Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Almanac For Moderns: Gold In The Wing

August Thirty-First

August, the aureate month, draws to its blazing close - a month of sun, if there was one. Gold in the grain on the round-backed hill fields. Gold in the wood sunflowers, and in the summer goldenrod waving plumes all through the woodlot, trooping down the meadow to the brookside, marching in the dust of the roadways. Gold in the wing of the wild canaries, dipping and twittering as they flit from weed to bush, as if invisible waves of air tossed them up and down. The orange and yellow clover butterflies seek out the thistle, and the giant sulphur swallowtails are in their final brood. The amber, chaff-filled dust gilds all the splendid sunsets in cloudless, burning skies. Long, long after the sun has set, the sun-drenched earth gives back its heat, radiates it to the dim stars; the moon gets up in gold; before it lifts behind the black fields to the east I take it for a rick fire, till it rises like an old gold coin, that thieves have clipped on one worn edge. 

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

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Standing Up For Local Radio And Local Culture

photograph by Kelly Kress of Learn NC

Yesterday afternoon NPR's All Things Considered presented a feature on "The Merry-Go-Round," a weekly live music show broadcast out of Mount Airy, North Carolina on WPAQ radio. "The Merry -Go-Round" has been their Saturday morning staple since the station first went on the air in 1948; in fact, the station has remained true to founder Ralph Epperson's original mission, despite its place in an era where radio is increasingly pushed to follow homogeneous programming standards. Here's how WPAQ describes its relationship the community:
Fortunately for his friends and neighbors, Ralph Epperson believed in individualism and he had a mission in mind:  to serve his community.  In his application to the Federal Communications Commission, the young man pledged to reflect the cultural and musical values of the people in his station’s listening area.  He said he would present local talent, and he made good on that promise from the start.  Unlike many other station owners, however, Epperson largely stuck to his mission over the next six decades.  Live music by local musicians is still presented each Saturday on WPAQ’s Merry-Go-Round program.  Epperson himself hosted another program, the Blue Ridge Spotlight, on Saturday afternoons, on which he presented early recordings from the WPAQ archives and other recordings of area musicians and WPAQ’s weekly play lists are peppered with recordings of local musicians.  Preachers still hold forth on weekday mornings and nearly all day Sunday.  Announcers read the obituaries at least three times a day, and the Pet Patrol helps listeners get back together with wandering critters from blue tick hounds to hogs and heifers.  The music lurches from old time and bluegrass to easy listening after the evening news.  Ralph Epperson explained his philosophy to reporter Michelle Johnson of WFDD this way as she prepared a story about WPAQ for National Public Radio: “If people are doing the same thing in 25 places up and down the radio dial, why should I be number 26?”
If "The Merry-Go-Round" stands as one of the last live (and local) music shows on radio, at least in the old-time genre, then it is as much a testament to how Pete Seeger's belief in technology's ability to sustain traditional music can exist even after the culturally-deadening effects of the Telecommunications Act of 1996--the legislation that, with the sweep of President Clinton's pen, removed regulatory protections for local broadcasting outlets. 

However, we can now hear WPAQ live online from any location in the country, with unfettered availability as long as Net Neutrality is not a concept that meets an end similar to many small-market broadcasting outlets after 1996. In many ways, what the story of WPAQ presents to us is how such seemingly distant regulatory issues are rural issues, and how they can forcefully alter the contours of the rural arts. Listening to WPAQ, hundreds of miles from Mount Airy, it's hard not to be moved, to feel the need to work in our own finite and individual ways to spread the word about Net Neutrality--and to protect our access to treasures like WPAQ and "The Merry-Go-Round."

What other local radio stations are our readers listening to, either on the radio or on the internet? Feel free to drop us a line or comment on our Facebook page; we would love to follow up with more features on these stations, and to add them to our Rural Arts Map.  

Also, many thanks to Lisa from Legal Ruralism for alerting us to the NPR feature.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

New Art From Jetsonorama's Rez

In the nine months since The Art of the Rural first appeared online, we  have learned a great deal about the visionary and diverse kinds of art coming out of rural America. Today  we would like to share an update on one of our favorite self-discoveries so far: Jetsonorama. Born in North Carolina, he came of age in the 1980's New York City hip-hop scene and later traveled through Africa (on bicycle) before moving to the Navajo nation to work as an Indian Health Services Physician. 

In April we discussed his wheat paste projects that were appearing, with the help of native artists, on reservations across the southwest. It's a powerful medium: on one level, these are provocative site-specific installations, yet, on a more intimate level, these wheat pastes are  portraits of a community that is both looking with reverence to the past and looking forward in the hopes of re-imagining their own place. Here is some new work:

Wesley Barrow's Last Portrait; Cedar Ridge, Arizona

Ben; Behind Chief Yellow Horse's roadside stand

Hank and Thelma; La Casa de Hugo Hernandez

Jetsonorama, under his given name of Chip Thomas, has also created a site for his photography. While many of black and white photos are the sources for the wheat paste images, they also capture--with a humanity that exceeds normal documentary photography--everyday life among the people he serves. 

This photography site also contains a gallery of images from his travels in Africa as well as another of photographs from places in this country and abroad. If we consider the census work that has been featured on The Daily Yonder lately,  then it seems wholly appropriate that these international influences should come to bear on his artwork in the Navajo Nation. In a moment when the traditional borders between city and country--and between cultures themselves--are becoming blurred, these photographs and wheat pastes stand as moving examples of a kind of rural art we should work toward in the coming years, one that refuses simple provincialisms yet celebrates local culture, one that accepts all the influences and voices projected--or wheat-pasted--within our familiar places. 

Ring Around The Rosey

Postnuptial Dance Over Monument Valley As The Bride's Mom Looks On

Homemade Glasses, Homemade Canoe

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Southern Foodways Alliance

The Southern Foodway Alliance's Oral History Interactive Map Project

We think these stories offer far more than just sustenance--we think they offer a way of thinking about race and class, gender and ethnicity, those deeply important issues that have long vexed and long defined the South.  - John T. Edge, Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance

Earlier this summer, when writing about corn cob wine and the new online food culture magazine The Zenchilada, we discovered The Southern Foodways Alliance. While some of our readers may already be familiar with the wide variety of cookbooks, traveling events and documentary work of the SFA, we had yet to discover them--and our first visit to their site was a bona fide moment of culinary revelation. 

The organization projects an ambitious mission, to "stage symposia on food culture, produce documentary films, publish compendiums of great writing, and—perhaps most importantly—preserve, promote, and chronicle our region’s culinary standard bearers." What is plainly evident across their various efforts (from cookbooks to "okracasts", video documentaries to oral histories) is that the SFA is able to consider both the Southern past and its present, and to locate what it calls "the spirit of reconciliation" that gathers across these foodways:

The SFA site is currently featuring about two dozen documentaries it has created in conjunction with The Center for Documentary Projects at The University of Mississippi. They all are outstanding, and we'll include one below. Here's Eat or We'll Both Starve, a film by Joe York about the Taylor (MS) Grocery, a legendary catfish joint with a series of time-honored rules that encourage their patrons to sit down, slow down, and get to know their neighbors.

The SFA has also done extensive oral history work--see the interactive map above--and many of these interviews and field recordings are accompanied with photographs. Aside from individual oral histories, the SFA has a few regional food culture projects: The Southern BBQ Trail, The Southern Boudin Trail, The Southern Gumbo Trail, The Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail and Wine in the South

In addition to all of this, The Southern Foodways Alliance also operates a fascinating blog that features reports from folks who are cooking their way through the SFA's publications, as well as reports from the organization's interns. Check out the recent post by intern Kevin Kim on documenting the presence of Chinese American grocers in the Delta:
First introduced to the Mississippi Delta as indentured servants by planters during Reconstruction, these early Chinese sojourners soon became disenchanted with working in the fields and moved off the plantation to set up small grocery stores nearby. Mainly serving as an alternative to plantation commissaries and catering to a predominately African American clientele, the Chinese American grocer was a mainstay in many Delta neighborhoods well into the 20th century. Though their numbers have diminished in recent years, their history is an important part of the foodways of the Delta.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Filming The Coal War

photograph from Brett Marshall

In the months since we began this website, we've tried, whenever possible, to share artists' responses to Mountaintop Removal. In past posts we've shared the work of Appalshop, the visionary organization based out of Whitesburg, Kentucky that has been producing documentaries, music recordings, theater performances and community radio for over 40 years. The artists and thinkers at Appalshop have been covering the environmental and cultural costs of our country's dependence on coal extraction (along with their larger project of preserving and celebrating Appalachian culture) for decades, and their work has blazed a trail for a new generation of artists.

The Coal War is a work-in-progress by a group of filmmakers from diverse backgrounds within the academy, the art world and the film industry. It's director, producer and principal cinematographer is Chad A. Stevens, an acclaimed photographer who is currently a professor at the University of North Carolina. Here is the film's synopsis, followed by a trailer for the project:
This is the story of a symbol: one mountain destined to be destroyed by the coal industry and the struggle to save Coal River Mountain by creating the first sustainable, green jobs project in the Central Appalachian coalfields: The Coal River Wind Farm.

Coal River Mountain is an ancient Appalachian cradle of rolling ridges and nestled hollows, providing refuge for delicate wildlife and a home to a unique mountain culture. But just beneath the surface lays something that calls into question the mountain’s very survival: $4.3 billion worth of coal. Massey Energy, the largest practitioner of mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia, holds permits to clear-cut 6,450 acres of hardwood forest, detonate thousands of tons of explosives and topple the mountain range into over nine miles of streams in the valleys below.

Since the 1960s, residents in the coal fields of West Virginia have fought to preserve their land, only to watch the coal industry continue to destroy mountains and uproot their ways of life. While the consequences of coal and mountaintop removal mining are severe – lethal flooding, water contamination, cancer pockets and the annihilation of the land on which families have lived for generations – the powerful coal companies have remained unstoppable. Recently, however, new hope has appeared in the form of a viable energy alternative to mountaintop removal: Wind Power.

This film documents a campaign that could serve as the foundation of one of great shifts in human history – the movement to break the addiction to a fossil fuel-based economy and shift to one rooted in renewable, green energy.

 The Coal War | Trailer 2 from Chad A. Stevens | milesfrommaybe on Vimeo.

The short films to emerge from Mr. Steven's footage of The Coal War have won numerous awards, and a critical mass is building around this film and the movement to save Coal River Mountain. Tom Zeller Jr. wrote an in-depth feature on the struggle last week in The New York Times, and the Discovery Channel's Planet Green channel recently leant its support to the film project. In both cases, it's encouraging to see how this issue--local to Appalachia--is being understood for its implications in an urban, and national, context. (The Coal War team has also reported recently on the EPA's wobbly stance on MTR for The Daily Yonder; for daily coverage of these issues, refer to the Coal Tattoo blog.) Beyond the numerous trailers for the film, The Coal War site offers a number of resources for viewers to learn more about Mountaintop Removal and to get involved. 

One such opportunity is approaching: Appalachia Rising, a "mass mobilization" that will gather in Washington, DC during the weekend of September 25th and then branch out across the nation's coalfields for a national Day of Action on Monday September 27th. Below is an internet trailer; please follow the links for more information on how you can get involved:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Zora Neale Hurston's Florida

photograph by Chip Litherland for The New York Times

Last week we mentioned the Florida Memory archive--a site that, in many places, is enriched by the imagination and the documentary work of writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. While Ms. Hurston is well-known as a luminary of the Harlem Renaissance and author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, her gifts also extended toward celebrating and preserving the local culture that leant such inspiration to her creative writing.

The Florida Memory site features a compilation of her sound recordings (listen to her sing "Shove It Over") as well as photographs, documents and educational resources related to her research in the Turpentine Camps of Cross City when she worked for the Federal Writers Project (a program within the Work Progress Administration). As a folklorist, she composed in film as well as prose. In the below video our contributor Ian Halbert discovered, Ms. Hurston films Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the final African slave ship that arrived 1859:

Like so many other twentieth-century artists born into rural America, Ms. Hurston actively cultivated a worldview that increasingly saw the rural and urban as interlinked places. Though she spent a great deal of time in New York City and elsewhere, she always returned to live in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida (the oldest incorporated African-American municipality in the country), bringing with her an imagination and an honesty that did not always fit seamlessly into the life of this small town. The New York Times has put together a fine short documentary about Ms. Hurston's relationship to Eatonville, to accompany Damien Cave's article on this resilient community. Unfortunately, we can't embed the documentary, so please visit the link above--it's well worth your time. Also, NYT reporter Adam H. Graham offers this follow-up article that discusses all the local places to visit. 

Any discussion of Zora Neale Hurston and Eatonville, Florida must also mention Zora Fest, an annual festival that celebrates the writer, her works and the culture of the region:

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Florida Memory Archives

photo-postcard from the Florida Photographic Collection

After discussing the Farm Security Administration archives and the Captured in Color exhibit recently, it seems like a perfect moment to bring The Florida Memory site into the conversation. Administered by the state's Library & Archives department, the Florida Memory archives is a  comprehensive (and gorgeously designed) site that is fully-searchable; they offer an exhaustive list of photographs, postcards and films in their Photographic Collection, as well as a fascinating array of high-quality scans of important historical documents. They also offer an Online Classroom with education resources appropriate to Floridians, but also to students from any location--and the site's online exhibits are also provocative starting points for classroom discussion, contemplation or artistic inspiration (check out Pestilence, Potions, and Persistence: Early Florida Medicine).

There's yet another facet of this site that will interest a number of our readers. Adam from 50 Miles of Elbow Room introduced me to the Florida Folklife Collection portion of the Florida Memory site, which contains the absolutely exhaustive documentation of the Florida Folk Festival. Visitors will find complete listings and information on each year's festival, from the 1950's to the present day. What's even more impressive about this resource is that the performances from 1954-1979 are offered directly, for streaming or download, at no charge. Every conceivable form of folk music is represented here: gospel, shape note singing, blues, Native American song, (to name a few) as well as traditional music from around the world.

What's more, for those who would prefer a more concise selection from the Festival, The Florida Folklife Collection has created four compilations. These are available as complimentary mp3 downloads, but they will also send the CD versions of these compilations to your home for free. The discs are wonderful, and they capture the rich variety of performances across the decades, from well-known acts such as the Stanley Brothers to local folk musicians. 

Included below are a few short films of the Festival and Florida folklife available at their site, and also at their Youtube page:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

An Almanac For Moderns: The Nuptial Flight

August Eighth

Suddenly, from all over the countryside, the winged ants have emerged simultaneously; the date appointed for the nuptial flight is at hand, of one of the fifty species known hereabouts, and everywhere the ants obey it. The creatures which literally fell under my observation were small, mostly males--unsuccessful suitors, perhaps, for nature launches scores of drones into the air in search of one princess. But even the one triumphant suitor must descend to the realities of earth, after the raptures of mating a mile above it, and I doubt if the nest or Nature has any further use for any of the drones, once they have fulfilled their destiny.

I have repeatedly seen the take-off of the winged ants. The whole colony appears in a state of great turmoil, dragging out its winged or sexual members ingeniously but hastily, like ground mechanics getting airplanes out of a hangar in a time of war. The big queen, as yet only a princess, is propelled along the ground, as if she were a plane taxi-ing across the field. At first she seems enormous to my eyes, compared to the workers, enormous and inert and positively afraid. The little males are also trundled forth, and stand about, waiting patiently. Then, at some moment that pleases her, the princess flies swiftly up into the air. In a moment, seen against all the emptiness of blue heaven, she dwindles to a tiny speck, endowed with a joyful frenzy. The males start off in pursuit. The rest is hidden from us by the blinding sunlight. 

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

Monday, August 9, 2010

Introducing The Rural Arts Map

Today we're introducing a feature to The Art of the Rural that has been a long time in the making: The Rural Arts Map. This interactive Google Map offers links to the artists and organizations we've discussed, as well as to specific posts from our site.

A cursory glance at the distribution of blue pins will speak to the areas of the country where we need to do more work. Appalachia (my home-region) is neatly outlined in blue markers, while whole swaths of the west and the plains are woefully under-represented.

As The Art of the Rural has developed over the last few months, we've greatly valued the feedback of our reader-collaborators -- and we could really use everyone's input here. We are looking to expand the map, to begin linking to artists, organizations and sites that we've yet to cover explicitly on our site. We would like this map to be a resource, and a gateway, for people to learn more about the wide range of art-making in rural America.

When inspiration strikes, please feel free to drop us a line via email or on our Facebook page. Thanks again to everyone who's spent time reading and commenting on The Art of the Rural, and who's passed our site along to friends. We're excited for the kinds of collaborations that this map promises.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The 2010 Works Progress Administration

The Wassaic WPA Truck; Christopher Robbins

A few months back we featured some of the photography of Christopher Robbins with our introduction to the The Art Farm in Marquette, Nebraska,  and we're  excited to introduce our readers to his new project which shares the same sense of ethics and aesthetics, and a similar rural-urban perspective. 

Mr. Robbins has an ambitious goal: to bring back the Works Progress Administration. It's a vision that seems necessary on both an economic and a cultural level, a way of looking at local and national "progress" that integrates art and community. Here's Mr. Robbins' introduction to the WPA-2010 project:
During the last Great Depression, the WPA employed millions, repairing roads, building parks, and other public works. It reached out directly to people who needed it most, creating projects outside the U.S. Government’s usual remit. 

Now, the WPA-2010 brings back small-scale, community-driven neighborhood recovery and action. 

We provide employment and skills development for people to work in their own neighborhoods, to focus on projects chosen by their own community.  In short, we are a flexible coalition of citizens, spearheading small-scale community-driven initiatives in the drive towards our government following suit. 
In recognition of the fact that the WPA brought together rural and urban workers, and that it worked to alleviate economic suffering from the densest urban centers to the smallest towns across the plains, the non-profit WPA-2010 has set up their first two offices: one in Jamaica, Queens, NYC and the other in the rural hamlet of Wassaic, New York--with more chapters to follow. The comparison of these two buildings, before the WPA-2010 moved into them, suggests more commonalities than differences:

As Mr. Robbins notes in his introductory video below, there is an element of theater here, or of taking the idea of installation art to its most pragmatic conclusion, yet it's refreshing to see these ideas applied for the betterment of the community, and not languishing in a downtown gallery. As with The Rural Studio, this is a line of thought which has been producing some of the most vital and interesting art in recent years, and we'll be keeping everyone posted on the development of the WPA-2010 in the coming months. 

The fund-drive that Mr. Robbins mentions in the video has successfully concluded, with support from  organizations and individuals alike. For more on the WPA-2010, head to Christopher Robbins' flickr page to see photos from the early projects in Wassaic, or visit here if you'd like to contribute funds to the project. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

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

photograph by David Lundahl

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 2, 2010

Captured: America in Color from 1939-1945

A crossroads store, bar, "juke joint," and gas station in the cotton plantation area. Melrose, Louisiana, 1940; photograph by Marion Post Walcott

Thanks to Mary, a reader from Massachusetts, for suggesting the photography exhibit Captured: America in Color from 1939-1945. The Denver Post's Photo Blog recently offered seventy large-scale reproductions on their site, and they are stunning both as historical documents and as works of art.

We've written before on the work of the Farm Security Administration, and we've also previously discussed the Library of Congress American Memory archives--an inexhaustible source for all of the government-sponsored photography taken during this period. These particular photographs, however, were taken later than the majority of the FSA's work, and constitute only 1,600 images compared to the 164,000 black and white photographs; browsing through each, one can get the sense of rural America changing with the new technological and political realities of a new war. This segment of the archive is entitled America from the Great Depression to World War II: Color Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1939-1945visit here for a list, with links and biographies, of the impressive body of staff members (Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and more) who undertook this important work.

The archive is very easy to search and browse through, so if you see any images in the Denver Post's selection you particularly like, you can head to the above site and see all prints from the same shoot. There are so many stunning images here, but we'll include a few more below:

Boy near Cincinnati, Ohio;  John Vachon

Spreading fertilizer from a 4-mule team wagon, Georgia,  1940:  Marion Post Wolcott

School children singing, Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940: Russell Lee

Japanese-American camp, war emergency relocation, Tule Lake, CA, 1942 or 1943; Russell Lee

 Japanese-American camp, war-emergency evacuation, Tule Lake, CA [transplanting celery], 1942 or 1943; Russell Lee

Farm auction, Derby, CT, 1940; Jack Delano