Monday, April 30, 2012

The Tree That Bursts Through The Silo

Tree In Silo; Ken Wolf

Many thanks to María Arambula for sharing on our Arts and Culture Feed A.G. Sulzberger's latest rural dispatch for The New York Times, "Amid Rural Decay, Trees Take Root in Silos." The image of these trees bursting from disused farm structures unifies an arc of how the last century has dealt with rural place as an aesthetic ideal.

To begin, here's Mr. Sulzberger discussing this phenomenon across Kansas and Missouri:
The empty structures catch seeds, then protect fragile saplings from the prairie winds and reserve a window of sunlight overhead like a target. In time, without tending by human hands, the trees have grown so high that lush canopies of branches now rise from the structures and top them like leafy umbrellas. 

Across a region laden with leaning, crumbling reminders of more vibrant days, some residents have found comfort in their unlikely profiles. 

“It just struck me as, I don’t know, a symbol of something,” said Ken Wolf, who has spent many days of his retirement searching the area for what he calls, simply, silo trees, photographing dozens along the way. “I see it as a kind of passing.” 
Mr. Wolf's photographs present these tree-silos are a kind of vernacular architecture, not consciously assembled structures -- though they suggest this aesthetic through neglect and abandonment. As the photographer surmises, we're in the presence of a symbol heavy with historical and cultural weight.

It's jarring, then, to consider the image of this tree just one hundred year's ago, in the poetry of William Butler Yeats. In "Upon A House Shaken By The Land Agitation," Yeats laments the passing of the Anglo-Irish Ascendency who even, before the Easter Rising, were seeing their large estates broken up into smaller holdings and dispersed to local farmers. Yeats's position on the matter would be akin to many modernists, who envisioned their art free from the demands of (or condescensions to) popular audiences; the Nobel laureate saw in the destruction of an estate's "big house" a metaphor for the loss of what he would call (in another poem featuring a tree-symbol): "custom and ceremony." After decades connecting rural folklore to national literature, Yeats displays the anxieties of his class and his cultural standing -- worrying if these same people, so often portrayed by him as the spirit of the nation, would really be careful stewards of the land and its culture. He laments what is lost by allowing a tree to flourish in the place of a symbol of high cultural wealth. 

In Mr. Wolf's phtography we find a drastically different situation but, nonetheless, a structure in ruin and a landscape in transition. What is contested is what narrative we ascribe to the branches breaking free from the silo's concrete hold; is this a reclamation or a commentary on industrial agriculture, a scene of "rural decay" or something that transcends economics and cultural cliches? Is this a preface or a postscript?

Upon A House Shaken By The Land Agitation

How should the world be luckier if this house, 
Where passion and precision have been one 
Time out of mind, became too ruinous 
To breed the lidless eye that loves the sun? 
And the sweet laughing eagle thoughts that grow        
Where wings have memory of wings, and all 
That comes of the best knit to the best?
Although  Mean roof-trees were the sturdier for its fall,
How should their luck run high enough to reach
The gifts that govern men, and after these 
To gradual Time’s last gift, a written speech 
Wrought of high laughter, loveliness and ease?

Silo With Tree; Ken Wolf

Friday, April 27, 2012

Rural Tracks: Daughn Gibson's Country Noir

If folks are familiar with the rich, hallowed ground of country music that deals with trucking and the open road, then these new contributions by Daughn Gibson will come as a surprise.

His first record, All Hell, has been available for a few weeks, with interest in Gibson's unique musical-collages steadily gathering steam in the music press. Here's Larry Fitzmaurice, writing in his Pitchfork feature on the artist:
There are moments of genuine noise and terror on singer-songwriter Daughn Gibson's debut solo LP, All Hellbut not of the devil's-horns kind. Instead, the 31-year-old Carlisle, Penn., resident fashions ghostly, haunting country-ish ballads out of Christian gospel samples and looping audio software while his rich baritone narrates small-town tragedy.

Gibson's affinity for country music-- as well as the genre's cherished storytelling tradition-- began when he started driving trucks for a living nearly a decade ago. "I started listening to country when there was nothing else to listen to on the radio when I was driving," he says. "I started liking the stories, no matter how absurd they sounded. I liked that they were portrayals of people, or scenarios, or nostalgia." To this day, he's stillworking in the trucking industry, as an HR representative.

I have been recently been reading, and re-reading, Collage Culture, a collaboration between poet Mandy Kahn, filmmaker/curator Aaron Rose, and designer Brian Roettinger. Across these essays, they give an impassioned argument for artists, writers, and musicians to move beyond collage as an end-in-itself, and they offer a thoughtful critique of how an admixture of styles, references, and cultural debris liberally scattered together (like a Google image search) negates all the history, ideology, and human experience contained in each discrete element of a collage. Though this publication emanates from Los Angeles, and is entirely concerned with urban art forms, I sense that its thesis would be enthusiastically received by many of our readers and collaborators.

No genre is more complicit in "collage culture" than electronic music, which brings us back to Daughn Gibson. The compelling, catchy, and, at times, unsettling effects of the songs on All Hell seem to transcend the pitfalls of Collage Culture and sample-based music. Is this because Gibson is working with country music material that emerges from his lived, placed, experience? Does the style and texture of these songs also emanate a kind of spatial sense of the open road, the rural interstates of Pennsylvania, the quality of constantly traveling between points on a map? 

It may be a challenge to not to contextualize, or even romanticize, some elements of this music's creation. Please feel welcome to offer your own takes of this on our Arts and Culture Feed

Included below is another song from All Hell, "Tiffany Lou," followed by a video trailer for Collage Culture directed by Aaron Rose:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Wendell Berry's Jefferson Lecture: "It All Turns On Affection"

On Monday night Wendell Berry delivered "It All Turns on Affection," the 2012 Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Center. Each year the National Endowment for the Humanities offers this lectureship, "the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities." 

Mr. Berry's talk covers an extraordinary amount of ground -- from an epigraph from Howards End, to memories of his grandfather's struggles with the economies set in place by the American Tobacco Company, and to many locales and texts in between. Well-versed readers of Mr. Berry's prose and poetry will no doubt share my sense that this essay revisits (and re-contextualizes) many of the concerns of his work -- closing some circles, but opening up new ones as well. 

There is much to quote and discuss within "It All Turns on Affection," yet, in this brief piece, I'll include these two paragraphs, moving in how they call on all citizens -- rural and urban -- to return to first principles to find their relationship to place and practice:
I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.

Obviously there is some risk in making affection the pivot of an argument about economy. The charge will be made that affection is an emotion, merely “subjective,” and therefore that all affections are more or less equal: people may have affection for their children and their automobiles, their neighbors and their weapons. But the risk, I think, is only that affection is personal. If it is not personal, it is nothing; we don’t, at least, have to worry about governmental or corporate affection. And one of the endeavors of human cultures, from the beginning, has been to qualify and direct the influence of emotion. The word “affection” and the terms of value that cluster around it—love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence—have histories and meanings that raise the issue of worth. We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful. When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong. A large machine in a large, toxic, eroded cornfield is not, properly speaking, an object or a sign of affection.
Folks can find a transcription of the lecture here, along with an interview and further information on past Jefferson Lectures. Below we will offer video of Mr. Berry's talk, which is preceded by remarks by Jim Leach, the chairman of the NEH, and Bobbie Ann Mason, who reads from Mr. Berry's poem "Leavings." If the embedded video does not properly play on your browser, please find the permanent link here:

[video removed due to formatting problems; please visit the link above]

Also, as a fitting epilogue to the lecture, Mark Bittman has written an extraordinary piece today in The New York Times about his recent visit with Mr. Berry in Port Royal. Mr. Bittman receives a call three hours after leaving the farm from Mr. Berry, with this addendum:
“Mark,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about that question about what city people can do. The main thing is to realize that country people can’t invent a better agriculture by ourselves. Industrial agriculture wasn’t invented by us, and we can’t uninvent it. We’ll need some help with that.”

Photographing Rural Maine, Beyond The Vacationland

Gregory Gives his Cousin Lori a Rose, 1983; Steven Rubin

This month TIME Magazine's Lightbox photography section highlights the work of Steven Rubin and his 30 year project in Somerset County, Maine -- the fruits of which are currently on view at the drkrm gallery in Los Angeles. 

Tara Godvin, writing in Lightbox, outlines the dimesions of this extended meditation on place and culture which began with a hitchiking ride to rural Maine in 1982: 
A graduate from Reed College with a degree in sociology, Rubin had originally come out to the East Coast from Oregon to enroll at the then Maine Photographic Workshops (now the Maine Media Workshops) in Rockport. After documenting the effects of the early 1980s recession on families nearby, he wanted to see how the economic downturn was being handled by locals far from the highways, historic lighthouses and second homes of the Maine coast. On a tip from a friend, Rubin headed inland and settled upon an abandoned shack as his home base and a schedule of hitching four to eight hours between the countryside to take pictures and Rockport to develop them.

Taking prints back to his subjects as a thank-you for their time and trust, Rubin was eventually let into the lives of local families—as well as some of their homes to crash on floors and couches—as he continued his work throughout Central Maine.

What he has witnessed is a part of the country largely unbuffeted by the usual economic ups and downs seen elsewhere. For many in the area times are always tough. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, per capita income has been increasing in Somerset County but has ranked at or near the bottom among Maine’s 16 counties throughout the many years of Rubin’s project. Residents get by through resourcefully cobbling together seasonal and part-time jobs, hunting, fix-it know-how and the support of their communities.

“When I met some of these families, I was completely in awe of them in many ways,” said Rubin, now an assistant professor of art in the Photography Program at Penn State University. “I think as an outsider and someone who didn’t have the background that they did, I was really quite taken by how they survived, by their strength, by their resourcefulness.”
Please find Tara Godvin's full article, with a generous slideshow of Steven Rubin's work, at TIME Lightbox. Many thanks to Alyce Ornella of the Spindleworks Art Center in Brunswick, Maine for leading us to this work

Monday, April 23, 2012

TONIGHT: Live Broadcast of Wendell Berry's Jefferson Lecture

Here's further news on tonight's live stream, from Ivy Brashear of The Rural Blog:
Poet, essayist, novelist, farmer and conservationist Wendell Berry will deliver the 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities tonight at 7:30 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The National Endowment for the Humanities will be video-streaming the lecture live. The annual lecture is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for intellectual achievement in the humanities.
Ivy Brashear's article continues here

Readings: A Route on the Map: Italo Calvino and Double Edge Theatre

Photographs of The Grand Parade; Maria Baranova

In our Readings series, we offer selections from visual and printed texts that offer perspectives, expand dialogues, and challenge assumptions. Today we feature the photography of Maria Baranova,  from Double Edge Theatre's rehearsals for The Grand Parade (of the Twentieth Century): "an original, multi-disciplinary piece of theatre" that imagines the life and art of Marc Chagall alongside the shifting cultural tides of the last century. The piece is directed by Stacy Klein, with music composed by Alexander Bakshi.
Alongside this work, we offer the closing paragraphs of Invisible Cities, the seminal story cycle by Italo Calvino consisting of a series of conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Polo's ever-expanding descriptions of magical and diverse cities is revealed, by the close of the book, to be facets of a single place.


The Great Khan's atlas contains also the maps of the promised lands visited in thought but not yet discovered or founded: New Atlantis, Utopia, the City of the Sun, Oceana, Tamoé, New Harmony, New Lanarck, Icaria.

Kublai asked Marco: "You, who go about exploring and who see signs, can tell me towards which of these futures the favouring winds are driving us." 

"For these ports I could not draw a route on the map or set a date for the landing. At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city towards which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop. Perhaps while we speak, it is rising, scattered, within the confines of your empire; you can search for it, but only in the way I have said."

Already the Great Khan was leafing through his atlas, over the maps of the cities that menace in nightmares and maledictions: Enoch, Babylon, Yahooland, Butua, Brave New World. 

He said: "It is all useless, if the last landing-place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us."

And Polo said: "The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

Related Articles:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Readings: The Unreported Arts Recession of 1997 by Dudley Cocke

Dudley Cocke; Imagining America

In our Readings series, we offer selections from visual and printed texts that offer perspectives, expand dialogues, and challenge assumptions. Today we feature the opening paragraphs from "The Unreported Arts Recession of 1997" by Dudley Cocke, the Artistic Director of Roadside Theater at Appalshop

Please find the full text of this essay in Roadside Theater's Reading Room.


In the U.S. community-based arts field, the financial crisis did not occur in 2008, but in 1997. What happened then to those nonprofit arts organizations built for the majority of Americans is an unreported story, the consequences from which the field has not recovered.

The story of the 1997 arts recession begins in 1980 when the right wing, spurred on by Ronald Reagan's election, instigated a campaign to defame the National Endowment for the Arts. The ultimate goal was complete elimination of the federal agency established in 1965 by an act of Congress with the mandate to dedicate itself "to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education." The Reagan administration and Congress tried but failed several times in the 1980s to eliminate the NEA. Then in 1997 the agency's leader at the time, Jane Alexander, knuckled under to right wing political pressure, abolishing all of the NEA's more than a dozen discipline-based divisions (each of which had been armed with its own defense), installing in their place a few generic themes ("creation and presentation" is an example), and limiting organizations to one thematic application a year.

For the community-based arts field, the restriction to only one annual NEA application was especially problematic. Most progressive nonprofit arts organizations preferred competing for public money, because it was the people's tax money -- and they saw their work as public work. Consequently, the more developed community-based arts organizations were receiving support from multiple NEA programs. With the new single application rule, Appalshop, where I work, abruptly lost 90 percent of its federal arts funding, which represented 20 percent of its annual operating budget.

The 1997 restructuring of the NEA delivered a second punch: discipline-based knowledge and expertise -- which had been on a trajectory of becoming broader and deeper -- disappeared from the nonprofit arts discourse. A "dumbing-down" effect took hold. A good example of this regression is the limited opportunity the public now has to see new and experimental plays from different cultures and geographies -- a result of abolishing the NEA Presenting Program. Appalshop's theater wing, Roadside Theater, which I direct, lost 70 percent of its performance fee income with the collapse of the national touring market for new plays, which had been leveraged on NEA support for arts presenting as a discipline. Prior to 1997, Roadside had visited more than 1000 communities in 43 states, never failing to reach an audience reflective of the racial, economic, and cultural diversity of each host community.


"The Unreported Arts Recession of 1997" continues here, in The Roadside Theater Reading Room.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rural Arts From The Rustbelt To The Artist Belt

Later this week, The Art of the Rural will take part in the fourth Rustbelt to Artist Belt conference, which is meeting this year in Saint Louis, Missouri -- which is also home to Washington University, the headquarters of AOTR.

We're pleased to welcome a phenomenal panel of artists, writers and cultural workers for the Re-Thinking The Rural Arts discussion at the Rustbelt to Artist Belt conference: Mary Stewart Atwell, writer, critic, and author of the novel Wild Girls (Scribner, 2013); Brian Frink, artist, professor, and founder of the Rural America Contemporary Art Institute; Rachel Reynolds Luster, folkorist, AOTR Contributing Editor, and founder of HomeCorps; and Richard Saxton, artist, professor, and founder of the M12 interdisciplinary art collective. AOTR Editor Matthew Fluharty will moderate the discussion.

In light of conference preparations and events, new articles will appear again on The Art of the Rural next week -- though we will be updating the Arts and Culture Feed during this time.

Please find the introduction to the Re-Thinking The Rural Arts panel discussion below: 
Rural America is undergoing a period of dramatic cultural and demographic change. Its people are poised to take agency over their own narrative, as new media is allowing for the open and decentralized sharing of stories – from next door to across the continent. In concert with this, interest in sustainable and local food systems has leant a visibility, and a cultural and economic force, to a rural landscape often relegated to distorting pastoral clichés.
These dynamic possibilities offer a moving and multi-layered metaphor for the kinds of work to be created in rural America, as artists and community members are working across disciplines to re-think and re-imagine rural America – and to make connections to their partners in urban and international locales.
This panel presents the work of four artists and community leaders who are offering a new vision for the role of the arts in rural America. By connecting across disciplines and across geographic regions, these practitioners are examples of how serious aesthetic work can also function as an engine for social change and community development.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Idiom and Assimilation: Miles Davis & C.D. Wright

John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans, recording in 1958

If there is any particular affinity I have for poetry associated with the South, it is with idiom. I credit hill people and African Americans for keeping the language distinct. Poetry should repulse assimilation. Each poet's task is to fight their own language's assimilation. Miles Davis said, "The symphony, man, they got seventy guys all playing one note." He also said, "Those dark Arkansas roads, that is the sound I am after." He had his own sound. He recommended we get ours.
      - C.D. Wright, Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil

Related Articles:
Rural Poetry Series: C.D. Wright

Friday, April 6, 2012

Where The Mountains And The Movies Meet

By Rachel Reynolds Luster, Contributing Editor

Batesville, Arkansas sits nestled in the Ozark foothills. The town is small with a population hovering between nine and ten thousand and is primarily known as the home of NASCAR driver, Mark Martin, and the nearly-famous alternative metal band Mutha’s Day Out. However, the town also hosts what Arkansas Times editor Lindsey Millar suggests “may very well be the best small festival in the country.”

With the slogan Where the Mountains and the Movies Meet, Ozark Foothills FilmFest offers five full days and nights of public screenings as well as workshops and forums on all aspects of the art form. Filmmakers and actors are often in attendance, and audience members are treated to lively question and answer sessions following each viewing. While festival organizers have used the event to encourage and promote a home-grown film industry, the festival is a bonafide international event with filmmakers coming from as far away as India. The festival hosts many films and filmmakers showcased at more recognized film festivals such as Cannes and at SXSW.

The Ozark Foothills FilmFest was the brainchild of husband and wife team Bob and Judy Pest. Bob had been working for AETN, Arkansas’s public television network, and the couple also worked with Arkansas’s other world-class film event: the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. They formed a local non-profit in 2001 and went to work, against all odds, as Bob Pest explained to me, to encourage and “grow their own” film community in the state. The pair partnered with the local colleges as well as other community partners including local banks to “float” the festival in those first years with a mission of supporting emerging young filmmakers in Arkansas and the surrounding area -- and creating a world-class event in the state.

The restored Landers Theater in Batesville, one of four Filmfest locations in town

In 2007, the festival received a crucial boost when it became one of the supported models for expansion for a creative economy study funded by the Arkansas Arts Council and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. The program offered additional funds to bring in consultants, including filmmakers and organizers from Appalshop, and to develop T-Tauri: a two-week camp for aspiring filmmakers, actors, editors, and screenwriters between the ages of 7 and 18. The organization also created a year-long presence for T-Tauri through the T-Tauri Galaxy, an online collaborative site where students can post their work and contribute to the work of their colleagues as well as a bank of public domain material that anyone can access through the online galaxy space. T-Tauri loosely translates as “new star.”

There’s a large contingent of young filmmakers present at the festival as well, a scene that’s been nurtured by both Bob and Judy. Not only has the festival supported young filmmakers by featuring their work, but it also offers funding to support their projects --  a unique opportunity for emerging artists,  especially those from rural places. In addition, there are sessions which deal directly with the challenges of making films in Arkansas, Texas, or Louisiana, for instance, rather than Los Angeles. There’s a young and devoted class of filmmakers dedicated to making the movies they want to make where they want to make them, knowing that this often means little distribution or support from investors.

Jonathan Hicks, Robyn Rebecca Lynn, Mandy Maxwell and Juli Jackson outside the Festival

The Ozark Foothills FilmFest offers two screenwriting awards for best short and feature length screenplay, and they offer three $30,000 production grants for films that are required to use at least 75% Arkansas cast and crew. This year's works in progress were all screened at the festival. Follow-up articles will highlight two of them: Witch Hazel Advent by Sarah K. Moore and 45 RPM by Juli Jackson, who not only was production grant recipient also has been an enthusiastic volunteer for the festival for the last few years. The FilmFest also partners with local arts agencies to support a competition for emerging visual artists to create the festival’s yearly poster design and exhibit their work in a local gallery during the festival. This year’s poster competition winner was Mandy Maxwell.

Bob and Judy Pest have proven masterful at not only having the vision to create such an event in a rural Arkansas town, but also at building the community partnerships that are necessary to maintain and expand the project. Despite hundreds of thousands of dollars of foundation funding, the FilmFest is still headquartered out of the couple's home; they have chosen to thrust the funding support back into the festival, their youth engagement programs, and the community. The Ozark Foothills FilmFest has encouraged a coalition of local cultural non-profits, and worked with their local Main Street program and regional tourist council, to demonstrate how film can serve as a significant tool for cultural (and economic) development in Batesville, the state, and the region.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Poet Laureates, Hall of Famers, and Opening Day

Bill Mazeroski, after his home run to win the 1960 World Series: James Klingensmith

Today is Opening Day for Major League Baseball, that turning of a cultural season to match the Spring's turning of the fields. 

Above we feature a legendary photograph of one of baseball's finest moments: Bill Mazeroski's walk-off home run in the 1960 World Series, the year that the Pittsburgh Pirates improbably defeated the mighty New York Yankees. Born in Rush Run, Ohio, this All Star second-basemen and Hall of Famer has continued to make important contributions to his home region of the Ohio Valley long after he stepped off the field.

This iconic photograph was taken by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette James Klingensmith, who passed away last summer.

Below please find one of our country's Poet Laureates, Donald Hall, discussing Opening Day at Fenway Park -- alongside an equally, though differently, eloquent Red Sox blogger. Mr. Hall has lived for decades at Eagle Pond Farm in rural New Hampshire:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Louvre in the Ozarks: The Life And Art Of Tim West

Innocence; photograph of Tim West by Diana Michelle Hausam

By  Michael Luster

Bare feet and bicycle wheels transported artist Tim West (1938-2012) for most of his seventy-five years through the mountain roads and highways of Northwest Arkansas. The regionally celebrated yet reclusive West died April 2 just weeks before he was to be featured in his second major exhibition at Little Rock’s M2 Gallery.

Tim West was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1938, but he was very soon brought to live in the Ozark Mountains near the town of Winslow where his parents had long dreamed of homesteading and writing. His father Don West did write a fine novel Broadside to the Sun based on the family’s backwoods life which was published in 1946 by W.W. Norton. Those barefoot years were idyllic for young Tim, but interrupted by a move 22 miles north to the university town of Fayetteville where his father collected fiddle tunes for the Arkansas Folklore Society and his mother Muriel West earned an MA in English in 1952 with her own fine novel Under Every Green Tree. The Wests soon separated, Don relocating to the artist’s colony of Eureka Springs and Muriel taking a job at Southern Illinois University –Carbondale in 1958 when young Tim went there to study visual arts.

Untitled Sketch IV; Tim West, M2 Gallery

Tim West proved both an extraordinary artist and a troublesome young man. At age eighteen he mailed off a print and had it accepted into the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and he would soon send a pair of works off to the Louvre in Paris where they would also be accepted. His former instructors and classmates remembered both his ingenious talent – including a wall in his home constructed of bicycle wheels—but also his brushes with the law for everything from attempted robbery to skinnydipping. He earned his MFA there in 1962 and stayed on another eight years, drinking, making art, making mischief, and riding his bicycle about town, before he decided he’d had enough of Carbondale and headed back to the Ozarks in 1970.

For most of the next forty years, he remained a barefoot recluse on the old family place, scrounging for materials, making his art, periodically riding his bicycle into town. More sober if not more conventional, he became a part of the spectral fabric of the passing years, not often visually distinguished from the many latter-day back-to-the-landers.

That is, until one summer day in 2006 when Fayetteville photographer Diana Michelle Hausam was driving the backroads and came upon a fence constructed of deconstructed bicycles. She left a note asking if she could photograph there and in a few days received a telephone call from Tim West. He invited her down, instructing her to honk her horn three times and, as in a fairytale, he would appear. The two became good friends and she spent several months photographing the gray and leathery West, his work, and his environment.

This World; Diana Michelle Hausam

With her partner Greg Nelson, Hausuam began work on a documentary film about the artist entitled Westland and approached the M2 Gallery in Little Rock about an exhibition featuring West’s  paintings and sculptures and her haunting photographs of him. The exhibition was a resounding success bringing West much attention for his work, sales, and a platform for his thoughts and observations. In 2011 he was voted one of three top artists in the state by the readers of Arkansas Times. A Facebook page was created devoted to his work with images, old clippings, and reminiscences from both old friends and those who merely saw him along the road. His alma mater ran an article about him in their house publication. A Kickstarter campaign was launched to reshoot and expand Westland. One of his works, a rather disturbing image, was selected in January of this year for the prestigious Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center, and an expanded version of his solo exhibit was set to open next month at the M2 Gallery

Perhaps such townish celebrity proved too much for the old backwoods trickster, or perhaps his body simply gave out. Either way, he slipped away from this life the day after April Fool’s leaving us a passel of paintings, some enigmatic sculptures, and a spectral, transporting legacy.

Michael Luster is the Director of the Arkansas Folklife Program, a position affiliated with Arkansas State University and providing services to the Arkansas Department of Heritage, and he is also host of a weekly radio program, Hand Crank Radio.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Snakes and Southern Vernacular of Harry Crews

Crews at home in his Florida; Oscar Sosa, New York Times

She felt the snake between her breasts, felt him there, and loved him there, coiled, the deep tumescent S held rigid, ready to strike. She loved the way the snake looked sewn onto her V-neck letter sweater, his hard diamondback pattern shining in the sun. It was unseasonably hot, almost sixty degrees, for early November in Mystic, Georgia, and she could smell the light musk of her own sweat. She liked the sweat, liked the way it felt, slick as oil, in all the joints of her body, her bones, in the firm sliding muscles, tensed and locked now, ready to spring — to strike — when the band behind her fired up the school song: “Fight On Deadly Rattlers of Old Mystic High."
The South lost two preeminent artists last week: Earl Scruggs and Harry Crews. While our Arts and Culture Feed covered many of the remembrances and documentary footage of Mr. Scruggs, we'd like to offer further gateways into discovering the solitary and one-of-a-kind fiction of Harry Crews. To begin, there's the excerpt above -- the opening paragraph to his critically-acclaimed 1976 novel A Feast Of Snakes.

Dwight Garner, writing in the The New York Times, shares this quote about how Crews dealt with the poverty of his rural place, qualities that place him among that other clear-eyed commentator of the rural poor, Joe Bageant:
“I was so humiliated by the fact that I was from the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp in the worst hookworm and rickets part of Georgia I could not bear to think of it … Everything I had written had been out of a fear and loathing for what I was and who I was. It was all out of an effort to pretend otherwise.” 
Pretend is a loaded word in Crews' fiction, which finds a powerful and often uncomfortable margin between brute realism and otherworldly imagination. Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, a sort of lyrical documentary on Southern culture also considers this quality. This clip features music from David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand:

By far, however, the most comprehensive and moving remembrance of Harry Crews has come from Maud Newton, a writer, critic, and former student of Harry Crews at the University of Florida. Her piece in The Awl reveals many sides to Crews beyond the work or the official obituaries, including this excerpt from his A Childhood: The Biography of a Place:
One of my favorite places to be was in the corner of the room where the ladies were quilting. God, I loved the click of needles on thimbles, a sound that will always make me think of stories. When I was a boy, stories were conversation and conversation was stories. For me it was a time of magic.

It was always the women who scared me. The stories that women told and that men told were full of violence, sickness, and death. But it was the women whose stories were unrelieved by humor and filled with apocalyptic vision. No matter how awful the stories were that the men told they were always funny. The men's stories were stories of character, rather than of circumstance, and they always knew the people the stories were about. But women would repeat stories about folks they did not know and had never seen, and consequently, without character counting for anything, the stories were as stark and cold as legend or myth.