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 caf├ęs 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.