholars, farmers and chefs who contribute to a vital and diverse local culture.”

If we want our work to sustain, we must listen to our places and to the people that live there and we must be patient with the process as it reveals itself, rather than implementing our individual visions. We must commit to our people and to our places long enough for our project’s ownership to belong to the soil (place) and fertilizer (people) that grew it. We must cultivate. 

Donna Neuwirth and Jay Salinas of The Wormfarm Institute

The result is authentic, is “of a place” and not “imposed on a place”, and is worth waiting for. Overton addressed the importance of investment in place in our conversation:
If you don’t do the relationship building, in particular in the most rural and small communities, if you don’t show them that you care for them as people, then it doesn’t matter what you do for them or what you offer them. Or what you get them to do, it will not be valued if it’s not part of a relationship.”
“I believe community arts development and the arts in general begin with the individual. I believe that language and communication are the way individuals really do come into existence, it’s the way we say “I am.” Sometimes very special things happen and when say I am by expressing our voice, we end up inviting a relationship with somebody else who is a “you are”, and the “I am” and the “you are” become a “we”. To me that is really is the nexus of community. That’s the invitation.” 
“My work in rural and small communities was never about the arts, it was about the invitation. People will do what they are capable of doing if they are invited and know that they have access to it. Community arts development is about access and access to education.

At this point in the conversation, we turned our attention to broad based issues that are inhibiting the rural community arts’ growth as a movement and our development as a field. I and many of my rural peers are concerned with the lack of resource investment in rural communities. As Art of the Rural director Matthew Fluharty recently explained, “While Rural America stands as roughly 20% of the population, and 80% of its land mass, these artists are often isolated both from each other and from the possibility of creating a larger narrative.  As the moral failure of American philanthropy’s 1% investment in rural America suggests, too often a seat at the table for “the rural” has been withheld” (Fluharty, 2012).  Overton echoes this explanation:
Public policy has utterly failed to recognize the essential contribution rural and small communities make…I think a lot of people who talk about rural don’t know what they’re talking about because they’ve never been there, they’ve never done it. They talk about rural as though it is a particular place, and though we know it is geographically central in our life; it’s really not about geography for us, it’s about everything that’s connected to it.”
While those of us who identify as rural are certainly dismayed at the underinvestment in rural America, we are also alarmed by the ever growing trend of our natural resource (our best and brightest young minds) leaving their home communities. They are the Rural Diaspora, born into rural areas yet relocated to more populated areas in search of educational and professional opportunity. In universities and professions across the world, we represent the rural genius’ disbursement to the cities. Yet, many of us remain tethered to our homeplaces and our rural birthright, despite our current address. Many of us do not feel it possible to live in the rural full-time and know that going home for good is complicated. Nevertheless, we are deeply committed to rural communities, particularly in regards to celebrating our cultural distinctions. Acknowledging this duality, how can we mobilize the Rural Diaspora to support a rural arts and culture movement, and to entice some of our Rural Genius back into rural communities?
I’ve seen communities lose their identity because they’ve lost their major business, and I’ve seen populations leave. And I’ve seen the out-migration of people like you in rural communities who take it with them but live with a longing that people like you have because of the significance of that homeplace to you, I’ve watched that out-migration and the impact it has on those communities.”
“Rural small communities are the cultural underpinnings of what we are as a nation, those cultural underpinnings are crumbling. Our nation is at risk because of it.”
“The biggest need that we have is the ability to get together. I believe that ironically those communities that were founded by pioneering efforts that started this country are going to be the ones that keep it together.”
Jetsonorama participating in The Painted Desert Project; National Geographic, Aaron Lavinsky

Despite the challenges facing rural America, I feel a genuine excitement for the people, the work, and the coalitions I’ve engaged with in the past year. Constructive and critical conversations are taking place. While they are not yet ubiquitous, there are myriad opportunities for engagement in rural community arts programs across America. Organizations and individuals are leading the way in challenging the narrative of rural culture and its intrinsic value to our national cultural fabric: The field is being written about, researched, and published on more frequently; academic programs are training students to address the needs of rural communities; and some policy and funding organizations are stepping up to the plate to acknowledge rural arts and cultural work not only for the ways in which it provides access to the arts, but for the ways in which it enhances community pride and vibrancy and improves the standard of living for rural residents.

I asked Patrick to specifically comment on his perception of the state of the Rural Arts today:
I am seeing something that I find very exciting. First, rural arts are a topic of conversation again... Now, I am hearing about and talking to younger people, like you, who are driven by the passion of the work and the important contribution it makes. The concern that I have is much of what I have been reading seems to ignore the vast, rich history of the work and the writing that has been done so many years before all of us started this contemporary expression of the rural/community arts development work. There is so much to learn from the pioneers who have gone before us – I worry about a cycle that seems to occur every twenty years with exciting, gifted, impassioned young people discovering rural/small community arts development and proceeded as if it is a new field.

It is possible we may be entering the most important phase of our history doing this work. Why? Because people are beginning to understand that if something doesn’t change, we are in deep, deep trouble in this country. And I believe rural/small communities are the most critical cultural underpinnings that keep this culture from imploding on itself. There is a need, a desire, an interest in finding alternative – constructive/creative alternatives to the social disintegration that has diseased our entire country. The arts are (and always have been) the way to authentic community expression.

This may be our time. And people like you may well be the messengers who are going to be able to tell this story and this potential and do so in a way that recognizes that the story is a long story and the contribution this story identifies is great.”
I asked Patrick to respond to thirteen additional questions regarding the “State of the Rural Arts Today.” His responses encouraged my own professional development, enlivened the tired rhetoric about rural place, and fully expressed the need to engage with and celebrate rural arts and culture as it is happening on front porches and back roads across this country. To read more about my conversation with Patrick Overton, download the PDF of our interview.

[Author’s Note: All direct quotes attributed to Patrick Overton are taken from a transcribed interview conversation between Patrick Overton and Savannah Barrett that took place on October 16, 2012. For questions, please contact the author. ©Savannah Barrett, 2012.]