Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bessie Harvey And Her Tennessee Roots

Untitled (Cobra).  23 1/2 x 18 x 19" paint on wood with beads

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines over the second half of February, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. In March we will offer new articles and series, and share some new projects related to our mission.

Bessie Harvey And Her Tennessee Roots was originally published on July 12, 2010.]

The American Folk Art Museum in New York City is currently featuring an exhibit entitled Approaching Abstraction, a survey of work from their permanent collection that counters the popular assumption that "contemporary self-taught artists work solely in a representational style, eager to engage in storytelling and personal memory." As the introductory materials to this show suggest, perhaps modern art audiences have been missing the ways in which these artists (from both rural and urban backgrounds) have been--while addressing the "social" content of their work--also thinking about the formal and aesthetic questions that we normally associate with the academic, insider, art world:
But while the narrative tradition often is a primary impulse, a significant number exhibit a tendency to be seduced by material, technique, color, form, line, and texture, creating artwork that omits or obscures representation.
The exhibition's insistence here is fresh, and in some ways vindicating. While Ken Johnson's review in The New York Times rightly suggests that we can't successfully separate the stories of these artists from the pure "form, line and texture" of their work, it also seems to reflect back on the industry and academy outside these pieces: how often, when viewing much modern and post-modern visual art do we find an absence and, indeed, a refusal of social content? It's refreshing then to watch AFAM curator Brooke Davis Anderson describe the exhibition below:

Ms. Davis spends a significant amount of time towards the end of this segment with the work of Bessie Harvey (1929-1994), an artist from eastern Tennessee who worked primarily with roots, though her art differs in profound and wonderful ways from the root club sculptures of Stan Neptune, who we discussed in March. The Bessie Harvey Homepage is the best place to begin discovering her work; it was written by The Knoxville Museum of Art in conjunction with local Austin-East High School, and it interweaves Ms. Harvey's biography within the developing arc of her sculpture. It's a story of uncanny perseverance in the face of cultural and familial obstacles, a triumph of the spirit and of a woman's faith in her religion and her own abilities as an artist. As the Approaching Abstraction exhibit would suggest, her own relationship with her artistic medium--though in a different time and place--bears an intimacy that we might associate with great masters of abstraction such as Mark Rothko. Here's an excerpt from the Homepage:
After resonding to its form, Harvey often sought its identity by speaking to it directly, asking, "Who are you?" For the sculpture Birthing, however, the artist's initial indentification proved to be incorrect: "I went out into the yard and I found this piece and to me it looked like an old man leaning on a walking stick." After bringing it into the house, Harvey was shocked that her vision had suddenly and dramatically changed to that of "an African girl; she's a queen, and she's giving birth to a baby, and the baby's head's already out." As with Birthing, Harvey often was struck by the fact that her imagery sometimes seemed disconnected from her life experience, as if extracted from a previous lifetime on another continent: "I get the feeling that I been in the world before, and I think it was in the darkness of Africa," and "There are some things that I know and some things that I do that I can't understand how I know these things if I haven't been here before."

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bringing The Yarn Bomb To The Country

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines over the second half of February, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. In March we will offer new articles and series, and share some new projects related to our mission.

Bringing The Yarn Bomb To The Country was originally published on June 9, 2011. International Yarn Bombing Day is set for June 9th this year.]

By Rachel Reynolds Luster, Contributing Editor

International Yarn Bombing Day will occur for the first time this Saturday, June 11th. The event was the brainchild of Joann Matvichuk, a “domestic goddess” who lives and works in Lethbridge, Alberta. Her motivation is to encourage knitters and crocheters to perform crafted graffiti on the same day, around the world as a collective group.

For those not familiar with the concept of yarn bombing, it’s a form of graffiti and cultural activism that involves repurposing aspects of the urban landscape by covering them with knitted and crocheted adornments. The movement was started in 2005 by Texas artist Magda Sayeg. At the time, Sayeg was the owner of a yarn shop in Houston and was overcome with “a selfish desire to add color to my world.” In reaction to the urban landscape and the lack of warmth she found there, she knitted a cozy to cover the metal door handle of her shop. She then knitted a sheath for the stop sign across the street. Passersby stopped and noticed. They took pictures. She was encouraged by the reaction and began covering items across the city. 

Sayeg and a group of fellow knitters have since yarn bombed items across the world including parking meters in Brooklyn, a bus in Mexico, and a twenty-six foot statue of a soldier in Bali, neutering its violence, according to a 2010 article in The Guardian. In that same article, Sayeg says, “In this world of technology, over-development, fewer trees and more concrete, it is empowering to be able to beautify your environment." This is a powerful statement in action. Sayeg, now in Austin, has spawned an international movement with yarn bombing groups popping up not only across America but also in Japan, Britain, Scandinavia, South Africa, and Australia.

Generally done in cover of darkness, some of the participants wear masks and relish the role of artistic vagrants. Like all unsanctioned street art, yarn bombing is illegal, and Sayeg’s original group of knitters in Houston crafted a terminology for their work based on the world of hip-hop, creating names for themselves such as Notorious N.I.T. and P-Knitty. The group as a whole was called Knitta Please or just Knitta. Further information on the history of the movement, Magda, and International Yarn Bombing can be found here.  

I’m not really good at knitting, but I love to do it. I’ve crocheted for as long as I remember. My great-grandmother taught me when I was 4 or 5 to do a chain and basic single stitch. I remember getting a crocheted potholder every Christmas from Nanny with a five dollar bill folded up inside. While they were truly horrible potholders (acrylic yarn easily melts), I still have an entire collection along with the many scarves and pillows she made for me over the years. I keep them because they are touchstones of my time with her and all that she shared with me. They represent personal remembrances, a set of skills, and bright objects that are both functional and decorative.

I am also enamored with the idea of knitting or crocheting to affect cultural change. Yarn bombing definitely falls into the category of “craftivism,” a concept developed by Betsy Greer, whose website is a resource for many in the DIY and feminist craft movements. I love that those participating in yarn bombing, at least on one level, are taking action to reclaim their urban landscape, one that they see as cold and distant, by beautifying and changing it with a craft seen mostly as domestic, predominately functional, and in many circles--I would imagine especially in an urban context--irrelevant to modern society. Participants are reclaiming public spaces as home. Still, I have been contemplating what form such a movement would take in rural America and what the motivations and implications might be.

 Photograph by DPA

First, I believe that many of the rural yarn bombing projects would stay around. Rather than temporary remnants of acts of activism, removed promptly by city employees tasked with keeping the city clean, I think rural examples would be adopted by many as decorative aspects of community life and remain part of objects such as mailboxes or garden swings where they were placed. I also believe that it might cause a resurgence in rural textile craft and appreciation of it. If we factor in, for example in my community, that there are many people, especially women, raising fiber animals and creating yarn that could be used, the implications become economic. These are just some of the possibilities that come to mind, but I would like to encourage any of you who knit or crochet to yarn bomb something, anything, in your rural communities on June 11. Of course, I believe we should locally adapt our methodology for such activities. If you’re going to yarn bomb something at someone’s home, you might ask first. I think, probably, public spaces are fair game. It doesn’t have to be large, could be something as simple as the first door handle that Magda did at her shop in Houston. Yarn bomb your local senior center, or better yet, get those folks involved!

In the spirit of engagement, I sent a note to Joann Matvichuk, organizer of International Yarn Bombing Day, asking if she had communicated with any groups or individuals planning on participating in the event from rural America. She was kind enough to pose the question on the IYBD facebook page and received dozens of responses of interest. Two responses in particular struck me as relevant as we think about what the implications might be for rural yarn bombing activities.
Corrine MacKrell: “I grew up rural. If I were going to yarn bomb at home, I would personalize it like a gift. A camo scarf on or around the garden gnome of a hunting family, flowers in her favorite color for the lady down the road, etc.”
Shane Raymond: In the country we have to be more discrete and organic with our tags. Since I know most of the people and their personalities I can tailor my tags better as well. Overall I would say it's much more personal. Example, a colorful spider webs in the trees in deep state land. The only people that will see them are middle-aged hunters.
I encourage you to join the conversation on the International Yarn Bombing Day’s Facebook page. If you do a project, I’d love for you to share it with us. I’m interested in your photographs and in learning how the projects are perceived in your community. I’ll share my story too.

Friday, February 24, 2012

How The Rural Could Save Contemporary Art

Last Chance installation; Erik Van Lieshout, Art Basel

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines over the second half of February, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. In March we will offer new articles and series, and share some new projects related to our mission.

How the Rural Could Save Contemporary Art was originally published on July 6, 2011. For more information, we recommend a visit to the Rural America Contemporary Artists organization.]

Last week, on the morning before The National Rural Assembly, I had the privilege of attending a roundtable discussion on rural arts and culture hosted at the Bush Foundation in Saint Paul. This conversation was cosponsored by the Arts and Community Change Initiative, the Arts and Democracy Project, the Center For Rural Strategies, and InCommons -- and these organizations brought together an inspiring cohort of artists, scholars and arts practitioners working to cultivate the cultural life of their rural communities.

A profound number of challenges and solutions were raised in those discussions; while I will offer a more detailed summary of the events soon, a few persistent questions emerged and then re-emerged across the morning's conversation: How do we create and share art that speaks from our local cultures, yet also reflects the modern economic and global realities of our places? What is the tension between  traditional and modern (university-endorsed) notions of art-making? Is there a way to integrate these practices into the stories a community tells about its past, present, and its future? How does the community's access to technology (especially broadband) alter this work? And, importantly, how do we impart all of these concerns to the next generation--how do we offer a narrative of place and culture inclusive to rural youth?

Though these are large questions, and their solutions will be years in the making, I was ultimately struck by how different these discussions sounded than those that revolve around the contemporary art world, or even its adjacent academic community. While there are daunting imperatives in the preceding paragraph, its content is surely not rural-specific. However, because of the host of pressing issues facing rural America, many of our artists and arts organizations must directly engage with these questions of representation and equity, and with art's tenuous position in communities dealing with crises in health care, housing and education. Because our work takes place on a smaller scale, we turn from these issues at our own peril. As a preface to the roundtable discussion, Dee Davis, president of The Center of Rural Strategies, offered this timely line from W.B. Yeats: in dreams begin responsibilities

So, how could the rural save contemporary art? 

I'd like to offer below three recent editorials by respected art critics, writing for respected arts publications. Each writer, upon returning from the major summer art shows (here, the Venice Biennale and Art Basel), identifies specific symptoms of a general sickness in the art world. On one hand, it's heartening to hear these writers articulating some of very same concerns of folks engaged in rural arts and culture; on the other hand, the sickness diagnosed here seems to beg not only for greater equity and inclusion along economic and geographical lines, but also for a wider sense of cultural inclusion. I'd like to offer these three articles, and then suggest that folks consider the rural artists they know (or those we've highlighted here on in our links and map resources): from the traditional to the avant-garde, how would a broader discussion of these artists help to make the contemporary-art-body whole and healthy?

Writing in New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz laments "Generation Blank," the coterie of recent university-trained artists who are "too much in thrall to their elders, excessively satisfied with an insider’s game of art, [and] not really making their own work." Here is how Mr. Saltz begins his editorial:
I went to Venice, and I came back worried. Every two years, the central attraction of the Biennale is a kind of State of the Art World show. This year’s, called “Illuminations,” has its share of high points and ­artistic intensity. (Frances Stark’s animated video of her online masturbatory tryst with a younger man hooked me; Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which captivated New York earlier this year, rightly won the Gold Lion Prize for Best ­Artist.) Yet many times over—too many times for comfort—I saw the same thing, a highly recognizable generic ­institutional style whose manifestations are by now extremely familiar. Neo-Structuralist film with overlapping geometric colors, photographs about photographs, projectors screening loops of grainy black-and-white archival footage, abstraction that’s supposed to be referencing other abstraction—it was all there, all straight out of the seventies, all dead in the ­water. It’s work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements. 

Sixth Still Life installtion; Katharina Fritsch, Venice Biennale

In our second arts clipping, András Szántó of Artworld Salon returns from Art Basel and offers two examples of "interesting disconnects" in recent art news:
First, between the ebullience of the art fair and the dark financial clouds roiling over Europe, where states teeter on the edge of insolvency and people are taking to the streets. There is a yawning chasm right now between the revived luxury spending boom and the malaise that grips the bottom ninety-eight percent. The subject kept coming up, quietly but persistently, at parties around town. 
Second, during an Art Basel Conversation I moderated on the future of museum collecting, a London-based curator from Bangladesh pressed the assembled directors, and in particular Chris Dercon of the Tate Modern, when and how they will genuinely engage his community and others like it—not just through occasionally showcasing artists, but in a deep way. All agreed that, good intentions and planned initiatives notwithstanding, we’re a long way from making art institutions truly inclusive.

Away From The Flock; Damien Hirst

In "We Don't Own Modern Art - The Super Rich Do," Jonathan Jones of The Guardian recasts Szántó's question with an eye on the mainstream middle-class audience that still grants contemporary art its cultural legitimacy:
But who are they, these people? I would genuinely like to know. The popular assumption seems to be that today's art collectors are "Russian oligarchs". Certainly the spectacle of Roman Abramovich's yacht drew attention to the oligarchic presence at this year's Venice Biennale. One thing is certain – the big-time buyers of art are people in the financial sector who are weathering our troubled times a lot better than high street businesses, nations picked on by Standard & Poor's, or public sector workers.
And yet, for the last couple of decades, contemporary art has flourished through an alliance of the rich and the not-so-rich. It is the same educated, probably public-sector-employed middle class (many of whom marched this week) that enthusiastically visit galleries and art fairs. It is these fans of modern art who have helped, by their acclaim, to generate the charisma that makes it apparently worth so many millions.
Of course, we're already seeing an urban, university-educated, DIY arts movement that is helping to provide the response to these writers' concerns; this DIY culture, which is beginning to make inroads to rural artists and organizations, carries an aesthetic and a sense of empowerment that we all should observe and then integrate into our work. Further, as advocates for rural arts and culture, we should consider what we can bring to broader discussions like those above--and not cultivate an anti-modern art, anti-intellectual stance that only denigrates urban and rural audiences alike.

After reading these pieces, and after an inspiring roundtable discussion, I take away two beliefs. First, by including to a greater extent the voices of rural arts and rural groups within our contemporary arts dialogue, we will make all of the Arts more healthy--and more relevant to more people. And, lastly, the rural can save contemporary art in much the same way that contemporary art can come to the service of the rural: by working across those rural-urban lines and recognizing our shared responsibility to each other.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Two For Mardi Gras

Zulu Parade 2010 King Jimmie L Felder; Eliot Kamenitz, Times Picayune

Here's two videos with a bit of Mardi Gras spirit. First, from the Alan Lomax Archive Channel, comes this footage shot by Alan Lomax and his crew in 1982: "Big Chief Jake Millon and the White Eagles Mardi Gras Indians rehearse 'Little Liza Jane' at Darrell's Lounge, 7th Ward, New Orleans."

Though geographically distant, David Lundahl's "Volcan Man" performances are located in a similar region of exuberance, also honoring the passing of a season. Yesterday we published a consideration of this boundary-crossing artist in Contemporary (Rural) Art: You Can't Make That Here.

Many thanks to Rachel Reynolds Luster for her assistance. Happy Mardi Gras!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Contemporary (Rural) Art: You Can't Make That Here

photograph by David Lundahl

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines over the second half of February, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. In March we will offer new articles and series, and share some new projects related to our mission.

[Contemporary (Rural) Art: You Can't Make That Here was originally published on August 3, 2010. Please see the links below the article for further coverage of Lundahl's work here and here ; we recommend a visit as well to the Rural America Contemporary Artists organization.]

I recently had an opportunity to re-visit David Lundahl, the photographer, sculptor and musician from southern Wisconsin who (over 15 years) has taken 115,000 Polaroid self-portraits. When we originally discussed his work a few months ago, I spoke of the process itself: how the layers of stencils, gelled prints, and natural media (scarves, bark, shark jaws, among others) combine with a complex series of mirrors to harness natural light to create a startling level of three-dimensionality to his photographs. I also spoke of his life itself in some detail, which I'll reprint below:
The story of David Lundahl's art and life can't really be put into one paragraph, but, as an introduction, here it goes. Mr. Lundahl's art, and his choice to live in rural Wisconsin, all speak to his lived experiences. He contracted polio as a boy in the 1950's and has worn a leg brace ever since; his family were prominent executives in John Deere; he came of age in the heady years of the late 1960's and decided to set out on his own path...
But part of the story here is New Light Studios, the dilapidated farm that Mr. Lundahl rebuilt, largely by himself. Despite his restricted mobility, he reroofed and refloored the barn and completely rehabilitated the house and other buildings. Thus, an abandoned dairy farm became a place for people to come and visit and make art: the silo contains musical instruments, the barn is floored to accomidate dance performances, one room in the house is covered in three layers of white shellac to make it an overwhelming space for music-making, a modified shed is a welding studio and the corn silo is affixed with a level of decks leading all the way to the top--so that one can watch the sunset or just read a book 100 feet in the air.
Here is a slideshow I created that traces the arc of these photographs, from the early representational stencil works to the intensely abstract self-portraits of the later years. They appear larger and in greater detail by following the link to the web album:

David Lundahl's art, and the story of how he overcame physical adversity to create a place equal to his art, ranks among the most inspired and visionary collections of work I've ever encountered. However, the more recent chapters of this story have thrown his accomplishment into a light that may be all-too-familiar to our readers and to those attempting to make art outside of our country's urban centers. 

Put simply, the very place that gives Mr. Lundahl the space and freedom to create his art--by virtue of its remove from urban and suburban centers--actively works against his desire to share it with people beyond his handful of local friends. While these audiences may feel more comfortable with someone from rural Wisconsin engaging in the folk arts, or portraying subject matter they deem sufficiently "rural," an artist like David Lundahl (and his social non-conformity) throws all of those assumptions to the side. One visitor from New York City, after sitting around the artist's kitchen table and viewing some of his photographs, perhaps articulated this predicament best; "you can't make that here," he yelled, shaking Mr. Lundahl by the shoulders, imploring him to leave Wisconsin for New York. 

Yet David Lundahl is staying put at New Light Studios, albeit uneasily. Though he despises the line of thinking that suggests that modern art can only be made in cities, and only with by entering "the art world," he simultaneously feels a desperate need to connect with anyone, artists or otherwise. When he talks through this bind to me, it's clear that his work has left him at the crossroads, to decide between valuing the place he calls home or leaving it for the sake of an artform that only exists because of its rural genesis. 

I'm wondering if other readers have encountered similar issues--either themselves, or in the story of other rural artists. Here's a few questions we're considering here at The Art of the Rural, inspired by Mr. Lundahl's position: are modern rural artists who don't work in a folkloric vein solely considered "outsider artists?" Is there a rural-urban dynamic beneath that term (even though there are many urban outsider and self-taught artists)? Wendell Berry has written of "the prejudice against country people;" is there a similar prejudice against (or misunderstanding of) rural artists, or has the internet eroded those limiting assumptions?

If you have any ideas, or suggestions for artists that address these questions, please feel free to contact us or discuss the matter on our Facebook page--we're hoping to discover more artists such as Mr. Lundahl.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Rye Whiskey Rural Arts Metaphor

Templeton's home-grown rye crop; Brewvana

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines over the second half of February, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. In March we will offer new articles and series, and share some new projects related to our mission.

[A Rye Whiskey Rural Arts Metaphor was originally published on February 9, 2011. A review of Kristian Day's excellent documentary Capone's Whiskey: The Story of Templeton Rye is forthcoming. The trailer for this film is included at the conclusion of this piece.]

We occasionally like to dwell on issues of food culture and the culinary arts that have a particular rural connection (see the search function on the sidebar for Ian Halbert's excellent series of articles), and today we've found a controversy that has developed across the state of Iowa that may be of interest to our readers.

The story involves Templeton Rye, a small-batch rye whiskey distilled in Templeton, Iowa. With the exception of liquor connoisseurs, most folks outside of Iowa--even most folks in the midwest--probably have never heard of Templeton, despite the fact that it is one of the most sought-after whiskeys in the United States. It's also a whiskey with a compelling local and historical legacy. Here's a brief introduction from the distillery's site:
When Prohibition outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in 1920, many enterprising residents of a small town in Iowa chose to become outlaws – producing a high caliber and much sought-after whiskey known as Templeton Rye.

Based on its extremely smooth finish, the American rye whiskey earned the nickname of “The Good Stuff” and quickly brought a certain degree of fame to the doorsteps of Templeton (pop. 350). As the premium brand of the era, Templeton Rye fetched an impressive $5.50 per gallon – or approximately $70 by today’s standards.

Over the course of its storied history, Templeton Rye became Al Capone’s whiskey of choice, quickly finding its way to the center of his bootlegging empire. Hundreds of kegs per month were supplied to Capone’s gang who in turn filled the demand of speakeasies throughout Chicago, New York and as far west as San Francisco.

Capone was eventually convicted on charges of tax evasion and sent to prison. Later legends suggest that a few bottles even found their way inside the walls of Alcatraz to the cell of prisoner AZ-85.
Although most American whiskeys ceased production after prohibition ended, Templeton Rye continued to be produced illegally in small quantities for loyal patrons. More than eighty-five years later, the infamous small batch rye whiskey finally returned – made available legally for the first time ever in 2006.
While the Capone connection may be enough to tempt a taste, the product's history is far from a gimmick; this is one of the finest, and most unique, rye whiskeys that money can buy. Beyond the connection to Prohibition and Alacatraz, this is no doubt also related to the local elements of this product's creation, to the care that the distillers--and the town itself--has put into each bottle. As their blog indicates, this distillery is intricately linked to its home region.

The Templeton controversy, however, has emerged at the convergence of all the wonderful attributes contained in the previous paragraph. Iowans want to purchase a quality drink with an Iowa connection,  stores in the state wish to stock this local gem, and--to confound this seemingly simple example of supply and demand--a huge number of urban, coastal connoisseurs are desperate to also enjoy a sip. Extraordinarily limited quantities of Templeton Rye can be found in upscale liquor stores in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago, often at considerably higher prices. Even within Iowa, it is very hard to find the product; often local stores will only receive 2-4 bottles a month. People turn to Facebook and Twitter (#TRspottings) to report when and where they have found "the good stuff."

Ironically, then, a product which began as a contraband item has, through different circumstances, become again a subject of hush-hush conjecture. This has led, within the state of Iowa and no doubt through internet chatter, to the perception that the scarcity of Templeton Rye was linked to a single likely cause: Templeton was shipping a larger proportion of its product to distant cities. As the video below and the site's allotment data indicate, this was only a perception. The vast majority of Templeton Rye stays within the Iowa border.

Herein lies a multifaceted metaphor. We see in this story those ever-present tensions between the local and the cosmopolitan, between the rural and the urban; we also see here the point at which a fantastically successful rural, regional business reaches a challenge that has less to do with profit-margins than with the community on which the entire enterprise is rooted. As a culinary art form, this is a kind of instructive tale for artists working within other mediums.

Also, looking more broadly at the well-earned success story in Templeton, we have an aspirational model for the rural arts. It's a sort of material and aesthetic challenge for contemporary rural artists in all mediums, how to balance the desires of rural and urban audiences--and how to reach one's local audience in such a way that they take the kind of ownership over their region's work that Templeton's Iowa base has exerted. While this controversy has been a challenge to the distillery, it's an envious one for most rural artists. Imagine if the words "Templeton Rye" and "Batch 4" were interchanged in the video below with any number of other words: "our recent series of paintings", "our recent book of poems", "our current recording:"

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Moral Failure: Foundations and Rural America

Web banner from the Council on Foundations 2011 Annual Meeting

Yesterday on our Arts and Culture Feed we linked to the breakdown of President Obama's NEA budget proposal by Americans For The Arts. While discussions on this budget circulated yesterday, Charles Fluharty, President of the Rural Policy Research Institute, testified before the Agricultural Committee of the Senate to discuss how federal and private-sector forces can better serve rural communities and rural development. His full testimony can be found at The Daily Yonder, and video of the testimony begins at the 162 minute mark here.

As we've seen previously in creative economies and creative placemaking, artists and arts organizations both offer immense contributions to local economies and benefit from inclusion within the framework of rural development. 

For that reason alone, folks will be very interested to read Fluharty's analysis of the level of investment in rural communities by our national foundations. Generally speaking, rural America is 80% of the country and 20% of its population, yet these communities receive less than 3% from the major national foundations. (Many estimates put this number as low as 1%.) 

This "institutional and moral failure" is complicated by these foundations' tax status; in exchange for working towards the public good, these entities receive deductions and exemptions. Below, Fluharty's testimony suggests that not only is this an example of a gross inequality, but it's also a breach of public trust:
Beyond these public sector challenges, a concomitant rural disadvantage in philanthropic funding also remains significant. A 2004 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, “Beyond City Limits: The Philanthropic Needs of Rural America,” found that out of 65,000 grant-making foundations, only 184 made grants characterized as “rural development.”

Rural America remains challenged by this long-standing, differential disadvantage in philanthropic investment in its people, organizations, and institutions. And this is now more critical than ever, as federal, state and local government resources continue to decline. Because of the generous tax subsidies granted foundations and their donors, their presidents and trustees enter into a covenant with the American people, in which our government and these institutions jointly assume an obligation to steward this awesome public trust so as to optimize the public good achieved, in exchange for the lost public sector revenues and resources, as a result of tax deductions and exemptions. An awesome challenge, indeed…….As with all subsidies, deductions, and exemptions, federal budgetary pressures are again calling these dynamics into question, as both more research and more transparency are sought.

While redlining has been decried by national foundations for years on the part of government, a current de facto foundation redlining of rural America simply must be addressed. Federal funding for community capacity continues to decrease, and rural safety net resources are in dire need. Yet, American philanthropy continues to distribute less than 3% of its annual payout to the people and places of rural America, which comprise 20% of our population and 80% of our natural resource base. In fact, foundations have withdrawn further from rural commitments in the past five years, as need has increased exponentially.  These foundations, and the generous tax subsidies provided to donors, create a public partnership in pursuit of the public good.  This geographic inequity must be named.  It is an institutional and moral failure; and one so long-standing that serious inquiry regarding whether this is an abuse of a solemn public trust should be considered.

[Editor's Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, Charles Fluharty is the father of Matthew Fluharty, Art of the Rural Editor.]

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Reconsidering Grant Wood's Revolt

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines over the second half of February, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. In March we will offer new articles and series, and share some new projects related to our mission.

Reconsidering Grant Wood's Revolt was originally published on January 4, 2011.] 

This morning The Daily Yonder published an excellent review of Grant Wood: A Life, a new study of the legendary regionalist painter by R. Tripp Evans. Within her review "The Edgy Idylls of Grant Wood," Cyndy Clark notes many of Evans's new ideas on the use of gender and sexuality in Grant Wood's work--and Ms. Clark finds a way to artfully integrate this shifting interpretive terrain into the lines of the artist's most iconic canvas, American Gothic:
One of Wood’s eccentricities seems to have been a fascination with death and funerary subjects.  According to Evans, the gothic arch was a common 19th c. American folk art form that referred to mortality. Wood and his mother lived for ten years in a small apartment above a Cedar Rapids funeral parlor with a coffin lid as its front door, so the connection seems reasonable.  The American Gothic house may also represent the place where Wood spent the first eleven years of his life, in Anamosa, Iowa, the house where his father, Maryville, died.  The artist spent those early years hiding his artistic talents from Maryville, a man’s man who considered art feminine and only for sissies, an attitude consistent with his Midwestern contemporaries. Wood said, regarding his father’s disapproval of his art, “For a farmer’s son in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to say he wanted to paint pictures for his life work was as startling as a girl to announce she wanted to live a life of shame.”

Wood’s troubled relationship with his father contributes an obvious and psychologically predictable influence on many of his paintings.  Although the model for the male figure in American Gothic was his dentist, his resemblance to Maryville, a stern Quaker, is striking and confirmed by Wood’s sister, Nan. The prongs of the pitchfork, echo the seams of the farmer’s overalls and form the letter “W,” to evoke Maryville Wood.
Ms. Clark's review continues on to make a number of important connections between the varying responses to American Gothic, suggesting that we still have much to learn from Mr. Wood's situation, his place in that time-honored American-Arts-Bermuda-Triangle between rural, urban and academic spaces, and from the ideas he so gracefully articulated on canvas. 

Her writing led me back to an essay of Wood's I hadn't read in long while: "Revolt Against the City." As modern readers, we can scan the lines below in full cognizance that rural and urban spaces are inescapably interconnected, that a "revolt" from one merely means hardship for those involved in the rebellion. With this book review in mind, we come to understand that Grant Wood may not have argued such a basic dichotomy. Instead of revolting against the city, perhaps Mr. Wood would point the contemporary rural arts towards considering how they anchor regional artistic (and economic) centers:
Because of this new emphasis upon native materials, the artist no longer finds it necessary to migrate even to New York [or to emulate French painting, which Wood discusses before this quote], or to seek any great metropolis. No longer is it necessary for him to suffer the confusing cosmopolitanism, the noise, the too intimate gregariousness of the large city. True, he may travel, the may observe, he may study in various environments, in order to develop his personality and achieve backgrounds and a perspective; but this need be little more than incidental to an educative process that centers on his own home region.
Let me try to state the basic idea of the regional movement. Each section has a personality of its own, in physiography, industry, psychology. Thinking painters and writers who have passed their formative years in these regions, will, by care-taking analysis, work out and interpret in their productions these varying personalities. When the different regions develop characteristics of their own, they will come into competition with each other; and out of this competition a rich American culture will grow. It was in some such manner that Gothic architecture grew out of competition between different French towns as to which could build the largest and finest cathedrals. 
I am willing to go so far as to say that I believe the hope of a native American art lies in the development of regional art centers and the competition between them. It seems the one way to the building up of an honestly art-conscious America.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Carter Family Fold and Johnny Cash's Last Performance

Photograph by William W. Robinson of Friends of the Carter Family Fold 

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines over the second half of February, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. In March we will offer new articles and series, and share some new projects related to our mission. ]


"He insisted on walking into the Fold that night," Hiltons resident Pat Jones told me a week after Johnny's performance. "They wanted to bring him in using a wheelchair, but he said no, he wanted to walk up to that stage himself."

Whenever I have friends that are looking to take a trip somewhere, one of the first places I recommend is The Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia. A few years back, I had the chance to attend one of their Saturday evening concerts and hear Janette Carter sing "I'm Thinking Tonight of my Blue Eyes." It's one of the songs that her father and mother, A.P. and Sara, along with aunt Maybelle, immortalized in an early Carter Family recording. Though Janette was frail, she was helped to the stage so that she could take the autoharp and begin the night's music with that selection from her family's legacy.

As she sang, I looked around. Underneath the generous tin roof, families and young couples sat and listened, children ran across the dance floor in front of the stage. It was an atmosphere and an inter-generational audience that harkened back to a time when traditional music--folk music--was actually sung and enjoyed by "folks", not cloistered behind the turn styles of cafes and concert venues. Ms. Carter and her brother Joe created the Fold in 1979 to honor her family and to give a piece of her family's heritage back to the community. When I walked in, I felt at home: large paintings of the Carters adorned the stage, homemade chili and pie beckoned from a window in the back, and a sign reminded me this was hallowed ground: no smoking, no drinking, no cursing.

A few months after Ms. Carter's song, she passed away. Here's Joe Wilson, President of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, remembering Ms. Carter and her legacy at the Fold:
Janette was not the Carter with the husky, penetrating female voice, perhaps the finest country female lead of all time. That voice belonged to her mother, Sara. She was not the lead guitarist who invented country guitar lead with its "church lick" and unrelenting emphasis of melody. That guitarist was her Aunt Maybelle. She wrote songs, but was not the greatest composer and arranger in country music history. That person was her father, A. P. Carter. She never married anyone famous, and individual fame never came to her. The Carter Family was a depression-era band that broke up after a mere 14 years, and Janette and her father returned to the Virginia mountains with considerable fame, but no cash. She worked as a cook at the elementary school, and raised her family. But she promised her father to keep his legacy, and that promise was kept in a hall she financed and her brother Joe built in the style of a burley tobacco barn. There she presented the local artists she adored and the famous who came to borrow bits of Carter magic. She kept the prices low and the quality high. She had time for the most humble, and enough love to fill this valley beside Clinch Mountain. 
The Carter Family Fold site has a lot to offer. First and foremost, you can check out their show schedule and also, if distance is an issue, purchase a ticket to the streaming video archive of dozens of recent shows. The grounds also serve as a preservation site for A.P. Carter's cabin as well as a family museum. Also worth visiting: The Friends of the Carter Family Fold has a wonderful selection of photographs and streaming music of the later generations of Carters to follow A.P., Sara and Maybelle.

One of the Fold's other rules: no electric instruments. This rule was waived for only one person: Johnny Cash, the husband of her cousin June and a frequent visitor to the Fold. On July 5, 2003, two months before his death, Mr. Cash made an unpublicized return to the stage in Hiltons for what would be his final public performance.

Here's Kimberly Burge, in Sojourners Magazine telling the story:
The Ovation began with those closest to the entrance that had been blocked off for his arrival. As the wave rippled across the audience, people took to their feet when Johnny emerged from his car, before he even stepped foot inside the Carter Fold and well before he sang a note.
Dressed head to toe, naturally, in black, he did indeed walk through the doors, slowly and propped up by two assistants. John Carter Cash, his only son, supported him from behind. The crowd parted, and he stopped and rested a few moments before attempting the three stairs that led to the small wooden stage. His body was frail, but his face still evoked the authority of an Old Testament prophet. he smiled bashfully at the thunderous reception.
Bursts of applause greeted each point of this 10-minute journey and reached a crescendo at the familiar opening notes of his first song, "Folsom Prison Blues." Although the backs of his hands appeared darkly bruised, Johnny played an acoustic guitar, as did his son. The wild greeting continued with his next number, "Sunday Morning Coming Down." Cries of "We love you, Johnny!" broke through the cheers.
Then he spoke to the crowd. "I don't really know what to say about how I feel tonight, being up here without her."
He placed only the slightest emphasis on that last word. The place fell silent for the first time that evening. Johnny sighed, his chest rising and falling slowly as he looked down at the guitar he quietly strummed. "June and I were together 40 years, and the pain is so severe, there's no describing it. You lose your mate, the one you've been with all those years, and I guarantee you it's the big one. It hurts so really hurts.
He thrummed the guitar again, two or three times. The ceiling fans clattered overhead.
"But every day the last week or so, it seems to be getting a little bit better, knowing that I was coming up to celebrate her birthday and the excitement of all that. Coming to her old homeplace here on the banks of Clinch Mountain, where we spent so much time and had so much love for each other. I just wish I could share it with you, how we felt about each other." he stared unseeingly down at the stage for a moment, then looked again toward his audience.
Luckily, video exists of this historic evening:

[The Carter Family Fold and Johnny Cash's Last Performance was originally published on April 8, 2010.]

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Rural America Contemporary Artists: Making Nowhere into Somewhere, Making A Statement

from the Recalcitrant Mimesis installation at the David B. Smith Gallery, Denver; Liz Miller

[Today we are excited to present Brian Frink's curator's statement to the Rural America Contemporary Art show alongside work from the artists included in this exhibit. Please visit the RACA Facebook group for more information, as well as the artist's sites, where larger, high-resolution images are available for viewing.]

Rural America Contemporary Art (RACA) started as a Facebook group.  The idea was to create a forum, a virtual place, where rural artists could connect, share work and promote their various activities.  The name of the group implies a certain irony.  The words “contemporary” and “rural” are not always seen as equivalent concepts.  For a long time progressive ideas moved from urban areas to rural areas.  In early and mid-twentieth century America the term “regionalism” was applied to artists that did not live in urban centers such as New York City.  For many artists the term was a disparaging label.   It usually meant, “behind the times.” 

Archival Structure Five installation, 4Real4Faux exhibit, Truman State University; David Hamlow

Population density in urban areas contributed to this.  More people living in close proximity promoted a rapid exchange of ideas, attitudes, styles and fashions.  The result was innovation based on the mutations these exchanges fostered.  Rural areas are less dense having less frequent random interactions.  So the classic model of innovation in visual art is, progressive ideas form in urban centers of culture then migrate out to rural communities.

Corpus Corvus Corrallary, cast iron, scale model accessories, scenery and pigment; Karl Unnasch

More recently economics, population growth and the advancement of university art education have brought many serious artists to live in rural communities.  The cost of setting up a studio in urban areas has become prohibitive.  The numbers of individuals who define themselves as artists has exploded.  University art departments are now prevalent in even the smallest rural community across America.  These factors have contributed to the incredible growth of rural contemporary art.

Blazer, pencil on paper, 22" x 30"; Brian Frink

Yet, culturally speaking, we still function under the old notion that progressive innovation comes from urban areas migrating outward to rural communities. 

I believe the web and social media has changed this dynamic. 

furnace (first painting of the year), acrylic on panel, 36"  x 24"; Benjamin Gardner

I would like to propose that social media platforms like Facebook allows for a level of interaction and cross-pollination of ideas that might be similar to living in an urban environment.   Trends or theories that in previous generations would have taken years to migrate are now accessed instantly.  For an artist living in relative isolation, there is power in this new dynamic. 

prelude to a claptrap/prussian field, oil on birch, 61" x 97"; Andrew Nordin

These contributing factors may be creating a new paradigm.  A new paradigm where the previous model no longer applies.  Progressive, contemporary ideas, trends and fashions can now move from rural to urban areas.  Artists can live in rural areas and still be progressive and innovative.
Seeking Shelter lightbox 23" x 33"; Erik Waterkotte

RACA’s slogan is “Making nowhere into somewhere.”  Of course this motto is also a wry commentary on the fact that those who live in rural America already know it is “somewhere.” So part of the RACA mission is to connect, highlight and validate the immense community of artists that has always sought the solace, inspiration and beauty of rural America.  It is also RACA’s mission to assert that the art made by rural artists is relevant.

held within what hung open and made to lie without escape installation; Gregory Euclide

This first exhibition, curated by the Institute for Rural America Contemporary Art, exemplifies what is going on in our tiny corner of rural America.  The artists collected here are not just creating work that echoes what they see in New York or Los Angeles.  These artists struggle to make highly original and innovative work.  They view themselves as equal voices with their urban peers.  Cognizant and dynamic, their work speculates on the paradoxical nature of life in twenty-first century America.  These artists are Rural America Contemporary Art.   

Brian Frink
Institute for Rural America Contemporary Art

Horizon/Marks #2, mixed media on paper; Lisa Bergh

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rural Poetry Series: C.D. Wright

I’m country but sophisticated. I’m particular and concrete, but I’m probing another plane. . . . There are many times when I want to hammer the head. Other times I want to sleep on the hammer.
     - C. D. Wright

C.D. Wright was born in Mountain Home, Arkansas, and her experience within the Ozarks and her native region have left an unshakable mark on a career that's seen the poet and her work meet with audiences across the country.

Wright is the daughter of a judge and a court reporter; this biographical note helps to provide a familial and regional context for poems which can stun and dizzy readers in their abilities to transcend normal temporal and spatial expectations. In books such as Like Something Flying Backwards: New and Selected Poems (2007) or the much-loved Deepstep Come Shining (1998), Wright utilizes a one-of-a-kind amalgam of narrative, collage, and lyrical techniques - yet, unlike a great many of her contemporaries, this stylistic DNA is not an end in itself, but a way of telling stories deeply rooted in local experience. 

Her most recent book, One With Others, was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award in Poetry. Dan Chiasson, writing in The New Yorker, offers this excellent introduction to both the book and Wright's poetics:
In August, 1969, a Memphis man known as Sweet Willie Wine led a group of black men on a four-day March Against Fear, from West Memphis to Little Rock, passing through the small towns of the Arkansas delta. One with Others the Arkansas-born poet C. D. Wright’s new, book-length poem, tells the story of the march, and of the only outsider to join it, a small-town white woman, Margaret Kaelin McHugh, whom Wright calls V. The gnomic title suggests the bargain that V made: the act that momentarily unified her with others permanently singled her out. Becoming “one with others,” she ended up a pariah—one with others. The book is foremost an elegy for McHugh, whom Wright, in interviews, has described as “a giant of my imagination, an autodidact, deeply literary, an outraged citizen, a killingly funny, irresistible human.” 

The era has been so memorably captured in documentaries that, even when you imagine it, you end up drifting into documentary conventions. It turns out that the literary genre least likely to get in the way of this story is poetry, which, despite its reputation for gilt and taffeta, comfortably veers close to “documentary” conventions. It comes especially close in Wright’s angular strain of postmodern poetry, which draws on refractive techniques now a hundred years old: collage, extensive quotation, multiplicity of voice and tone, found material, and, often, a non-authorial, disinterested stance. “One with Others” represents Wright’s most audacious experiment yet in loading up lyric with evidentiary fact.
Here is video of Wright on PBS NewsHour reading a selection from One With Others from her home outside of Providence, Rhode Island; an excerpt from the long poem is also included below:

If white people can ride down the highways
with guns in their trucks
I can walk down the highway unarmed
Scott Bond, born a slave, became
a millionaire. Wouldn’t you like to run wild
run free. The Very Reverend Al Green
hailed from here. Sonny Liston a few miles west,
San Slough. Head hardened
on hickory sticks. A reporter asks a family
of sharecroppers quietly watching the procession,
Does this walk mean anything to you.
The father says, the others nod,
It means that Sweet Willie Wine is walking.