Thursday, December 30, 2010

Making Connections At The Wormfarm

A view from a studio; from The Wormfarm Facebook page

The Wormfarm started in 1995 as a CSA, growing vegetables primarily for urban folks, so that urban-rural connection was always real important. And one of the things that we noticed was that the cultural component seemed to have an urban base and the food-production component was mostly rural--so we kept trying to find ways of linking those two things. 
--Jay Salinas, Co-Founder of The Wormfarm Institute

A few months ago Andrew Taylor's blog The Artful Manager featured news of The Wormfarm Institute and its recent Wisconsin Governor's Award. As the above quote suggests, this is a farm that thinks about how culture and agriculture can be cultivated within the same acreage, and how rural and urban communities can find themselves linked through the process. Here's an excerpt from Mr. Taylor's discussion of the many programs and the many forms of work which emerge from these fields:
A particular favorite, for a while now, is The Wormfarm Institute, a combination of organic farm, artist residency, and cultural connector in rural Reedsburg, Wisconsin, working to ''build a sustainable future for agriculture and the arts by fostering vital links between people and the land.'' Artists in residency work 15 hours a week tending to the farm, and helping things grow. Artists also enhance the life and work of local farmers through the very cool Roadside Culture Stands project. The Woolen Mill Gallery provides a public space to connect the dots, as well (as in the current Smithsonian exhibit there).
The Woolen Mill Gallery, along with local taverns and restaurants, was also home this autumn to The Wormfarm's Fermentation Fest--a six week celebration of beer-making, canning, pickling, bread-making and, of course, the art of cheese. In the true form of a "cultural connector," all of these seminars and tastings were held in conjunction with The Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street program and its Key Ingredients exhibition.

Included below is a short film produced by the Wisconsin Foundation for the Arts to coincide with The Wormfarm's Governor's Award.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Following The Winding Stream

photograph by Beth Harrington; The Winding Stream Facebook page

I owe it to [this interview] that I was granted, to make sure it sees the light of day. It feels like a big trust has been placed upon me. 

--Beth Harrington on Johnny Cash's final interview, which appears in The Winding Stream

As we look ahead to the new year, few things in our corner of the arts world are as exciting as the possibility of seeing The Winding Stream on silver screens across the country. This is a documentary project directed by Beth Harrington, an award winning musician, journalist and producer whose film Welcome to the Club--The Women of Rockabilly was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2003. The subject of this film will be near and dear to many of our readers' hearts: The Carter Family. While many other wonderful films have centered around A.P., Sara and Maybelle, The Winding Stream promises to trace a wider arc--from Clinch Mountain all the way out to the terrains of contemporary music:
The Winding Stream is the tale of the dynasty at the very heart of country music. Starting with the seminal Original Carter Family, A.P., Sara and Maybelle; this film-in-progress traces the ebb and flow of their influence, the transformation of that act into the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle, the marital alliance between June Carter and music legend Johnny Cash, and the efforts of the present-day family to keep this legacy alive.

A story that has never been told in its entirety. The Winding Stream covers the epic sweep of this family’s saga all in one film.  It is told by family members; including Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, Janette Carter, as well as the musicians they influenced. And their musical contribution is vividly illustrated in performances by roots music practitioners like John Prine, George Jones, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson and many others.
While this documentary touches on vital (and less-discussed) connections between traditional and modern music, between the country and city, the most important element of this story at the present moment is that The Winding Stream project could use our help. Ms. Harrington has set up a Kickstarter page so that her audience can support the costly production of this film. For those that may not have heard of Kickstarter, follow this link; this is an amazing organization that allows for secure individual funding of grass-roots arts projects.

No amount of copy on our part will serve to highlight the fantastic promise of this film more than a few of Ms. Harrington's clips. In the first, we get a chance to see a bit of the aforementioned interview with Johnny Cash:

The second clip tells the story of Maybelle Carter, the Nitty Gritty Dirty Band and the legendary Will The Circle Be Unbroken sessions--it can be found here, streaming in high-definition.  To see additional selections, please visit the film's website or join its Facebook page

Friday, December 24, 2010

An Almanac For Moderns: Solstice to Christmas

[More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.]

December Twenty-Second

Now is the darkest hour of all the year, the winter solstice. We are arrived at the antipodes of brave midsummer, when it was once the custom for men to while away the hours of the short night with bonfires and a blowing of conches and a making of wild young marriages, that men might hold the earth for the sun god during his brief descent beneath the horizon. But at this season of the year, when the sun was a pallid blur behind a junco-colored sky, a darkness fell upon the spirits of all men, and a splinter of ice was in their hearts. To some of us the winter solstice is an unimportant phase of terrestrial astronomy; of old it must have produced an emotional reaction which a Christian can only experience on Good Friday, and the breath-held Saturday that follows. 

It is not the cold of far northern lands that drives the human animal to despair; cold is tingling, exciting, healthful, and it can, in a limited way, be overcome. It is the darkness that conquers the spirit, when the northern sun does not rise until late, only to skim low upon the horizon for an hour or two, and set. Now indeed is Balder slain of the mistletoe. Now life is at its lowest ebb, and the mind conceives a little what it will be like when the sun has burned to a red ember, its immense volume dissipated by constant radiation, and the earth drifted far out into space, the shrinking sun no longer able to hold her child upon a leash so close.

December Twenty-Fourth

When I set out to buy a Christmas tree, I have my choice of long-needled pines, red cedars, and fragrant spruces with narrow spire-like tops, the branches beautifully up-curved at the dark tips. But I am looking for a balsam, which has this inestimable advantage over all the spruces, that even in the warmth of the house its needles do not drop.

You may know a balsam from a spruce in this way, that the leaves of the balsam are flattish, and the cones are borne erect; on many of the branches the leaves are two-ranked, so that they appear to form a flat spray, while in the spruces the needles are scattered, bristling out in every direction from the stem, to the touch seeming four-sided; and the cones of a fir always droop.

Time was, not long ago, when a man bought a Christmas tree in all innocence, feeling that it was no really material expenditure but a symbol, almost intangible, which gave beauty and good cheer to all who beheld it. Now come the tree conservationists, to reproach us with the forests that we slay to make a brief holiday, to let them die then ingloriously upon the rubbish heap. But balsam is only used in a small way in the crafts and sciences, while the spruces, by far the commonest holiday trees, have, otherwise, only the pulp mill for their destiny. 

And the Christmas trees cut for the city across the river would not suffice to put out the combined Sunday editions of its newspapers in one week, bearing into every home their freight of unchallenged intellectual poison--the brutal humor, the worldly inanity, the crime and psuedo-science. 

December Twenty-Fifth

It was Francis of Assisi, I believe, the man who called the wind his brother and the birds his sisters, who gave the world the custom of exhibiting créche in church, where barn and hay, soft-breathing beasts, flowing breast and hungry babe, shepherd and star are elevated for delight. One who has spent a Christmas in some southern country, where an early Christianity still reigns, will understand how all else that to us means the holy festival is quite lacking there. It was originally, and still sometimes is, no more than a special Mass, scarcely as significant as Assumption, much less so than Easter. Out of the North the barbarian mind, forest born, brought tree worship, whether of fir or holly or yule log. It took mistletoe from the druids, stripped present-giving from New Year (where in Latin lands it still so largely stays) and made of Christmas a children's festival, set to the tune of the beloved joyful carols. It glorified woman and child and the brotherhood of men in a way that the Church in, let us say, the second century, dreamed not on. 

You will search the four Gospels in vain for a hint of the day or the month when Christ was born. December twenty-fifth was already being celebrated in the ancient world as the birthplace of the sun god Mithras, who came out of a rock three days after the darkest of the year. His birth was foretold of a star that shepherds and magi beheld. The ancient Angles had long been wont to hold this day sacred as Modranecht or Mother Night. This still do we flout old winter with green tree, and old morality with child worship.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Where We've Been...

The Carter Family; from the Facebook page of The Winding Stream documentary project

Our regular readers will have no doubt noticed that the rate of material posted to The Art of The Rural has significantly slowed over the last three months--and has come down to trickle in the last few weeks.

Far from reflecting a general lack of interest on our part, this slow-down is caused by one simple fact: your humble editor is preparing to take the Qualifying Exam for his PhD in two weeks. While I can assure everyone that I am indeed spending a lot of time thinking about the rural arts, traditional and modern, my attention been directed towards those ends.

We'll be remedying the situation by offering some summative "year in review" posts beginning next week. We also have a few more articles slated to appear before 2011 knocks on the door. The fantastic Winding Stream documentary project linked above is among these future posts. 

We are very excited about 2011: we will begin to hear from our Rural Arts Correspondents, and we will be featuring an updated and widely-expanded Rural Arts Map with a related comprehensive site of rural arts links. There are some other exciting additions to the site which we'll unveil after the new stay tuned, and thanks for your patience.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Farmville Files: Living The Dirty Life

photograph by Deborah Feingold

One of the most fascinating narratives of this fall's season of new books is the long-awaited emergence of Mark Twain's unexpurgated autobiography; I've thought again of the Hannibal, Missouri native this morning, as I received suggestions to visit NPR's interview with Kristin Kimball, author of The Dirty Life.

Just under 150 years ago, Mr. Twain helped found the literary sub-genre we know call "travel writing," with his Innocents Abroad. Flashing forward to this season's publishing cycle, we have the chance to encounter Ms. Kimball and her own narrative of traveling upstate from the high-culture and high-couture world of New York City's East Village to interview an enterprising young farmer. The story she relates in The Dirty Life is one of unlikely matches, as the city girl falls in love with the organic farmer and, in the process, discovers the poetry and vitality of agrarian life. 

Of course, these "back to the land" narratives, coupled with books on urban-hipsters and their rural arts, now offer a kind of romance and escape just as commercially viable as Mr. Twain's genre of travel writing (indeed, Ms. Kimball began as a travel writer). If you're reading this from a computer screen somewhere in rural America, or if you number among our country's rural diaspora, your reaction to this recent trend may fall somewhere on a sliding scale between hopeful optimism and downright cynicism.

The difference here, with Ms. Kimball's book, seems to be her honesty and her sense of perspective--how the back-breaking, never-ending work of running a 500 acre CSA is also profoundly satisfying and life-affirming. 

NPR's interview with Ms. Kimball, and an audio-slide of Essex Farms, can be found here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

An Almanac For Moderns: Hunting Season

November Tenth

The folk who want to shoot ducks, and the naturalists who would protect them, meet, occasionally, in conventions and in the lobbies of legislatures. They have this much in common, in the present day, that they are both interested in duck conservation, for sportsmen have begun to understand that unless they restrain each other, there will soon be nothing to shoot. It is the contention of the fowlers that the ladies and professors who make up the conservative ranks are as incapable of understanding why a man wants to shoot as pacifists of seeing how a soldier can find war ennobling.

Hunters, like pipe smokers, are recruited from two antipodal types of men--gentlemen and worthless loafers. I will say this for them all, that as I know them, they are naturalists of a sort. They know the ways of a rabbit as a dog knows them, the ways of a duck as a hawk does. They have a fund of intimate observation upon Nature exactly as it is, that might be envied by the behaviorists putting caged creatures through mazes and paces. Without the least poetry in their way of expressing it, they are none the less appreciators of the wilderness in a fashion scarcely possible to the city dweller, for when they go into the marshes, or in the brown fields or the silvered woods they must proceed to their quarry by accurate observation. They know what to expect as the norm and what is out of the way. The very fact that a hunter is following a trail to kill arouses instincts in him that observe more than the diffident, tolerant student can hope to notice.

November Eleventh

I remember the first baldpate duck I ever saw, floating upon a marsh, in a cold evening damp--floating motionless, with speckled and green head, and blue bill outstretched lovingly upon the water, the exquisite mantle of brownish gray laved by the wind-driven dark ripples, the green and black-bordered wings outspread as if in an ecstasy to catch the wind. So, like a lovely boat, this creature of beauty drove on before the breeze, toward open water, more graceful and more silent than a swan--and dead. Gone was the fowler who had wounded him, but failed to retrieve him. With the bullet in his body the wild thing had still fought for its life, got clear away--to die unconquered, its proud plumage still unplucked; to drift, like this, a Viking's funeral, between the water and the sky.

More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reimagining The Corn Crib

photograph by Ansen Seale

It would have been a completely different exhibit if this had been in a gallery somewhere, and we were only pointing to the land, saying yeah, it's out there someplace. No, you have to come out here to experience the land, and you have to walk into this building and see these glowing panels.

Last fall The Land Heritage Institute invited Texas-based digital photographer Ansen Seale onto their grounds to contemplate a site-specific installation. When Mr. Seale visited the LHI, an organization dedicated to preserving the "archeological, cultural, educational, environmental, historical and recreational resources" along a 1,200 acre stretch along of the Medina River, the artist found himself immediately drawn to a small stone shed that had once been used to dry corn. The end result of considering this place, and the agricultural traditions it represented, led to The Corn Crib, a series of photographs housed within this structure. 

When we say "photograph," we must explain that Mr. Seale's camera, and the method it uses to capture an image, challenge our assumptions about how this medium works. Here's the artist's explanation:
Rather than suspending a single moment, my photography examines the passage of time. To accomplish this, I invented a modern digital version of the panoramic camera. In my version, a single sliver of space is imaged over an extended period of time, yielding the surprising result that unmoving objects are blurred and moving bodies are rendered clearly. The model in the studio must move in order to be captured. In the Water series, the stones in the river do not move, and so, become stripes. The water flowing past them perturbs their static image, creating a kind of color field painting. This is no trick. This is photography in the purist sense, but a form of photography where abstraction is the norm, not the exception.
By placing this attention to "the passage of time" and "moving bodies" within this former site of agricultural work, Mr. Seale has created a space in which audiences can reconsider their relationship to the land, agriculture, and our shared cultural histories as these rows of kernels are re-presented in a solar glow. All of this is beautifully illustrated by this short piece by Walley Films:

The Corn Crib from Mark & Angela Walley on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Two Years Later In One Rural Town

a screenshot from the video posted below

A little over two years ago, Senator Barack Obama campaigned through the Ohio Valley on the eve of the presidential election.  En route from one rally to another, his tour bus passed through my hometown of Smithfield, Ohio. In an unplanned move, the candidate stopped for a brief moment to greet folks who had gathered to cheer along the motorcade. I'm grateful that someone with a digital camera captured this moment for posterity; as the candidate emerges from the long-awaited bus, he seems almost to be returning from a moment of goodwill that we have since misplaced:


When Obama pulled out of Smithfield, Ohio, what he left was a town still resilient in the face of many of the same issues that haunt all of rural America. The main street our future President stood upon was shadow of its former glory--abandoned businesses, dilapidated houses, the high school long gone--but also a metaphor for a state-of-the-nation we sought to amend. As the motorcade snaked its way along the ridge leading out of town, it passed farms owned and preserved with great difficulty by generations of families; among the cattle and crops, as with my family's farm, sat the giant strip pits--old enough to be unreclaimed--standing for another metaphor we invested in a candidate's care.

I wonder how the folks in the video would react if the President's bus stopped again, unannounced, in Smithfield. What would they discuss, what tone would this discussion take?  I ponder this as the video plays again, as the images begin to move like ghosts across the computer screen--a moment lost, a memory consigned to the past.

Aside from our own party preferences, there's no denying that a sense of decorum has vacated our political discourse; while this is no doubt a reflection of our national recession--already mature in November 2008--it is also a comment on our willingness to think, with generosity and civility, beyond ourselves and beyond our own perspectives. Now, more than ever, we need artists to challenge our neighbors' (and our own) frustrated myopia.

The Rural Blog and The Daily Yonder will be excellent sources for the news and analysis of the rural dimension to this election cycle.  Also, this interactive Google map will help locate your local polling place.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Almanac For Moderns: The Moment Of Abundance

October Twenty-Fifth

The keynote of spring is growth amongst the plants, reproduction amongst the animals. In summer it is the reverse; it is the plants that reproduce, the animals that grow. But autumn is the time of fattening. Now the beech nuts ripen their oily kernals; the walnut swells its rich meat through black wooden labyrinths; the wild rice stands high in the marshes, and the woods are filled with their jolly harvest of berries, blue buckthorn and scarlet bittersweet, black catbrier, holly and mistletoe and honeysuckle. The great green cannonballs of the osage orange drop from the prickly hedges with a thud; under the little hawthorns a perfect windfall of scarlet pomes lies drifted, and in the sun the bitter little wild crabs reach their one instant of winy, tangy, astringent perfection. 

This is the moment of abundance for all our brother animals. The harvest mouse is now a wealthy little miser; squirrels can afford the bad investments they make. Opossums paw over the persimmons and pawpaws, picking only the tastiest, and like a cloud the cowbirds and grackles and bobolinks wing southward over the wild rice fields, so fat and lazy that the fowler makes an easy harvest of them. Everywhere, on frail bird bones, under the hides of chipmunk and skunk and all four-footed things, fat, the animal's own larder and reserve, is stored away against the bitter months, against the lean hunger and long sleep.

[More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.]

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Chris Sauter's Rural Installations

Mind/Body Split, 2008; graphite and spray-paint on MDF, 17"x17" installed

Today we would like to return to the work of Chris Sauter, the Texas-based artist whose writings on the rural avant-garde we recently discussed. Through Mr. Sauter's work, we've uncovered a whole universe of provocative contemporary rural art; these artists, which we will feature in the coming weeks, offer the other side of a kind of continuum in the modern rural arts--a push towards a kind of aesthetic innovation that is the related counterpart to the movements to document, preserve, and re-present folk artforms and folklife. This is not to say that these two impulses are contradictory, or that there is an antagonistic relationship between the two; instead, we find both the work of Mr. Sauter and, say, Dust-to-Digital, concerned with questions of community and place, and how technology and contemporary practices can be used to say something relevant--and revelatory--about our rural communities, their people and their land. 

Mr. Sauter was born in San Antonio, though he was raised on his grandparents' ranch in Boerne, Texas. As he writes in his artist statement, Mr. Sauter is "interested in exploring the links between biology and culture, the present and the primordial, the personal and the universal," and though his work considers an array of contemporary questions, his experience in rural Texas has shaped his notions of nature and man, science and art. As the pieces below suggest, this is an artist with a restless imagination and a willingness to defamiliarize our relationship to some of the most commonplace objects and markers along our landscape. The achievement of this project seems to stem from how he merges a sensitivity to these human connections with avant-garde aesthetic concepts. He continues:
Recently, I have been exploring agriculture and astronomy (cosmology.) Both are instances when we actively interact with nature and our origins. The origin of civilization stems from the advent of agriculture and astronomy actively probes space in the search for the beginnings of the universe.

Although it is not my main goal, using agricultural imagery positions the rural experience as something equally as interesting, important, and complex as the urban. An exploration (embrace) of my own roots is both part of that desire and a mode of inquiry.

Divide and Conquer (Guenther Family Tree), 2006; 18"x12'x12'

"Seven generations of the Guenther family tree are represented as a network of interconnected grain silos with the patriarch (Karl Hilmar Guenther) as the central grain elevator. Guenther founded the Pioneer flourmill, one of the oldest family owned companies in the United States."

Plow Flag, 2006; 11'x11'x12'

There are many more pieces on view in Chris Sauter's site, along with further links to his method and his philosophies. Through his site we discovered the work of the  husband-wife team of Walley Films, who put together this fantastic piece on Mr. Sauter's installation of Mind and Body:

Chris Sauter from Mark & Angela Walley on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Rural Poetry Series: Henry Real Bird

Henry Real Bird (left) with riding partner Levi Bruce; Joseph Terry, National Public Radio

"I'm going to ride where my grandfather rode. I'm going to show the kids how to write poetry...I'm just a simple guy on horseback, with a frying pan and a coffeepot and a match and pencil and paper, riding on horseback and flat enjoying myself."

Our Rural Poetry Series continues today with the life and work of Henry Real Bird, an artist who sees little separation between the art of poetry and the art of living. The way in which Mr. Real Bird conducts his daily life suggests such connections; he's a rancher, an educator, a native Crow speaker and he's also the Poet Laureate of Montana. In that official capacity, Mr. Real Bird chose to accept the Laureate's work by bringing poetry to people across the state--in person, on horseback. 

This summer the poet undertook a 415 mile trek across Montana, handing out books of poems to folks that he met in the ranches, towns and reservations along the way. As the Western Folklife Center notes, in its extensive coverage of the journey on its blog, "This is not a press stunt, but rather a demonstration of Henry’s life, culture and poetry: a journey of horse and horseman slowly making their way across a vast ancestral landscape." 

The WFC's blog also features a few audio interviews with Mr. Real Bird along his way, as well as a recording of an early draft of a poem commemorating the journey. (National Public Radio also produced a story on the Laureate's travels.) The Writing Without Paper blog offers an comprehensive list of links to resources for learning more about Henry Real Bird, his poetry and his journey; included therein is Pat Hill's interview with the poet from the The Montana Pioneer, revealing how the language of his poems and his native Crow language come into concert:
Real Bird said he also strives to make sure Crow culture is safe, and that retaining native language is an integral part of preserving native culture. “I work on that as an educator…to preserve the language,” he said. “In 1954, there were 30 of us in the third grade, and we all spoke Crow. Now, of all the grades K through 6th, only one percent are Crow Indian speakers.” Real Bird said the loss of the Crow language on the Reservation has led to a “sell-out” of  Crow culture. “These sell-outs, they're strange,” said Real Bird. “If you speak Crow, you're of low mentality or something. They shun the language and move on.” Real Bird said he wants to see more emphasis put on Crow language in reservation classrooms, and he teaches his family to speak Crow on the home front.

“I want to speak Crow Indian with my granddaughter,” he said, “and then with her younger brother. There's a big loss with the oral tradition gone…some kids not even knowing where they come from. It's unbelievable what we have become.
Native American culture and cowboy poetry merge in Henry Real Bird's work with a sensibility that finds common ground with the Beat Generation and rich oral traditions of the American West:

Red Scarf

Boots and chinks
Silver bit and silver spurs
Eased into the dawn
To walk out kinks
Horse like shiny, free of burrs
Trotted into day
I’m ridin’ bay
If you can see the beauty
In the sunset with many colors
I only see the beauty in the sunrise with many colors
You can find me
In the beauty in the sky
In sunrise and sunset
In the shadow of the sky
Among the stars
If you can see the beauty, in the sky
You can find me, in your eye
With a red scarf on
Boots and chinks
Here I am, I’m ridin’ gone
Ground about day
Lookin’ for a stray
Red-tail hawk blessed me with his shadow
Clouds peak to my south
Granite to the west
Sheep Mountains and the Pryors
Look their best
Grass full grown
As I stood
In my heart that is good
If you can see the beauty
In the sunset with many colors
I only see the beauty
In the sunrise with many colors
You can find me
In the beauty in the sky
In sunrise and sunset
In the shadow of the sky
In the shadow of the sky
Among the stars

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Open Call For Rural Arts Correspondents

First Rural Delivery Automobile, Colorado Springs; Horace Swartley; Library of Congress

As we approach the final months of 2010 (and the end of the first year of this site) we're planning to offer some new projects that aim to better present the wide bandwidth of the contemporary rural arts. To expand this mission, and also to open up a space for further interaction and feedback with our readers, we'd like to invite folks to consider becoming Rural Arts Correspondents.

These positions will not be time-intensive, but will instead ask our readers to draw from their own pre-existing areas of expertise and to share this knowledge with our community.

Rural Arts Correspondents will share, approximately every six weeks, a short listing of artists, arts organizations, museums, events, or other links that fall under their specific category of expertise. The length and form of these can follow the "For The Weekend" posts we sometimes provide: a listing with links, an occasional video or audio clip, and a few sentences to provide context. As opposed to composing a regular article for this site, which can sometimes take a few hours to research and revise, this work promises to be relatively low-impact--yet will make a tremendous contribution. 

We would like to find folks who could cover their region of the world (southeast, northwest, etc) and perhaps even writers who would be interested in updating readers on the rural arts activity in their own particular state. We would also be very interested in writers who have a particular interest in a specific art form. As with our mission, we are interested in all forms  and all issues in the rural arts--from the traditional to the avant-garde.

Aside from sharing this information with our readers, the Correspondents' work will also be integrated into the updated Rural Arts Map and (in the new year) an expanded and comprehensive list of Rural Arts Links.

Please feel very welcome to join in our work here at The Art of the Rural, and please feel free to pass this invitation along to your family, friends and colleagues.  We can be contacted at artoftherural [at] . Thanks to all our readers for visiting this site and sharing it with others during the last ten months; your suggestions and encouragements have been the inspiration behind our push to expand the discussion in the coming months.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dancing The Dust To Digital

In the conclusion to Chris Sauter's essay Wandering the Back Forty: Some Ideas About a Rural Avant-Garde, which we mentioned yesterday, he makes a case both for how contemporary art must rethink it's modernist assumptions and for how rural artists stand in a unique place to lead in this reappraisal:
But the mindset of mistrusting tradition is problematic at the very least. In its most extreme mode, totally discarding the past has led us to the predicament we are currently in, untethered from earlier foundations. We have arrived at a time when Modernist rejection of the past and its problematic relationship to nature should come to an end. Many artists, including those discussed and featured in the following pages, are looking back to traditions rooted in the rural.
I was reminded of these lines again after discovering the newest release by Dust-to-Digital: Let Your Feet Do The Talkin', a documentary film directed by Stewart Copeland. As Dust-to-Digital has done with all of their releases, from their first ground-breaking release Goodbye Babylon to last year's Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950, rural music and folk culture is not only preserved but also reintroduced into our modern lives and modern conversations.

Let Your Feet Do The Talkin' continues this attention and (along with its extensive DVD special feaures) promises to offer what one critic has called "a cinematic cultural exchange program." Here's the film's synopsis:
Let Your Feet Do The Talkin' tells the story of buck dancing legend Thomas Maupin, who, at the age of 70, remains one of the greatest old time dancers in America. The film presents a portrait of a folk icon reflecting back on his legacy as a father, teacher, and artist.

Numerous awards, trophies, and plaques lay stacked in a dresser in rural Tennessee where Thomas spends his weeks tending his garden, feeding the animals, and fixing the occasional lawn mower. However, on the weekends, Thomas travels all over the South performing anywhere there's a band and some flat ground; be it giant stages, historic theaters, or crowded street corners, almost always accompanied by his grandson, Daniel.
Here is Dust-To-Digital's explanation of buck-dancing, followed by a trailer for the film produced the Documentary Channel:
Rural buckdancing, like its urban cousin tap dance, is the result of the blending of steps and styles across cultures that has occurred in America since colonial times. Buckdancing is a traditional form of percussive stepdance that is experiencing a resurgence with young adults at old-time music festivals and gatherings throughout the South. As opposed to the memorized sequences of standardized steps performed by modern cloggers, traditional old-time buckdancing is improvisational and spontaneous and encompasses a wide range of steps and personal styles. While dancers may share some common steps, there is no prescribed footwork, and buckdancers like Thomas Maupin “do their own thing.” Providing percussion with their shoes, dancers “let their feet do the talking,” dancing out the rhythm of the tune and becoming a part of the music as they interact rhythmically with the musicians and other dancers.

If you are new to Dust-to-Digital, Atlanta's PBS affiliate has produced an excellent history of the label on view here. Also worth reading is Burkhard Bilger's New Yorker essay about the label and their Art of Field Recording releases.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Rural Avant-Garde

In Between; photograph by Amy Stein

I've recently had some email correspondence with Chris Sauter, an artist whose perspective on the necessary place of "the rural" in contemporary art will come as a confirmation to many of our readers. Later in the week we will highlight Mr. Sauter's own work, but I'd like to offer this first: Wandering The Back Forty: Some Ideas About A Rural Avant-Garde, his essay that introduces an entire issue of the Art Lies magazine devoted to rural modern art. 

Mr. Sauter argues with great eloquence for rural America's place within our current national dialogues, and he frames the issue of re-considering contemporary rural art within the larger historical context of the values and assumptions inherent in the last century's modern art. This is essential reading, and the artwork contained within this Art Lies feature will no doubt create some discussion. Regardless of our particular takes on the photography of Amy Stein (see above) or Sarah Higgins, what rings so clearly is Mr. Sauter's notion of the rural as a "contested space." Here's a short selection from his introduction:
Having grown up on my grandparents’ ranch, the rural, for me, is tied up with identity. Although most people now live in and around cities, many practicing artists are not native to urban areas. Embracing their roots is a way of acknowledging and clarifying identity—of mining their personal, formative experiences to produce work that is at once contemporary and local. I am again reminded of Grant Wood’s Revolt. His ideas seem particularly interesting now, as technology has performed a major role in creating global homogenization while at the same time making it possible to share remotely generated ideas on a global scale. Art that reflects non-urban sensibilities not only adds to the rich texture of contemporary art but points to possible connections between seemingly disparate cultures. 


The avant-garde is usually associated with Modernism and used to describe the art and artists at the very start of that period. I associate Modernism with urbanism. The stories surrounding the growth of Modernism tell of intellectuals sitting in cafés and bars arguing the then-current state of affairs, formulating their reactions, writing manifestos and vowing to break with the past in favor of the new. In fact, Modernism did arise at the point when cities became dominant, shortly after the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. I certainly believe that it is responsible for some amazing art—I know that I would not be able to make the work that I do without its legacy.
But the mindset of mistrusting tradition is problematic at the very least. In its most extreme mode, totally discarding the past has led us to the predicament we are currently in, untethered from earlier foundations. We have arrived at a time when Modernist rejection of the past and its problematic relationship to nature should come to an end. Many artists, including those discussed and featured in the following pages, are looking back to traditions rooted in the rural. Some are adding their personal non-urban experience to a global dialogue, fighting the peripatetic homogenization that is the hallmark of contemporary life. These artists are seeking solutions to anxiety by interacting directly with the land and with their respective communities. This exploration seems to me to be a real paradigm shift. The avant-garde of today is not a break from the past—not a severing of roots. It is a true front line grounded by the past. After all, there are millennia’s worth of knowledge buried down there.
In addition to highlighting Mr. Sauter's work, we'll also be spending some time soon with other contemporary artists featured or alluded to in the Art Lies feature--those living in rural America or those, like Mr. Sauter, who number among the rural diaspora.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Almanac For Moderns: Autumn's Saturnalia

[More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.]

September Twenty-Fourth

I try each year to disbelieve what my senses tell me, and to look at the harvest moon in a cold and astronomical light. I know that it is a small cold sphere of rock, airless, jagged and without activity. But the harvest moon is not an astronomical fact. It is a knowing thing, lifting its ruddy face above the rim of the world. Even to the thoroughly civilized mind, where caution for the future is supposed to rule all impulse, the orange moon of autumn invites the senses to some saturnalia, yet no festival of merriment. The harvest moon has no innocence, like the slim quarter moon of a spring twilight, nor has it the silver penny brilliance of the moon that looks down upon the resorts of summertime. Wise, ripe, and portly, like an old Bacchus, it waxes night after night.

September Twenty-Fifth

Now is that opulent moment in the year, the harvest, a time of cream in old crocks in cool, newt-haunted spring-houses, of pears at the hour of perfection on old trees bent like women that, as the Bible says, bow down with child. In the field the grain stands, a harsh forest of golden straw nodding under the weight of the bearded spikes, and in that, it has been swept and all its fruitfulness carried off to fill the barns.

One will not see here, save in the steep tilted Blue Ridge farms, the man reaping by sickle in his solitary field, while his daughters bind the sheaves, nor the bouquet of wheat and pine boughs hung above the grange gable that is crammed to the doors. But we have our own sights and sounds at harvest time. There is the roar and the amber dust of the threshing machines, the laughter of the children riding home on the hayricks, the warfare of the crows and grackles in the painted woods, and the seething of juice in the apple presses. Then night falls and the workers sleep. The fields are stripped, and only the crickets chant in the midnight chill of the naked meadow. 

September Twenty-Sixth

Already the woods are filling up with grackles, gathering into bands. They storm like a black cloud through the groves and descend with a sound like the pattering of rain drops, as they alight with their little guttural exclamations in the boughs. They are not going very far--perhaps no more than south of the thirty-first parallel, but they make a much greater to-do about it than many bound for the tropics. Al this fussing and gabbling and preening, and starting only to scurry back, reminds me of the New England old maid who said she would rather be ready to go and not go, than go and not be ready. Such people never will go far, and the majority of them will never be ready. Only those who start without demanding that they shall be comfortable en route and able to maintain a well-preened appearance, will ever see Vineland rising from the wild brown foam.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Discovering Carolina Soul

The former Washington Sound on Buffalo Street in Shelby, NC; from Carolina Soul

Throughout the sixties and seventies, at least one hundred African-American-owned R&B/Soul record stores thrived in the Carolinas. These retail shops, with their close links to recording studios and local record labels, were on the front lines not only of new musical ideas, but of the civil rights struggle itself. Today, this music's story is being told in a compelling fashion on the Carolina Soul blog/archive, which has spent the last five years locating and documenting the wide array of R&B/Soul music created in North and South Carolina--much of which has never been re-issued since its original release as 45 rpm records.

If you peruse Carolina Soul's extensive discography the material object of the vinyl record begins to stand as a symbol for a kind of rural-urban linkages that revolutionized the last half-century's artforms and its push toward social justice.  This effort to rediscover these recordings, and to tell the stories of these musicians and their communities, is led by Jason Perlmutter (a chemist and local music collector) and Jon Kirby (an associate editor at Wax Poetics). Mr. Perlmutter, in partnership with folklorist Brendan Greaves, has begun the Paradise of Bachelors record label and is currently pressing their first release -- a retrospective of the music released on David Lee's various record labels entitled Said I Had A Vision.

Mr. Lee, who currently resides in Mooresboro,  ran the Impel, Washington Sound and SCOP (Soul, Country, Opera, Pop) labels and often contributed his own songs to his musicians. Carolina Soul recently visited Mr. Lee, and, earlier in the year, the folks behind this project spent time talking with some of the artists who worked with him. Here we see the The Constellations, both then and now:


Here, from the Paradise of Bachelors' blog, is a description of the ground-breaking work done by The Constellations:
We spent an illuminating and pleasant afternoon in Mooresboro, North Carolina with the Lees; Harold Allen, Don Camp, William “Butch” Mitchell, and Benjamin and Bryan “Brownie” Guest of the Constellations. Hearing these gentlemen’s stories about unflagging brotherhood, camaraderie, and the timelessness of “love ballads”–in the face of physical threats, racist invective, and a Southern and national climate opposed to their very existence–was truly inspiring. The Constellations were the first mixed-race combo in the area, and they did it as mere kids, getting started in 1958 or 1959 as teenagers and only dissolving upon the departure of members to Vietnam in 1964 and 1965.

In that time, they recorded six energetic sides for David Lee, all of which belie their tender ages, plus two unreleased tracks–”Have You Seen My Baby?” and “I Want to Jerk”–which Mr. Lee sent to Benjamin Guest while he was serving in Vietnam. Those tapes may yet emerge for your delectation…
We can only hope to that some of this music makes its way on to Carolina Soul or onto a newly-pressed piece of vinyl via Paradise of Bachelors.

As a closing note, for those who would like to hear these gentlemen put these songs into a more eloquent context than I can provide, please refer to their interview with Frank Stasio on NPR's The State of Things.