Monday, February 28, 2011

Abner Jay: "I'm So Depressed" & "Cocaine Blues"

selection from the cover of Mississippi Records' recent Abner Jay release

Folk music is high class music--of course a lot of low class people singin' it. Matter of fact, most so-called folk singers don't even look like folk. Folk songs tell true stories, but terrible stories--'cause folk are terrible. Terrible songs make big songs. Why do you think kids like rock 'n' roll ? Because it's terrible. You think they're gonna listen to the Philadelphia Symphony, 101 Strings? Why do you think I like cocaine?

Tomorrow we will write more extensively about Abner Jay (1921-1996), a multifaceted musician and artist--and the self-proclaimed "last great Southern black minstrel show." His music (and his life story) was complicated and unconventional, but also singularly brilliant. 

Here Chris Campion of the Guardian writes of Mr. Jay:
Rather than cocaine, he used to claim that the secret of his eternal youth and vitality was lying on his belly drinking water scooped out of the Suwannee River in his home state of Georgia. And at least two of his albums (privately-pressed and released on his label Brandie, named after his wife) feature a photograph of him doing just that, along with the tracklisting, which he customarily scrawled over it in marker pen.

Jay was himself born near the source of one of the tributaries of the river in Irwin County, Georgia (in 1921). He started performing in medicine shows at the age of 5. In 1932 he moved on, to the Silas Green show, a travelling minstrel show and vaudeville revue that had also once employed Bessie Smith. Aged 14, he became a one-man band.
Enjoy these two selections from The True Story of Abner Jay, an earlier record re-released by Mississippi Records:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bred and Buttered: Ozark Women On Screen

film still from Winter's Bone

By Rachel Reynolds Luster, Rural Correspondent

The 83rd Academy Awards will be aired live this Sunday. I’m thankful the one station that we get via our digital converter box at our home in the land that straddles the Missouri and Arkansas line will be carrying the event live. For the first time in my life, I find two pictures nominated for Best Picture that are intimately connected with the rural identity of which I am a student and a share-holder.

True Grit is a film set mainly in Arkansas and the Oklahoma territory. Joel and Ethan Coen adapted Arkansas author Charles Portis’ work, which was originally developed as a serial for the Saturday Evening Post in 1968. At the time, Portis was a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette, the big state newspaper, and the eventual novel and subsequent films depict a somewhat mythic tale of a young headstrong 14-year-old who sets out to avenge her father’s death by employing a renegade U. S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, to hunt down the killer, Tom Cheney, and bring him to stand trial and likely hang in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The plucky Mattie Ross insists on accompanying Cogburn, and the drama ensues into the western reaches of the Ouachita Mountains.

Winter’s Bone carries a similar sort of wilderness tale but is set in a modern time frame and entirely in the Missouri Ozarks. The film is based on the 2006 hillbilly noir book of the same title by West Plains, Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell. It follows Ree Dolly as she searches for her father Jessup, who has missed a court date leaving the family home in jeopardy as he listed it as collateral with his bail bondsman. The film explores the culture of the methamphetamine epidemic, which has become the darker side of the fabric of rural life in America.

While the two films offer interesting takes on rural life in two very different time periods, they share one representation, which seems constant over time and space: the depiction of rural women as headstrong, steadfast, able, and self-reliant. Both films offer classic examples of the somewhat romanticized portraits of rural women. The lead female character in each is an intrepid teenager who bravely sets out to simply do what needs to be done. In the case of Mattie Ross, she not only has gone to take care of the business associated with laying her father to rest but also finds it necessary to avenge his murder. For Ree Dolly, she has taken charge of her household including her emotionally and physically disabled mother and two younger siblings in the absence of her father and sets out to find him, dead or alive, to ensure that the family can simply keep a roof over their heads.

One of the most interesting aspects of the representation of women in these two films is the characters’ youth. While self-reliance, even stubbornness, might be prized or expected from mountain women, it is generally not expected from young women, rather it’s more associated with older generations. Certainly in True Grit the impetuous nature of 14-year-old Mattie plays a role in her quest. There is sort of a blind bravery, which seems emblematic of her slight age. The character of Ree Dolly, however, is 17, and one gets the sense that she has had to live as an adult, if not the head of household, for some time and that it hasn’t been easy. She is wise beyond her years. When Ree sets off to find her father, and as she negotiates the violent nature or her journey, she is obviously aware of what faces her. Yet, she persistently endures, which not only brings her answers and proof of the location of her father that she desires, but, in the end, also brings respect from the violent clutch who have been both responsible for the fate of her father and the survival of Ree. While both characters carry strong examples of the self-reliance associated with mountain women, neither Mattie nor Ree are the stereotypical granny woman. They, like true rural women, are far more complicated.

Claudia Gammill, age 89; from Southern Spaces and University of Central Arkansas Archives

I can’t help but think that living a rural life or being from the country continues to gain cache. Just looking at the current zeitgeist of slowness that is seeping into the mainstream, I feel more and more pride in my rural roots than ever. People from urban and suburban areas are flocking to the country to grow and produce something for themselves and live at a slower pace. This, in itself, is not a new phenomenon but it seems that, with this last economic crisis, mainstream book publishers and media outlets have been willing, if not eager, to offer up various vignettes of rural life, which have, for the most part, been positive. Now if we can just encourage those from rural areas to find their places as cool as the folks at Simon and Shuster or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, we’ll really be on to something good.

Frankly, I’ve heard a lot of talk from Ozarkers about how “authentic” the depiction of the region is in Winter’s Bone, and, I don’t really get that. Certainly, meth is a problem here as it is in many other rural (and urban) areas across the country, but none of the people that I’ve heard speak to the film’s authenticity are immersed, or even familiar with the drug culture of here or anyplace else. Certainly, the film is not my Ozarks or the way I view my neighbors. What I do take away from both films as authentic and a source of pride is that rural life, and the ties to the land that dictate and inspire it, have shaped the characters of Ree Dolly and Mattie Ross. These two young women are audacious and unapologetically so. They do what needs to be done. They are self-reliant, “bred and buttered” to quote Ree Dolly.

Such intrepidity is commonly considered a regional characteristic of women from the MOARK hinterlands and one which evokes great reverence among many residents. Self-reliance is a not only a source of regional pride among many but also is engrained within the cultural milieu of rural life in Arkansas and Missouri. Of course, self-reliance means different things to different folks, and I do not mean to imply that there is some sort of consensus on what it means to be a “good” woman in the hills and mountains of Arkansas and Missouri. However, I think that when women, especially, talk of other women from previous generations in their families or communities, those attributes that seem to hold the most worth hinge on all of the things both practical and sentimental that these cultural ancestors did for themselves and the ones they loved. At the same time, I know many an Ozark woman that doesn’t remember what she did before boxed cake mixes, or that prefers to shop rather than to garden, and there are plenty of us that are afraid of snakes and/or hate bugs, especially chiggers. We don’t all hunt or shoot guns, but a lot of us can manage to do what needs to be done, especially in regard to providing safety and comfort to family and friends. The characters of Mattie and Ree are representative of Arkansas’s and Missouri’s rural women in that respect.

I’ll be watching on Sunday and keeping my fingers crossed that one of these fine films takes home the big prize. I’m not sure who I’m rooting for, Mattie or Ree, probably Ree because I also like a good underdog, and Winter’s Bone, while quite brilliant, has some steep competition.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Welcome to Hollyrural: Notes Before The Oscars

"Dale Dickey and Jennifer Lawrence shooting Winter's Bone,"  Sebastian Mlynarski

This Sunday millions of viewers around the world will watch the Academy Awards. For the first time in a few years, the "Best Picture" category contains two films with rural roots: Winter's Bone and True Grit. Later this week we will have the chance to hear from Rural Correspondent (and Ozark native) Rachel Reynolds Luster--an artist, musician, and graduate student in Heritage Studies. Ahead of hearing her perspective on these two films, we'd like to offer a list of articles and commentaries that we've recently read. Placed together, we see how both mainstream media outlets and rural writers and critics are considering this recent flowering of rural-themed cinema.

We'll begin with the writing of Lisa Pruitt, a UC-Davis law professor and editor of the excellent Legal Ruralism blog. She has written a number of insightful commentaries on the issues of race, class and gender tangled up in Hollywood's images of rural culture. In "Winter's Bone and the Limits of White Privilege," Dr. Pruitt critiques the intersections of pastoral imagery and the problematic idea of "white trash;" here are two excerpts:
Indeed, one of the very interesting things about reading NYT readers' responses to "Winter's Bone" and its review is the extent to which those from major metro areas — say New York and Toronto--criticized the film maker for the lack of reality and the way she maligned the place by showing junk cars and dogs in people's yards. Film goers and readers from the Ozarks, however, generally agreed that the film was quite authentic in its depiction of people and place, though several of them pointed out that it showed only a particular stratum of that society. These differing views make me wonder if urbanites want to believe that rural life couldn’t be that bad? If they are clinging nostalgically to bucolic rural myths?


So what can we take away from Winter’s Bone regarding white privilege? I see Ree’s life as a reminder that when you get “down” to a certain socioeconomic stratum, there is precious little privilege or material benefit associated with being white. (I’m thinking the film “Monster” also illustrates this point). Another way of stating this is that disadvantages associated with class (e.g., bias against “white trash”) and geography (e.g., scarcity of jobs and opportunities) seriously undermine the white privilege that Ree might enjoy in other settings.
The Center For Rural Affairs and The Daily Yonder each linked to "It's Cool To Be Country" by Adam Tschorn of the Los Angeles Times. Aside from a focus on True Grit, the article offers a wide catalogue of the ways that rural arts and culture are currently being enjoyed in the urban mainstream--through fashion, television, and popular country music icons such as Taylor Swift or Gwyneth Paltrow's Country Strong character:
Even the recent fall/winter menswear runway shows in Milan and Paris found luxury brand collections taking inspiration from both the modern-day Amish (at Louis Vuitton) and the early settlers of the American West (at Dsquared2). Moonshine has become as trendy as absinthe. Canning and raising chickens have become hipster hobbies. And one of the most popular time-wasters on Facebook — played by nearly 55 million people this month alone — is a faux-farmstead game that has people harvesting virtual crops and tending to virtual livestock.
Lisa Pruitt, in "The Popularity of 'True Grit' as a Reflection of Nostalgia for the Rural?" considers a recent provocative editoral by Frank Rich in The New York Times (comparing True Grit and The Social Network) that considers rural space as a mutually-agreeable site for escapism on both sides of the culture war.  To boot, Dr. Pruitt finds in Mattie Ross a parallel to a public images of many of our country's most successful female politicians, from Ann Richards all the way forward to Sarah Palin. She quotes here from Rebecca Traister's "Only Cowgirls Run for Office", originally published in The New York Times Magazine:
What we do have, to serve as the foundational fantasy of female strength and individualism we’ve agreed upon as embodying American power, are cowgirls: Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, the outlaws, frontier women and pioneers who pushed West, shot sharp, talked tough and sometimes drew blood. Frontier womanhood has emerged as one of the only historically American models of aspirational femininity available to girls — passive princesses and graceful ballerinas not being native to this land — and one of the only blueprints for commanding female comportment in which they are regularly encouraged to invest or to mimic.
The Daily Yonder also published "And The Oscar Ought To Go To..." by Douglas Burns. He makes a compelling argument for Jennifer Lawrence's portrayal of Ree Dolly, and for the ways in which such characters rarely surface in popular cinema:
Poverty in America is often given an urban black face. It’s a stereotype, also visible in any metro area, from Des Moines and Omaha, to Chicago and New York City.

Rural white poverty is very much alive and well, too, although not always easy to spot, as it hides around the mountain or off a country road, in an apparently abandoned trailer that is, surprisingly, a home.
Missy Shelton followed this "country road," reporting on the local response to the Oscar nominations for Winter's Bone for NPR's Morning Edition last week.
"I hope you heard the hillbillies screaming," laughs Beth Domann, one of the local actors featured in the movie, "because it started early. I think everybody's real excited about it."
As a closing link, Rachel Reynolds Luster has recommended this in-depth video interview from Cinema Blend with director Debra Granik; we can hear many of the questions and concerns raised by these previous links addressed by the woman who brought Winter's Bone to life. 

Here are the trailers for each film. The 83rd Academy Awards will be broadcast this Sunday evening on ABC.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Rural Poetry Series: Lorine Niedecker

photograph by Bonnie Roub; from the Electronic Poetry Center

The Bront√ęs had their moors, I have my marshes.

Two weeks ago we featured the first of a series of "calendar poems" composed by Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), a poet from Blackhawk Island, Wisconsin. With the exception of a brief sojourn in New York City in her youth and a move to Milwaukee toward the end of her life, Ms. Niedecker spent the span of her days living, working, and writing along the banks of her native fishing community.

At a moment when American poets increasingly found themselves supported by universities, Ms. Niedecker chose to remain near Blackhawk Island and the neighboring town of Fort Atkinson; she took whatever work the local economy offered: proofreader, cleaning woman, librarian.  Her poetry appeared sporadically throughout her life, despite the support of contemporary figures the likes of William Carlos Williams, Basil Bunting, and Louis Zukofsky--her former lover.

Like the school of Objectivism advocated by Zukofsky, Niedecker treated the poem as an object all to itself, a structure which, in whole, could communicate with precision. As evidenced by the poems below, Niedecker added a local element as well as a gender perspective that enriched the work of these like-minded poets navigating the legacy of modernism. While we find in these poems an adherence to Williams's dictum "no ideas but in things," we also see here another use of "the vernacular," as a rural expertise and a local language is brought to bear on this avant-garde poetics. The results are profoundly, movingly, different than her contemporaries' work:

Remember my little granite pail? 
The handle of it was blue. 
Think what's got away in my life- 
Was enough to carry me thru.
 Poet's Work 
  advised me:
        Learn a trade
I learned
  to sit at desk
        and condense
No layoff
  from this
In the great snowfall before the bomb
colored yule tree lights
windows, the only glow for contemplation
along this road. I worked the print shop
right down among em
the folk from whom all poetry flows
and dreadfully much else.

I was Blondie
I carried my bundles of hog feeder price lists
down by Larry the Lug,
I'd never get anywhere
because I'd never had suction,
pull, you know, favor, drag,
well-oiled protection.

I heard their rehashed radio barbs--
more barbarous among hirelings
as higher-ups grow more corrupt.
But what vitality! The women hold jobs--
clean house, cook, raise children, bowl
and go to church.

What would they say if they knew
I sit for two months on six lines
of poetry?
There has been a groundswell of interest in Ms. Niedecker's poetry in the last decade, highlighted most beautifully in Jenny Penberthy's edition of Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works. For further information, turn to the Friends of Lorine Niedecker, an organization based in Fort Atkinson; each year they host a poetry festival in honor of Ms. Niedecker that attracts poets and critics from across the country. The town also houses her archives in The Hoard Historical Museum and The Dwight Foster Public Library.

The internet also offers a number of ways to engage with Ms. Niedecker's work. The Electronic Poetry center at SUNY-Buffalo features a useful page of Niedecker links, complete with a rare 16 minute audio recording. Karl Young's website offers this online facsimile of Paean to Place, one of Ms. Niedecker's finest long poems. Milwaukee Public Radio's Lake Effect program is also streaming a segment produced to coincide with the first Lorine Niedecker Wisconsin Poetry Festival in 2009.

Lastly, folks may be very interested in viewing Cathy C. Cook's lyrical documentary Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker.  Contained below is a brief clip from the film;  a half-hour  interview with Ms. Cook from Wisconsin Public Television's Director's Cut can be found here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The M12: A New Vision For The High Plains

The Black Hornet racecar at the I-76 Speedway; designed by the M12

Last week we discussed Richard Saxton, a Colorado-based artist whose work considers the intersections of artistic and community practice across a number of mediums: design, architecture, photography and sculpture. Today we'd like to continue to investigate the idea of "the vernacular" in  modern art by focusing on the M12, a collective of artists who emerged from The Municipal Workshop group Mr. Saxton helped to organize. 

Here's how this "community resource for evolutionary thinking" describes its place within rural America and contemporary art:
The mission of M12 is to plan and execute new projects in the realm of contemporary public art, to facilitate creative research regarding public art making, and to promote and facilitate public art as a vehicle for exploring community identity, contemporary issues, and the creative process. We seek to engage communities and individuals in the exploration of art through exhibitions, residency programs, educational programming, and collaborative visual arts projects. M12 has a particular interest in the rural landscape and the agrarian tradition, and often develops projects that engage, celebrate, and explore the value of these often under-represented communities.
What's profoundly inspiring about the work of the M12 is the way in which these artists are able to merge both a responsibility to local communities and a responsibility to their medium While locating much of their work in areas outside of urban attention, these artists are still pushing at the conventional assumptions of what public art can articulate and achieve.

The collective's site contains many examples of this kind of innovative thinking, as seen above in the Black Hornet project, a racecar the M12 developed to "engage the regional landscape and community of the Eastern Colorado High Plains;" the car raced every Saturday of the season at the I-76 Speedway in Fort Morgan, Colorado. While many visual artists can depict NASCAR and American motor sports from a critical (and often ironic) distance, the M12 has actually engaged with this community.

The Campito is another exciting project that goes onto a terrain that many contemporary artists only consider from a distance. Here, the group has redesigned the traditional sheep wagon of the West, and--still within an condensed space--offered a portable living quarters that contains solar panels, a composting toilet and a portable garden (among many other features). The M12 sees in this commonplace structure an opportunity to assess a region's connections both to their place and their history:
The project as a whole looks to stimulate community dialogue about the campito and larger subjects inherently tied to its present day reality; heritage of the American West, contemporary agriculture and food production, globalization, immigration, workers rights, and federal policies and practices. The project fuses contemporary, historical and geographical knowledge with the intention of putting it to use on the future Western American landscape.
This fusion of "contemporary, historical and geographical knowledge" can be viewed in much greater detail on the M12's website, which is also featuring their Prairie Module--a gorgeous geometric public art structure that is powered by solar panels. Currently installed in Indianapolis, the M12 tells us these Module is "the first public art installation to return solar power to the electrical grid."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Wendell Berry Joins Sit-In in Kentucky Governor's Office

At this hour Wendell Berry has joined a group of about 20 Kentuckians, who are engaging in a non-violent sit-in, requesting a meeting with Kentucky governor Steve Beshear. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth  is offering this site with a live video stream, and also with near minute-by-minute updates via Twitter. Mr. Berry is refusing to leave until their group has been granted a conversation with the governor. 

The group's press release is below. The Louisville Courier-Journal has coverage here; Jeff Biggers has an article here about the sit-in and the "Kentucky Rising." Also refer to the always-wonderful Mr. Wendell Berry of Kentucky for more information.
Press Release: Group of Kentuckians Demand End to Mountaintop Removal Mining in Governor’s Office Sit-In
11 February 2011
Contact: Silas House/Jason Howard 606.224.1208
FRANKFORT – A group of twenty Kentuckians has gathered at the state Capitol in an attempt to meet with Gov. Steve Beshear to discuss the issue of mountaintop removal mining. They plan to remain in his office until the governor agrees to stop the poisoning of Kentucky’s land, water, and people by mountaintop removal; or until he chooses to have the citizens physically removed.
Among the group are Wendell Berry, 76, the acclaimed writer who has decried mining abuses for the past fifty years; Beverly May, 52, a nurse practitioner from Floyd County; Erik Reece, 43, who has written extensively about the coal industry; Patty Wallace, 80, a grandmother and long-time activist from Louisa; Mickey McCoy, 55, former educator and mayor of Inez; Teri Blanton, 54, a grassroots activist from Harlan County; Stanley Sturgill, 65, a former underground coal miner of Harlan County; Rick Handshoe, 50, a retired Kentucky State Police radio technician of Floyd County; John Hennen, 59, a history professor at Morehead State University; and Martin Mudd, 28, an environmental activist.
While these Kentuckians realize they are risking arrest by refusing to leave the governor’s office, they say they have repeatedly petitioned Gov. Beshear for help, yet their pleas have been ignored. This action is a last resort to seek protections for their health, land, and water.
In a letter to Gov. Beshear, the citizens expressed their desire to communicate “respectfully and effectively” with the governor about the urgent need to stop the destruction of mountaintop removal mining. Among their requests were the following:
§  Accept a long-standing invitation to view the devastation in eastern Kentucky caused by mountaintop removal mining
§  Foster a sincere, public discussion about the urgent need for a sustainable economic transition for coal workers and mountain communities
§  Withdraw from the October 2010 lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, in which the Beshear administration partnered with the coal industry to oppose the EPA’s efforts to protect the health and water of coalfield residents
“The office of the governor must be held accountable,” they citizens explained in a joint statement.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Rye Whiskey Rural Arts Metaphor?

Templeton's home-grown rye crop; from the distillery's blog

We occasionally like to dwell on issues of food culture and the culinary arts that have a particular rural connection (see the search function on the sidebar for Ian Halbert's excellent series of articles), and today we've found a controversy that has developed across the state of Iowa that may be of interest to our readers.  

The story involves Templeton Rye, a small-batch rye whiskey distilled in Templeton, Iowa. With the exception of liquor connoisseurs, most folks outside of Iowa--even most folks in the midwest--probably have never heard of Templeton, despite the fact that it is one of the most sought-after whiskeys in the United States. It's also a whiskey with a compelling local and historical legacy. Here's a brief introduction from the distillery's site:
When Prohibition outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in 1920, many enterprising residents of a small town in Iowa chose to become outlaws – producing a high caliber and much sought-after whiskey known as Templeton Rye.

Based on its extremely smooth finish, the American rye whiskey earned the nickname of “The Good Stuff” and quickly brought a certain degree of fame to the doorsteps of Templeton (pop. 350). As the premium brand of the era, Templeton Rye fetched an impressive $5.50 per gallon – or approximately $70 by today’s standards.

Over the course of its storied history, Templeton Rye became Al Capone’s whiskey of choice, quickly finding its way to the center of his bootlegging empire. Hundreds of kegs per month were supplied to Capone’s gang who in turn filled the demand of speakeasies throughout Chicago, New York and as far west as San Francisco.

Capone was eventually convicted on charges of tax evasion and sent to prison. Later legends suggest that a few bottles even found their way inside the walls of Alcatraz to the cell of prisoner AZ-85.
Although most American whiskeys ceased production after prohibition ended, Templeton Rye continued to be produced illegally in small quantities for loyal patrons. More than eighty-five years later, the infamous small batch rye whiskey finally returned – made available legally for the first time ever in 2006.
While the Capone connection may be enough to tempt a taste, the product's history is far from a gimmick; this is one of the finest, and most unique, rye whiskeys that money can buy. Beyond the connection to Prohibition and Alacatraz, this is no doubt also related to the local elements of this product's creation, to the care that the distillers--and the town itself--has put into each bottle. As their blog indicates, this distillery is intricately linked to its home region.

The Templeton controversy, however, has emerged at the convergence of all the wonderful attributes contained in the previous paragraph. Iowans want to purchase a quality drink with an Iowa connection,  stores in the state wish to stock this local gem, and--to confound this seemingly simple example of supply and demand--a huge number of urban, coastal connoisseurs are desperate to also enjoy a sip. Extraordinarily limited quantities of Templeton Rye can be found in upscale liquor stores in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago, often at considerably higher prices. Even within Iowa, it is very hard to find the product; often local stores will only receive 2-4 bottles a month. People turn to Facebook and Twitter (#TRspottings) to report when and where they have found "the good stuff."

Ironically, then, a product which began as a contraband item has, through different circumstances, become again a subject of hush-hush conjecture. This has led, within the state of Iowa and no doubt through internet chatter, to the perception that the scarcity of Templeton Rye was linked to a single likely cause: Templeton was shipping a larger proportion of its product to distant cities. As the video below and the site's allotment data indicate, this was only a perception. The vast majority of Templeton Rye stays within the Iowa border.

Herein lies a multifaceted metaphor. We see in this story those ever-present tensions between the local and the cosmopolitan, between the rural and the urban; we also see here the point at which a fantastically successful rural, regional business reaches a challenge that has less to do with profit-margins than with the community on which the entire enterprise is rooted. As a culinary art form, this is a kind of instructive tale for artists working within other mediums.

Also, looking more broadly at the well-earned success story in Templeton, we have an aspirational model for the rural arts. It's a sort of material and aesthetic challenge for contemporary rural artists in all mediums, how to balance the desires of rural and urban audiences--and how to reach one's local audience in such a way that they take the kind of ownership over their region's work that Templeton's Iowa base has exerted. While this controversy has been a challenge to the distillery, it's an envious one for most rural artists. Imagine if the words "Templeton Rye" and "Batch 4" were interchanged in the video below with any number of other words: "our recent series of paintings", "our recent book of poems", "our current recording":

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Almanac For Moderns: The Frayed End of Winter

February Fifth

The month of February has many fine points, and not the least of them that it is soonest over. Some months had to be distinctly shorter than the others, since twelve does not divide equally into the solar year of three hundred and sixty-five days, five hours, forty-eight minutes and forty-five seconds and fifty-one hundredths of a second. The rectification of the calendar has required not only leap years but an elaborate centenarian system of skipping leap years to split this knotty fraction. The only odd thing is that men should have chosen the second month to bear the irregularities. 

The fact is, of course, that February was the last month in the English calendar until 1752, and so it took of the year what was left over. I still think the old calendar was more satisfying. New Year resolutions die notoriously young, because the frayed end of winter wears down our souls. The gods have done what they could for February by putting in Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays, and St. Valentine's day, and so many birthdays of famous naturalists that the maker of this almanac is embarrassed by the wealth of his material, for secretly the sap is rising, hard little buds are forming, and his mind will be coaxed from the past as the days lighten.

For it is in the nature of things that the lowest ebb of the living year is also the most prescient and significant; it is, for the year, the instant of conception, that moment when forces fundamentally abstract determine what it is that shall be born alive when spring is at the full.

February Sixth

Winter is a guest that stays beyond its welcome and I am not complaining merely of cold and thaw, thaw and cold. I dislike the loneliness of winter, the flowerlessness of the ground. I miss the birds.

To those who honestly prefer a titmouse or a junco to mockingbirds and mourning doves, I have nothing to answer save that it raises my spirits mightily to remember that somewhere, throbbing on summery air, there are hummingbirds. The gorgeous whistling oriole, the scarlet tanager, the indigo bird, the wood thrush and the bobolink--they are all there in the south and in the tropics, waiting the appointed hour of return or perhaps already taking off. 

Before I sleep I close my eyes and try to think of them. I see the map of the continents outspread, in a bird's eye view, snow-wrapt at the north, brown still or faintly greening in the half-sleeping Carolinas, with palm-tipped Florida reaching out into the Gulf. From the West Indies slumbering in the Carribean, from the jungles of Orinoco and the pampas of Argentine, our own will return to us. It is long and long before their coming; the skies still ache for them. Yet they are astir, upon the move, dauntless, and forgiving us our trespasses against them.

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

Monday, February 7, 2011

Richard Saxton's Vernacular Landscapes

from The Research Archive; 5.5” x 8.5”

A number of recent posts have dealt with various concepts of "the vernacular" across the arts of poetry, music and photography; today I'd like to bring into the discussion a visual artist whose body of work is intimately concerned with both the aesthetic questions tied up in vernacular art and as well as the ways in which this kind of art can both challenge and sustain rural communities. 

Richard Saxton is an artist and educator based in Denver. He and his work has traveled across the country and across the world in an effort to present audiences with an art that is, in Mr. Saxton's words, "interdisciplinary, blurring the boundaries of social practice, sculpture, architecture, design, and image-based research." As with previous discussions of Chris Sauter and the rural avant-garde, what we see in much of Mr. Saxton's work is an aesthetic that is deeply contemporary--yet the visual style of these pieces is not an end in itself, not a distant, theoretical veneer.

Instead, when we encounter the "social practice" of this work we are placed on a surprising terrain, and our traditional notions of what it means to be an audience for a piece of art radically changes: a rural gas station, perhaps like one in our own community, is defamiliarized by way of Mr. Saxton's lens. With that spark of recognition, the gas station in the photograph and our  own local gas station, along with our perspective on that building and all the other structures surrounding it, is transformed. We begin to see these structures--physical and social--as works of art constantly in the process of being created. And we realize that all of us are a part of this composition.

In this respect, the term "vernacular art" seems to have many provocative parallels to what many of us would recognize in the folk tradition as how a song--by interacting with an audience--is altered, updated and made local, contemporary. Out of seemingly disparate materials, we're back at a point where the traditional and the modern have a great deal to share with each other.

This phenomenon is present across many of Mr. Saxton's projects. The image above is a representative from The Research Archive, a collection of over 500 photographs the artist has taken of unconventional or improvised architecture in rural America. "The archive is a celebration of freedom and autonomy in building," Mr. Saxton tells us, "and is a testament to chance, resourcefulness, simplicity, unpredictability, and everyday ingenuity."

Also housed on the artist's site is the Models and Drawings collection; these pieces "explore an interest in the poetics of the everyday vernacular landscape," and, in considering local materials and local conditions, they offer a glimpse into the artist's process of composition. In the two selections below, we see how figurative models are linked--through this vernacular, "in-process" quality--to abstract renderings:

It may not surprise folks who remember our previous coverage of The Rural Studio that Mr. Saxton served as an artist-in-residence at the Studio a few years ago. After that residency, Mr. Saxton joined in bringing a "rural renaissance" to the small town of York, Alabama. Here's the Birmingham Black and White reporting on his project:
sculptor Richard Saxton was busy renovating an old bank building to create studios and living quarters for two more artists-in-residence that The Coleman Center will support. He previously worked at [Samuel] Mockbee's Rural Studio and now directs The Municipal Workshop, described as a contemporary public art laboratory that works in conjunction with municipalities and communities to foster a more creative approach to living. One of their recent projects is Utility Now!, in which local artists work to solve the Department of Public Works' lack of transportation by redesigning old tricycles and bicycles to make them useful for routine city maintenance, yet aesthetically interesting.
The Municipal Workshop created public art projects with local communities from 2002-2007, and its work is thoroughly documented on the Workshop website. Their many creations range from a Music Integrated Kiosk Environment (MIKE) produced for the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin to the AutoTour Vehicle built for the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah. This work led from the Workshop to the formation of the M12, a collective of artists doing some very exciting work in rural America, and beyond. We will conclude this week with a separate article on the M12, as their work deserves ample space.

Until then, we recommend returning to the fantastic Art Lies issue that considered the state of the contemporary arts in rural America; contained within is "Cool Pastoral Splendor," a collaboration between Richard Saxton and Kurt Wagner, a poet and the creative center of the band Lambchop.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Following the Texas Mountain Trail

Sunrise in Van Horn, Texas; Texas Mountain Trail's  Facebook page

Yesterday we welcomed Beth Nobles onto our site as one of what we're calling our Rural Correspondents--folks who are working on the ground level to foster the arts in our rural communities. Beth is a visual artist and the executive Director of the Texas Mountain Trail, a non-profit organization working on community development and tourism marketing for Far West Texas.

Especially after considering the argument for regional collaboration within Grant Wood's essay Revolt Against the City, the Texas Mountain Trail organization seems to have their finger on a vision of the kinds of partnerships for which a number of rural regions could avail themselves. All of the pieces are here: broad cooperation amongst businesses, organizations and artists--and, importantly, an attractive and informative website with a social media component. As a sidebar on the site tells us, The Texas Mountain Trail is connected, through a program of the Texas Historical Commission, to the nine other Heritage Trail Regions of the state.

One feature of the site that fascinated us was the story of Van Horn's Clark Hotel, which hosts, every five years, an all-town reunion. Photographers were on hand at the last gathering to document, in portraiture, all of the returning families--a visual model of a town's family tree. 

A collection of 500 photographs contained in the Clark Hotel has also been digitized and included on the University of North Texas's Portal to Texas History archive. Just as our site is beginning to consider forms of vernacular architecture and art, this is a wonderful discovery, and it's in keeping with other such archives we've discussed at the Library of Congress and the Florida Memory Archives.

Here's one of our favorites: Costumed Ladies. Though the photograph contains no information on the occasion for such costuming, we are informed that the participants consist of "Clara Bean, Neva Harrell, Mrs. Wylie, Pansy Durrill Cleg, Mrs. D.B. Jackson, Mrs. Daisy Rowe, Mrs. Jack Price:"

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Texas Crossroads Cowboy Gathering

photograph from a recent Texas Crossroads Cowboy Gathering

By Beth Nobles, Art of the Rural Correspondent

There’s no question about Bob Kinford’s occupation when you meet the founder and organizer of the Texas Crossroads Cowboy Gathering--this is a man who works horses and cattle.  Even in the heart of Far West Texas’ Chihuahuan desert, he gets noticed when he enters a room.  Sporting a wide-brimmed hat, well-worn cowboy boots, and his neck tied with a wild rag, this cowboy is a horse trainer and a specialist in herd behavior and natural reduced-stress cattle handling; as well as a poet, storyteller, cook, and publisher.
Just as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival developed as an alternative venue in Scotland, Bob Kinford organized the Texas Crossroads Cowboy Gathering three years ago as an option for performers trying to break into the cowboy poetry circuit.
“Cowboy anthologies, stories and poetry are not considered an actual genre by the publishing industry, and gatherings are the only practical way to market the work,” said Bob recently.  “It seemed that gatherings I attended kept hiring the same people and were not hiring out of the open mic performers.”
“We are filling a niche for up-and-coming entertainers, as well as those who are trying to expand out to different areas of the country. As far as I know, we are the only gathering that live-streams video of all shows to the internet. This is allowing us to fulfill our goal of getting the genre out to a whole new audience, not just in the United States, but also internationally. The average person has never heard of cowboy poetry or music. Those who have not actually heard it before assume that it is just a bunch of hicks with no talent.”
Now, in anticipation of the Crossroads Cowboy Gathering’s third year (in Van Horn, Texas, February 3-6), Bob has planned outreach events in area schools.  For example, “We’ve got 27 performers this year, and all are either currently involved in agriculture or have their roots in it. Many are ranchers or retired ranchers. I would like to make Crossroads not just an entertainment venue, but educational as well,” said Bob.   Tiny Valentine, Texas (approximate population 250) “will host Crossroad’s performers Evelyn Roper, Bob Atkins and Tony Argento at their elementary school.  They will sing and recite poetry, as well as giving the kids a chance to ask them questions about their art or agriculture.”
As a rural festival organizer, Bob shares some of the same challenges with organizers anywhere, “getting through the politics of having other events hire from our pool of entertainers, and drawing an audience with a very limited budget.”  However, this audition venue for aspiring cowboy poets and performers seems to be a survivor.  Already, plans are underway for a February 2-5, 2012 Texas Crossroads Cowboy Gathering in Van Horn, Texas.
Information about attending this year’s festival in person or through live-streaming video is available at the Gathering’s website.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Calendar Poems of Lorine Niedecker

Wade all life
backward to its
source which
runs too far

Between digging out from our massive Midwestern storm, I'd like to offer this entry from Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), a poet from Blackhawk Island, Wisconsin whose influence on contemporary poetry has come to far exceed the boundaries of her river road. There will be much more on Ms. Niedecker soon; her work falls into conversation with a number of other upcoming posts that consider what's at stake in the concept of the "vernacular" in photography, architecture and visual art. The above poem is the first entry in a series entitled Next Year or I Fly My Rounds Tempestuous; it was a portion of a calendar book she gifted to the Objectivist poet Louis Zukofsky in December of 1934.

Until then, there is much more of Ms. Niedecker's work to be enjoyed in Jenny Penberthy's excellent Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works, and more information by Ms. Penberthy on the calendar series can be found here.  The Poetry Foundation also offers this concise biography, with poems; information on the the lyrical documentary Immortal Cupboard, complete with excerpts, can be viewed by following this link.