Friday, April 30, 2010

Connecting The Dots

image from Mark Drabenstott, printed in The Daily Yonder

Here are some connections, commentaries and new leads that we're following here at The Art Of The Rural:

-- If our post on the fictitious town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa was of interest, then check out The Rural Blog and it's new department covering Rural Representations and Reviews. The current editorial by John James Snidow considers the FX television show Justified and Appalachian myths:
About halfway through the first episode of FX’s new show Justified, a Confederate-flag-wearing, rocket-propelled-grenade-launching, minority-hating, ex-con, ex-miner, good-old-boy of a Kentuckian pulls out a Mason jar full of a clear liquid and smiles. And the audience knows without being told, just as you know reading this right now, that it’s not gin, it’s not vodka and no, that jar is definitely not water. It’s moonshine.
--  We have more to say about the moonshine, so stay tuned. Until then, did you know that the hipster community has turned to the white lightning? It's an emerging industry, it has given birth to a new book on the subject. Again, more soon.

-- Out of our Farmville Files, and out of the continuing questions of how members of the rural diaspora might return home, we would like to recommend this report by Mark Drabenstott: Past Silos and Smokestacks: A Rural Development Proposal. A selection, with excellent visual data (as seen above) can be found at The Daily Yonder.
Today, that industry is going away, and much of the rural Midwest’s economic vitality is going with it. The current recession is only accelerating a decline that has its roots in a rapidly globalizing market for industrial products. Traditional manufacturing jobs are leaving the rural Midwest. And so are many of its best-educated and most talented young people.
The rural Midwest could have an economic future as bright as its vibrant past. But it is basing its twenty-first-century future on a twentieth-century playbook. This is not a recipe for success. Towns and counties compete with neighboring towns and counties for jobs and investments. Industrial recruitment—“smokestack chasing”—is the norm. Economic development agencies spend millions on infrastructure and tax breaks to lure companies from afar instead of creating new jobs at home. Boosters sell the rural Midwest as a cheap place to make things, ignoring the region’s many other economic assets—its natural resources, its hard-working people, its central location, its schools and universities, and its scientific base, among others —that could all be leveraged into a competitive new economy.
--Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis of The Western Folklife Center are blogging about their project "In the Footsteps of John Lomax:"
The Western Folklife Center has been asked to produce a story for National Public Radio on the folk music collecting of John Lomax. This coincides with the 100th anniversary of the publishing of his first collection, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, in November of 1910. We are working with a New York folklife organization called City Lore and hope to produce other stories on the journeys of early folklorists to discover the soul of America through its folklore. On this week-long journey through Texas and Louisiana, we go to the place Lomax grew up and saw, first-hand, the cattle drives after the Civil War. We visit the Elephant Saloon at the Stockyards in Fort Worth where he collected cowboy songs and where Don Edwards sang those same old songs in the 1970s. As we journey along the same paths Lomax took we contrast the world he lived in with that of contemporary America.
-- Jen Gilomen, one of the filmmakers behind Deep Down, also made a very fine film worth checking out: Delta Rising. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Los Reyes de Albuquerque

a selection from a photograph by Genevieve Russell 

As the debate over Arizona's new immigration policy rages across the country, we should remember that hispanic americans have been contributing to all aspects of the southwestern life for generations--long before much of the current population even had a mailbox in Arizona or New Mexico.

This idea was brought again to my attention when I had a chance to watch this outstanding public radio/online documentary:  Los Reyes de Albuquerque. A collaboration between Paul Ingles and photographer Genevieve Russell (of StoryPortrait Media), the documentary is a lush collage of photographs, video and music that tells the story of the legendary Los Reyes de Albuquerque and the Martínez family of musicians. Enrique Lamadrid wrote an excellent feature on the group for Smithsonian Folkways magazine; here's his introduction to the legacy of Mr. Martínez and his family:
In New Mexico, the name Roberto Martínez is synonymous with royalty. Los Reyes de Alburquerque (The Kings of Albuquerque) is a Nuevo Mexicano–styled mariachi group he founded with Ray Flores, Miguel Archibeque, and other friends in 1962. For nearly a half-century, Los Reyes has performed all over the region and the nation in a wide variety of venues both humble and grand—from schools, nursing homes, and the live local talent shows of the 1960s to community dances, concerts, feast days, state fairs, and festivals, including several appearances at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. These public performances as well as the group's exposure on Spanish-language radio stations generated a demand for recordings, and dozens of them, from 45s to cassettes to CDs, have been issued on the homegrown M.O.R.E. (Minority Owned Record Enterprises) label founded by Roberto Martínez. The collection is now part of the Smithsonian Folkways with many albums available. Their music features mariachi favorites in familiar arrangements of guitarra, requinto, vihuela, guitarrón, violín, and trompeta (guitar; soprano, rhythm, and bass guitars; violin; and trumpet), but what distinguishes Los Reyes is the lyrical New Mexican violin as well as Martínez's original compositions. 

Don Roberto is also the patriarch of one of New Mexico's most prominent musical families. His five children (Roberta, Doris, Lorenzo, Debra, Roberto Jr.) and several grandchildren (Sheila and Larry) have all played with the group, and many young musicians got their start with Los Reyes as well. Two stars emerged from this family constellation: the late Debbie "La Chicanita" Martínez, whose meteoric singing career was tragically ended by deafness and illness, and Lorenzo, whose violin has introduced a new generation to the resonant instrumental music of the past.
While documentary does great work to convey the beauty of this music, it's also a love story and a story of family. It traces Mr. Martínez's childhood in Chacon, New Mexico through his service in the Air Force and his courtship of wife Ramona and the beginnings of a musical career that would take influences from both sides of the border to create a music that is distinct to New Mexico. The documentary will be embedded below, but a larger HD version is located on the filmmakers' site, along with some galleries of photos and more information on the project. Though we say this a lot around here, this documentary and its companion site are well-worth visiting, so find a comfortable chair and settle in.

Los Reyes de ABQ Documentary – 22 Minutes from StoryPortrait Media on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Spring Brook Farm, "Tarentaise," and More Pork Than You Have Ever Seen In One Place

By Ian Halbert

Mary and I have finally settled into our new home in Watertown, saddled with all the concerns and frets that plague the first-time homeowners: money, money and money. But despite these worries, Mary, in her great generosity of spirit, opened our coffers, even while knee-deep in boxes and packing tape, to pay my entry fee into a premier food event here in Boston: Cochon 555.

The idea is simple: 5 chefs, 5 pigs, 5 wines. The wines get a little lost in the shuffle, as 5 talented chefs are each given a heritage breed pig from a local farm and week to make as much from the pig as he can. The chef who proves the most resourceful and creates the most tasty dishes is crowned the “Prince of Porc.”

In keeping with the theme, a local butcher, Ryan Farr from 4505 Meats in Great Barrington, MA, broke down a pig, in a live butchery demo:

In sum, it was a fantastic evening with food you can’t really imagine and I can’t really describe. (For a better account of the event, with more visuals, descriptions of the food and the chefs who participated, another attendee has posted a vlog at You Tube. The purpose of the event is to raise awareness for heritage breed pork, family farms and a program called Farms for City Kids.

While at the event, I was lucky enough to meet and talk with Jeremy Stephenson, the head cheesemaker at Spring Brook Farm. I was lured to his table by the large wheels of his “Tarentaise” cheese ¬– an aged cow’s milk cheese in the Alpine tradition. It is a refined cheese, subtle and delicious, reminiscent of Comte or Gruyere. The initial bite is unassuming – then the aftertastes come to the forefront, settle on your palate and you find yourself eating more than your fair share of free samples. (For more description of the cheese, Anne Saxelby, owner of the famous NYC Essex Street Market Saxelby Cheesemongers, has a marvelous post about the qualities and excellence of Jeremy’s Tarentaise at her online almanac. )

But Jeremy’s table had more than cheese to offer. Spring Broom Farm is the home of the Farms for City Kids Foundation, an organization which hosts urban youth on the farm, incorporating academic study and farm life. Jeremy and I talked at length about the program and what positive impact it can have for the kids lucky enough to experience a week on the farm. Such experiences can be revelatory: seeing where food comes from or seeing it made is a powerful experience. When I first began to cook, I was floored by the simplicity and elegance of mayonnaise – before I had ever whisked oil and egg yolks together, mayonnaise was something in a jar from Hellmann’s. In my great shame, I freely admit my ignorance that mayonnaise was in fact something one could make with little effort and less knowledge.

There is something mystical about food, how time and salt, heat and moisture, or emulsification and mixing can render what was once humble into something glorious and transcendent. I cannot help but think that kids who may have only ever had Velveeta or Kraft Singles will leave Spring Brook Farm with their world-views forever altered – after all they will have seen a Jersey heifer’s milk taken from teat to “Tarentaise.” (Speaking of which ... why not buy some cheese from Jeremy?)

The program at Spring Brook Farm takes the kids through all the various activities on the farm:
Students rotate team-structured tasks daily between the dairy barn‚ small animal barn‚ greenhouse‚ garden and dormitory. By achieving hands-on project success‚ students build interpersonal‚ leadership and problem-solving skills.
In addition to this hands-on work, the kids also enter into a unique contract the first night of their stay:
During their first night on the Farm‚ each student class creates a Community Contract that states how they will live for the week. Care and respect—for each other‚ for yourself‚ for the environment and for the animals—are the cornerstones of our program.
Again, these kinds of activities can have a profound impact on young students, who likely have never seen themselves as particularly responsible to or for their food or their environment, at least not in such a direct manner.

There is much to be hopeful about in this new food landscape, where the energy all trends back toward the farm and local food resources. Still, I can’t but feel that we need something of a bridge between the constituent communities of the food system – the chefs, farmers, producers, distributors and consumers. For those of us in the cities with enough disposable income, “locally sourced” and “heritage bred” have become inextricably linked to the fruit of some pretty remarkable talents; chefs like Jamie Bissonnette, Tony Maws and Barry Maiden, and the others who competed at the Cochon 555 event make food very few of us are capable of reproducing. They are doing their part in showing us what farm-fresh food is capable of, and leading the way by insisting on using it in their restaurants. Still, in an environment where the farm has been elided with the food of world-class talents, fetishism reigns supreme – at Cochon 555 it is a porcine fetish; as discussed here before, in the DIY community, it is a pickle fetish. I hope that at the other side of this latest return to the farm we will have achieved the goal of making local, fresh and whole foods once again the norm for the American table, rather than the rarefied and exclusive province of those who have the resources and time to make a romance of it. People like Jeremy Stephenson and the program at Spring Book Farm offer hope that the bridge is already being built.

Monday, April 26, 2010

North Dakota Rural Arts Initiative

Tin Can Pile, US 10, Casselton, North Dakota.  Photograph by Jim Dow.

The Museum of Modern Art is undoubtedly one of the finest arts institutions in the world, and, if you are enthusiastic about the arts, its reach is difficult to escape. It's hard not to go to arts events, to read arts magazines and blogs, or even to go out on the town, and not see a reference in one form or another to the wonderful and ubiquitous presence of MOMA. But what if our nation had MORA, a Museum of Rural Art? I've been thinking lately about how such an endeavor would differ in form and function from what we conventionally expect from a museum space. 

The first step in such a venture would have to be to re-orient the viewer to the art, and to de-centralize the experience: to bring art out of (for many in the audience) hard-to-reach urban centers and into real-life communities, where the imaginative value of the artwork might have a chance to cross-pollinate with local ideas and local practice. The North Dakota Museum of Art is way ahead of the curve in this regard. They are currently featuring touring exhibitions that are bringing art into rural regions of the state. Their Rural Arts Initiative has worked for four years to place these exhibits in schools and community buildings, all the while integrating it into lesson plans and local dialogues. The Museum provides this service for no charge, and its educators and staff take an active role in all stages of the process. In their own words this Initiative
works to encourage and empower rural school students and their teachers to actively participate in learning through the arts. Rural School Initiative came about in direct response to feedback from educators and families working in rural areas. Major challenges such as inadequate funding for art education, few museums and great distances have not allowed the visual arts to flourish in rural areas as much as other forms of art such as music and theatre, which accompanied early settlers as they moved west.
Some of this flourishing is evident in the current exhibition Marking The Land: Jim Dow in North Dakota. A resident of Boston, where he is a professor art, Mr. Dow has spent  a great deal of time in North Dakota since the early 1980's, and the work on view in the interactive gallery speaks to the ways in which a searching and compassionate artistic eye can trump any of the questions in being an "outsider" to the region: the photographs do indeed offer, in the Museum's words "a stirring photographic tribute to the complex and unyielding landscape of North Dakota."

Mr. Dow's work is just the beginning. There's much more fine work to explore on the Museum's site, including Snow Country Prison: Interned in North Dakota. This exhibition of photograph tells the story of how Fort Lincoln in Bismark became an internment camp for German and Japanese citizens. There's so much more worth commenting on in this exhibit and throughout the Museum site; it's well worth visiting and revisiting.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Going Deep Down

Deep Down: A Story From The Heart of Coal Country had its broadcast premiere last night on Kentuck Educational Television. It's a film by Jen Gilomen, (Delta Rising) Sally Rubin (The Last Mountain) and produced by David Sutherland, the filmmaker behind two absolutely outstanding documentaries: The Farmer's Wife and Country Boys. Here's their eloquent description of the context behind the project, which premieres at a moment when the EPA is taking many long-overdue steps to halt the spread of Mountain Top Revoval:
Any exploration of power production in America will lead to Appalachia, a region that has supplied our nation with coal for over a century. As America’s energy consumption rises, the extraction and burning of coal to meet these demands has dramatically altered the Appalachian landscape, economy, and culture. The Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, is assessing the potential of mining an estimated 82 million tons of coal from the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area. (By comparison, only 3 million tons were mined in the entire state in 2002.) In Appalachia, coal is the number one industry, with an enormous influence on local economies and people. At the same time, few Americans know about mountaintop removal mining (MTR), nor have any knowledge that their own demand for power is directly impacting the mountains, water, and sky. As we increase our energy usage, we also become more and more removed not only from the natural places that have provided this energy, but from the human beings whose lives we dramatically alter by consuming those resources. The crossroads we find ourselves facing as a nation is one that pervades our land and sky, and it can only be addressed by the cumulative efforts of millions of tiny personal changes. Therein lies the potential for a human story, like the stories we have found in Appalachia, to make a million tiny changes, to reconnect us as humans to the suffering we have caused as well as our own power to prevent it in the future.

Simultaneously, Appalachia as a region deserves our attention as a place of history, complexity, and change. A century of Appalachian scholars and journalists have attempted to eradicate the persisting stereotypes of the Appalachian “hillbilly.” In a society where making fun of a person’s way of speaking or ridiculing their poverty is normally considered unacceptable, mainstream television programs and films continue to portray stereotyped and homogenous images of Appalachia, if they portray them at all. As our advisor Dr. Chad Berry of Berea College so eloquently puts it, “there is not an Appalachian culture, there are Appalachian cultures.” Similarly, we pride ourselves as Americans in being a diverse society, but often neglect the rural poor in the study and depiction of that diversity. It is time for us to look back to this “forgotten” region, to allow its people to teach us and to teach each other about these cultures that the mainstream media has almost entirely overlooked.

By asking us to trace the power lines from our homes to people far removed from our daily lives, Deep Down inspires Americans to preserve Appalachia and our shared legacy.
Here's a trailer for the film:

There are many more aspects to explore on the Deep Down site, including their People Power series of video vignettes--where folks engaged with this issue can tell their own story, in their own words. Here's one example about life underneath the power plants, told by Elisa Young of Racine, Ohio:

And don't forget the music:

For the more technologically-savvy, the producers also established a Virtual Mine on Second Life, where participants can explore a Mountaintop Removal site and learn more about the issue. Also, as always, visit Coal Tattoo for more on these issues and to hear more about the latest in the ongoing investigation in Montcoal.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An Almanac For Moderns: The First Swallow

April Twentieth

Some one is forever telling us that one swallow does not make a summer. But what good is the first swallow, skimming on his side through the April afternoon, if it cannot raise a vaunted hope or encourage us to defy the gloomy and the unco circumspect! If they are right, those folk who are forever deriding the first man to try a thing, forever predicting disaster and living cautiously for a perfectly hypothetical old age, then let me, pray, be wrong. May I still, when I can count my hairs, be given grace and fortitude in the chill spring weather to say when first I see the wild spiral of the swallow that winter is over and done.

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

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Equine Sculpture of Rachel Wilson

As the Kentucky Derby is approaching in a few weeks, we're at the point in the year where--at least for a few hours--a dozen horses will awe an entire nation. For all of those viewers who can't visit a stable themselves, the artist and sculptor Rachel Wilson has created some gorgeous work that captures these  animals' fluidity and grace.

A native of southwestern Missouri, Ms. Wilson's sculptures plumb the area between folk art and modern art, between the representational style of Thomas Hart Benton and the abstract works as Alberto Giacometti and Andy Goldsworthy. It's no surprise, then, that these sculptures are a reflection both of her study of modern art and of her experiences as a farmer. Below, Linda Leicht of the Springfield News-Leader, describes the genesis of the project and the artist's process:
She decided she would create an "assemblage" out of natural materials on the farm.
"It really started out of necessity," she said. "We were outside already, and I always seem to find something creative I can do."

Now, even her little ones have been working on their own sculptures. Cost was a additional incentive.

"We've been through some tight times with farming," said Wilson, a "city girl" from Webb City who now loves the farming life with her husband, Kyle, a third-generation farmer.

Now, it's a family event. Kyle Wilson drives the pickup truck, and she and the kids "pick up sticks."
Those sticks are pretty special — they are big, shapely, hard and resistant. "As far as I can tell, it lasts for just about forever," she said of the wood.

Hedge — or Osage orange trees — were planted in the hedge rows and used for fencing. The Wilsons have dug up hedge fence posts placed years earlier that are still green and untouched by rot or bugs. It's easy to find the fallen branches, especially after the ice storms of 2007 and 2008.

"I don't take anything off living trees," she insists. "I'm kind of a tree-hugger, I guess."
Ms. Wilson's art is stunning in the way that it displays an intuitive understanding of the horse, bringing to life its posture, its gait--even its musculature--all through the unbendable arc of an osage branch. It's also a fantastic model for how the arts can actively contribute to the success of a family farm and how, on a broader scale, rural communities can use their local assets to foster artistic and economic sustainability. Rachel Wilson's site contains many more pictures of her horses, as well as her other sculptures. Also, here's a video that helps reveal the artist's work:

Friday, April 16, 2010

Songs For a Rural Record Store Day

This Saturday is Record Store Day, a national holiday of sorts for music-lovers that is now entering its third year of celebrating the wealth and variety of music and musical communities centered around local, independent record shops. Here's how the organizers describe this special Saturday in April:
This is the one day that all of the independently owned record stores come together with artists to celebrate the art of music. Special vinyl and CD releases and various promotional products are made exclusively for the day and hundreds of artists in the United States and in various countries across the globe make special appearances and performances. Festivities include performances, cook-outs, body painting, meet & greets with artists, parades, djs spinning records and on and on. Metallica officially kicked off Record Store Day at Rasputin Music in San Francisco on April 19, 2008 and Record Store Day is now celebrated the third Saturday every April. 
We're also getting in on the festivities here at the The Art of the Rural--and if you're living too far from a participating store, sit back and relax this week to our "Rural Record Store Day Playlist." The artists included below have all been discussed on the site, and though there were some artists that we could not upload using the Lala service, we think it's still a fitting retrospective on the first few months of our project here. Happy listening!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Art From The Town And The Country

Review by Victor Schoonover

Over the last four months the Racine Art Museum of Wisconsin has shared works from their permanent collection to create a pair of exhibits, displaying crossroads between America’s urban and rural landscapes.  The first, Great Art from Tough Times: Wisconsin WPA Artworks in RAM’s Collection, honors the great tradition of watercolor painting by artists who also helped shape the Milwaukee Handicraft Project—a response to urbanization, unemployment and unskilled laborers during the Great Depression.  This exhibit examines a shift from rural do-it-yourselfness to urban mechanization between the years of 1936 – 1942.  Scenes such as Schomer Frank Lichtner’s “Freight Yards” and “Driving the Wagon” depict early labor as well as movement from the countryside to the crowded city.

In these particular illustrations we see no signs of urban-dwelling trade or manufacturing, but only men and their means of work.  Mari Bleck’s linocuts “The Trapper” and “The New Cabin” depict a similar transition from the hermetic to the populated with her scenes of life in the forest.

These works on paper share more than a common medium of gouache, ink, charcoal and watercolor.  The artists in the Wisconsin WPA exhibit all work in the style of Social Realism, which was common amongst WPA artists in order to convey the difficulty of the life and times in which they lived.  Through as sense of caricature and exaggerated features these illustrations heroicize the day-to-day life of the working class, such as in Frank Albert Bernhardt Utpatel’s wood engraving, “Rural Scene”, where a man with an elongated neck and arms sits next to his milk pale and looks down at a cat.  The figure is drawn to resemble the curvy trees that grow in the background amongst the stream and the road that frame this tired passenger.  We see this same style in his other wood engravings, such as “Potato Diggers."      
By delving into the biography of these painters we also see how the Wisconsin WPA provided an incredible source of relief for its state and the nation’s people by focusing workers (especially women) on developing craft and design at a time when institutions like libraries and schools were falling apart.  Elsa Ulbricht and Mary Kellogg Rice directed the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, which employed 5,000 workers, including trained designers and artists.  This program established eleven production units, including book binding, block printing, screen printing, weaving, rugs, appliqué, dolls, cloth toys, costumes, wood toys and furniture.  
As a means of integrating women and minorities the Milwaukee Handicraft Project comprised a workforce of 25% African-Americans when Milwaukee’s Black population hovered around only 2%.  The program also offered day care for women and was one of the first printing presses to create books for the blind.  In November, 1936 Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, which other national projects of the WPA were later modeled after.    
The second exhibit, Town and Country: Urban and Rural Scenes from RAM’s Collection, plays with the meaning of landscape painting, and reinterprets this genre through the eyes of photographers, sculptors, ceramicists, painters, carvers and ornament-makers, to reveal nature in all its variations.  While works from the RAM’s WPA collection fit prominently within this display, many of the Town and Country works veer away from Social Realism into realms such as Folk and Outsider Art.    
Richard Notkin’s pottery work, for example, offers a functional art object like a teapot conveying a message about the endangerment of nature.   The tree that once grew from the paved neighborhood now offers no more shade for the hounds that once lay beneath its calming leaves.  Through Notkin’s medium his commentary becomes both social and aesthetic.  By associating the domestic and tranquil with wild dogs sleeping near a severed tree trunk, Notkin resignifies the work of a ceramicist with that of a sculptor    
Artistic medium and definition of landscape come to define nature in other 3D works, such as with the collaborative team of Tom Rauschke and Kaaren Wiken, whose turned wood sculptures offer viewers a chance to explore miniature forests, gardens, ponds and volcanoes in their dioramas combining various gift woods.    
The artists in the Town and Country exhibit find as many new and unique ways to define themselves as part of the centuries-old tradition of landscape painting as there are mediums of expression.  Over one-hundred artists make up these cross sections of our country’s urban and rural experiences.        The RAM’s collection remains on display until April 11th.  Many of the artists not mentioned here are worth checking out on the web. These include Wisconsin regional artists Brett Weston, Mary Giles, Adrian Saxe, Annette Corcoran, Carol Cohen and Warrington Colescott.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

An Almanac For Moderns: Frog Song

April Twelfth

There came a moment in this chill, palely green afternoon, as all the world was watery with running ponds, and the river boiling high and yellow, when I stood among the uncoiling fronds of the cinnamon ferns and listened to the first piping of the tree frog. I used not to distinguish him from the pond frogs, but my ear at last is attuned to the difference. A pond frog is a coarse and booming creature compared with the eery, contented and yet lonely little tree frog thrilling the light airs with its song.

It is strange how a note that must assuredly bespeak contentment, almost in this case a hymn of domestic felicity, can so trouble the heart of the listener. For the song rises over the creak-crack of the swamp frogs with an unearthly soaring wail, a note of keening that the country folk will say foretells a coming rain. And they are right in this. The tree frog never cries but a soft, oppressive dampness hangs upon the air, and spring thunder speaks in the western sky. Just so, in summer, do the cicadas, early in the morning, foretell a blazing day, and crickets in the autumn grass predict their deaths of frost.

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

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mexican Migrant Workers, Vermont Dairy Farmers and Local Artists

photograph by Caleb Kenna

The only thing that we want is to work and to have a better future in Mexico.
- A Migrant Worker

I would definitely prefer something different than the scenario that is in place at this time. It's uncomfortable to me as an American citizen to have to feel that I'm doing something wrong.
- Dairy Farmer

The Vermont Folklife Center is currently featuring Invisible Odysseys: Art By and About Mexican Farm Workers in Vermont, a collaboration between many facets of the local community: students at the Lincoln Community School, local Mexican migrant workers and artist/wrtier B. Amore. This exhibit was inspired by The Golden Cage Project, itself a collabartion between Chris Urban, a former Vermont Migrant Education tutor, and Chris Kenna, a photographer. Their work was previously on display at the VFC; here's how they describe the Golden Cage Project:
Migrant Mexican farm workers began arriving on Vermont dairy farms almost ten years ago and continue to work here living hidden lives. Through intimate photographs and interviews, this project strives to create a revealing portrait of dairy farmers and their Mexican employees and offer a glimpse into their interdependent lives--exploring who they are and what they hope for. 
Although this project focuses on Addison County, the same stories could be told in dairy farming communities around Vermont and throughout the United States. The documentary process brings this world into view in all of its complexity and contradiction.
The Golden Cage Project has a beautifully-designed website to go with the photographs and audio interviews of these farm workers. I'm sure that our readers may disagree on the specifics of immigration reform, but there is no denying the value of what's accomplished here by Mr. Urban and Mr. Kenna: they are telling a compelling and complicated story. 

As seen above, the students involved in Invisible Odysseys created poetry, prose and visual art inspired by these stories. B. Amore also "brought paints, wooden boxes, and mixed media materials to Mexican workers so that they could engage in making three-dimensional representations of their personal journey."

The exhibit opens on April 22nd--we'll share more of the artwork and discussions in the coming weeks.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Poetry for "Real Dudes?"

photograph of Wallace McRae by Peter de Lory

In this site's first three months, we've had occasion more than once to discuss the great things that are happening in Elko, Nevada at the Western Folklife Center. Back in our earliest early weeks we highlighted the 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and, more recently, the music of one of the Gathering's headlining acts this year: the Creole-Cowboy Zydeco stylings of Geno Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie

Their Facebook page recently posted a link to "All the Real Dudes" a piece on cowboy poetry published last week on the Poetry Foundation site. It has garnered some comments, many to the effect of "it's great the Foundation is covering cowboy poetry" but wondering how deeply the writer, Paul Constant, considered the poetry and the community from which it emerges. This feedback continues on the Founation's own comment section--as one reader feels that "the author of this piece looks down his nose at cowboy poets, as lesser than 'normal' poetry." Here's how Mr. Constant frames the place of this genre's growing popularity:
If you don’t live in a state with a sizable amount of desert, or a livestock-to-human ratio that gives the animal kingdom a fighting chance, then this may come as a surprise. Bookstores in temperate coastal climates aren’t very likely to stock more than one cowboy poetry title at any given moment, and that solitary book, if they even carry it, will be shelved in either the poetry section or the humor section, depending on the whims of the store’s staff. Based on the evidence on display in any of these bookstores, you’d never realize that cowboy poetry so popular, drawing thousands of fans to events and festivals across the U.S.

Cowboy poetry festivals take place in dozens of towns across America—virtually every state west of the Mississippi—from Alpine, Texas, to Monterey, California, to Green Forest, Arkansas. Every year in January, thousands of people gather in Elko, a small town in northern Nevada, for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The gathering—now in its 26th year—was founded primarily thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Cowboy poets record best-selling CDs and podcasts and have been nominated for Grammys (and even won one). By any standard, cowboy poetry has been a hit. By poetry standards, it’s a smash. But if you ask its practitioners, the real success of cowboy poetry is that on the page it attracts normal people—people who would otherwise never pick up a book of poetry—and on the stage it’s a performance that most non-slam poets don’t bother to grasp.
While I sense that Mr. Constant meant no condescension, I agree with others that the examples of cowboy poetry could have been more various and more deeply considered. While there's only so much any writer can accomplish in a given word count, it's interesting that so much of the article is used to contrast this form of poetry with the innate presence of "mainstream" poetry:" an urban, coastal art form emanating from (and subsidized by) academic institutions. What's suggested below is that these "connoisseurs," all having inherited the aesthetic attitudes of modernism and modern art, could not tolerate a kind of poetry that speaks so directly:
To put it lightly, there’s a bit of a gap between mainstream poetry and cowboy poetry. It’s easy to see how poetry connoisseurs could completely disregard cowboy poetry as a genre; the poems all more or less stick to ballads, with stanzas constructed of strict ABAB or AABB rhyming patterns. And the subject matter, to someone on the outside, can feel constrained; when all you’re discussing is cattle punching—slang for tending cattle, usually while on horseback—and life on the range, you can understand why urban or suburban readers would think that’s a small canvas on which to paint.

Cowboy poets, too, frame themselves as outsiders from the mainstream; while they’re welcoming to newcomers, you get the sense that an academic study of cowboy poetry would be frowned upon by most of the poets and fans as unnecessary.
One reader was quick to respond that there is indeed "academic study" on this art form, and that these poets number among the Fellows at the National Endowment for the Arts. Others invited Mr. Constant and Poetry's readers out to Elko.

As just another voice of commentary here, I'm left wishing that the widespread success of cowboy poetry had lead to an article that not only investigated some of the genre's finest voices but also asked what the "mainstream" might learn from cowboy poetry--and vice versa. The implicit understanding in this piece, so evident in the way that the rural west is presented here, is that there is an insurmountable distance between these two poetries. I wholeheartedly disagree with that suggestion, and I believe that it enforces some false dichotomies that keep segments of the american arts from talking to each other.

One reader on the Poetry Foundation's site made this point with perfect clarity, writing that "Cowboy poetry in one form or another has been around for eons." Mr. Constant is certainly right in suggesting that cowboy poetry's way of speaking clearly, of being responsible to an audience, might turn off many conventional readers. But, in his words, cowboy poetry's way of "[using] the past as a lens through which to remark on the future," is in principle no different than much of what we might find in twentieth-century poetry. The undeniable fact is that the style of modernism that still exerts itself over these "mainstream" readers' tastes emerged itself from folk culture. This is certainly true with classical and "art music" of the twentieth century, but profoundly true for many of the great modernist writers. During a period of world wars, genocides and startling technological advancements, they turned to folk culture to help express an alienation and a vision of a world (and a language) of fragmented meaning. James Joyce, Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats would be three prominent examples.

The question for these readers and for all us, whether we are in the urban, coastal mainstream or not, is why these cowboy poets would be alienating at this moment in our collective history. Do we find ourselves, as Mr. Contstant mentions more than once, comfortable with these ballads of "cow-punching," or do we more closely resemble the way that (as Ian Halbert wrote in these pages) T.S. Eliot flees from the cow?