Monday, May 30, 2011

Telling The Full Story of The Greatest Generation

Donald Dayton; USS Lexinton, Pacific Theater; "Survived, against all odds, a plane crash in the North Atlantic during a training mission." 

This Memorial Day we feel honored to feature the work of Cheyenne Miller and her Heroes of Washington County project, which is working to collect oral histories and photographic records from World War II veterans who reside in this rural county located south of Iowa City. We'd like to thank Megan and Shawn, long-time readers of this site, for letting us know about Mrs. Miller and her phenomenal work.

After Mrs. Miller's grandfather passed away (he served in the 82nd Airborne during the war), the idea of collecting veterans' stories took a hold of her; when her grandmother survived a near-fatal fall a few years later, Mrs. Miller had an epiphany of sorts that this work must be done--and it must be done soon. What has happened since is nothing short of amazing, judging by the Facebook page which is currently serving as a community gathering-point for the project.

As Mrs. Miller told us in email correspondence, the support from the community has been overwhelming and inspiring, as folks have contacted her with the names of friends and family in the county who served in World War II or were affected by its events. To date, over 70 people have been interviewed, with 30 more conversations still to take place; a book, complete with oral histories and the gorgeous photographs below, will be forthcoming when the project is complete. 

Please visit the Heroes of Washington County site on Facebook to learn more; it is heartening to see how Cheyenne Miller is using this social media site to not only share these stories, but to bring these communities into conversation. A few photographs, with captions, are included below, but please visit the site above for higher resolution images of Mrs. Miller's work.

Robert "Smokey" Glandon; 740th Tank Battalion; "Attached to various units, including the 82nd Airborne. Liberated the 101st Airborne at Bastogne, Battle of the Bulge."

 Howard Yoder; Liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp

Ruth Zehr, Keota; "She was a 17 year-old German citizen living in Czecloslovakia when the war ended. Spent 8 months in a Russian concentration camp before being liberated by the Red Cross."

Robert E. Yoder; Conscientious Objector; Camp 33, Colorado

Fritz Conrad; 30th Infantry Regiment

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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Misrepresenting The Bravery of Frank McGee

selection from Heroic Comics #58; Comic Book Resources

Today I'd like to share the first of two Memorial Day posts, both of which attempt to tell of the sacrifices that rural Americans have made as part of our country's armed forces. While tomorrow's selection will highlight efforts to document the stories of these veterans, today's piece stands as an example of how the story gets told wrong

I first heard of Frank McGee through family members from my home region in the Ohio Valley. Mr. McGee's bravery in the Korean War made the pages of a popular comic book at the time, Heroic Comics (1953). Here's Michael San Giacomo offering the context for the illustrations from Comic Book Resources:
McGee's real life adventures were perhaps as dramatic as those of the comic book heroe of his day. He was a 22-year-old black steelworker who had seen little of the world beyond his Ohio-West Virginia roots before he was tossed into an international conflict a half-world away. On June 16, 1952, in a battle near Tang-Wan-Ni, Korea, McGee took command of his platoon after his squad leader was wounded, and his men attacked the enemy's fortified position on Hill 528.

Of course, McGee was a corporal and not in line to take the lead, but the second-in-command froze when enemy fire exploded all around them. McGee recalls his superior “just standing there,” unmoving. McGee realized it was up to him to take over. He fired at machine gun nests and held off the enemy while his platoon continued fighting up the hill. At one point, McGee was injured, but there was no one to take over for him. He ignored his wounds and continued fighting until orders came to retreat.

McGee remembers watching the mortar shell land in front of him, as if happening in slow motion. "I saw it coming at me, it looked like a baseball," he said. "It landed a foot in front of me and exploded, I got it in the chin and side of head."
As Mr. Giacomo reports in his excellent article, Heroic Comics did an admirable job of narrating the facts of this battle, with one major exception: Frank McGee is an African-American, yet the comic book portrayed him as a white soldier.

While, by our modern standards, this is an unforgivable omission, Mr. Giacomo tells us this was a common practice in comics of the time:
Black people were difficult to find in American comics of the 1940s and 1950s. When they did appear, African-Americans were often drawn as caricatures and played for comic relief, like The Spirit’s occasional sidekick, Ebony White, or the member of the superhero group “Young Allies,” Whitewash Jones. The early Tarzan comics were also exceptions, as black characters were often seen as tribesman in his jungle adventures. There was also a single issue of 1947’s “All Negro Comics,” which featured strong stories of black men and women, written and drawn by black artists. 
At the risk of merely excerpting all of Mr. Giacomo's piece, I recommend that folks give his full article a perusal--because what he documents is not only a problem in how the African-American experience was misrepresented in comic books, but also a problem with how Medals of Honor have been distributed, historically-speaking, in our country: no African-American had received such a distinction until the end of the Korean War.  

The larger, more systemic, injustice here is that Frank McGee did not receive a Medal of Honor for his actions that day at Tang-Wan-Ni. Though his white commanding officer promised to advocate on his behalf, Mr. McGee has yet to receive the honor. Had he been recognized in due time for his bravery, he would have been the first African-American in history to have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

This is an omission which slights not only Mr. McGee but those generations of African-American soldiers that preceded him; I am particularly proud of this man and our home region, which housed many stops on the Underground Railroad and which, although roughly at first, was racially-integrated long before most other areas of America. 

One of the folks working to secure his Medal of Honor, Victoria Seacrest, has articulated this best, when she said that Mr. McGee "comes from a long line of freedom fighters, all the way back eight generations to an ancestor who was the son of an English woman and a black man who fought in the Revolutionary War."  

We'll be following the story of Frank McGee and the efforts to grant him the Medal of Honor he rightfully deserves. 

Related Articles:
Where Soldiers Come From

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Almanac For Moderns: Bringing Back The Warbler

May Twenty-Ninth

Here is May, gone by, and with it will go something fresh and joyful that, I suppose, will not pass this way again in all the year. Of all months it is the floweriest. Never again, in this twelvemonth, will there be so many bird voices ringing out. There is little worth while, in any month, of which May does not have at least a little share, unless you are one of those robustious souls made of objectionably more solid stuff who prefer your trees naked, your flowers snow-covered and your birds sparrowish and cheepy. 

Myself, I am all for the joyful, the colored and carnival. May coaxes even the reluctant oaks to leaf, and brings back to us the very last warbler and tanager and oriole and cuckoo. It combines the first and best of the summer splendor with the innocence of the flora of April. 

Now is the moment when the woods begin to fill up with golden sundrops, and the banks are winey with the odor of wild grape and honeysuckle. The country lanes are a bower of flowering brambles, arching out on their prickly canes, spilling whiteness. Now all familiar spirits give voice in the downpouring of sunlight, the song-sparrow and the goldfinch and bluebird and all such small and merry choristers.

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

Friday, May 27, 2011

Reading the Rural Through New Yorker Covers

After yesterday's piece on Gillian Welch and her music's position on the vanguard of rural-urban relations, we received an email about the current cover of the The New Yorker.  While their cartoons are often the subject of gripes and jokes, the magazine's cover art can occasionally take the culture's temperature in a single image (see the "terrorist fistbump" or the post-9/11 cover). In the covers included here, we see six different political and social commentaries on rural life and rural place, each telling for what's included or omitted, given the situations on the ground in rural communities when these issues hit the newsstand. I'll leave our readers to provide their own parallel narratives here, and their own captions for these images. Enjoy, and have a good weekend.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Rural-Urban Presence of Gillian Welch

This morning American Songwriter is reporting that Gillian Welch will release a new album in late June, The Harrow & The Harvest, her first full length recording in eight years.  While Ms. Welch and her partner David Rawlings have created some of the very finest "alt-country" (or whatever term one wishes to use), a proper Gillian Welch record has been notably absent for almost a decade, and we're so happy to hear the wait has come to an end.

Gillian Welch has a unique presence within the context of this site and the ideas we're trying to understand and map out. In many respects, her earlier recordings stand as one entry-point for how urban listeners (and a largely college-educated contingent) continue to grapple with the issues of the rural arts and rural place. Indeed, she was mentioned in the New York Times cover story on the Virginia Crooked Road, and implicitly categorized as a "bluegrass" artist from the Appalachian region--two distinctions that readers of this site questioned in emails I recently received. It's a testament to the power of her music that journalists make such assumptions and mis-classifications; though born and raised in New York City and Los Angeles, her music speaks to elemental experiences well beyond any fixed place. 

What I feel is far more important is the way in which her music crafted an audience that would become the first wave of a number of the cultural movements--emanating from the cities--which offer such promising prospects for rural arts and culture. Listening back to 2003's Soul Journey, we find the musical accompaniment to what would follow shortly after that record's release: Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, the emerging CSA movement, a renewed interest by urban folks in engaging with traditional (and rural) arts and crafts, a historical and artistic consciousness that extends beyond the current season. Though I don't have the numbers in front of me, I would bet a large percentage of people who support the worthwhile crowdfunded projects we've discussed here also have Gillian Welch records in their home.

While there has always been a vibe of "sustainability" to her music--long before such a term became over-used--there is also a suggestion, an urging to her urban listeners, that while they may not be "from the country" they can find ways to begin to culturally identify with rural traditions, and, through related kinds of agricultural acts, with rural place itself. Though this kind of identification comes with its own complications, we have to see this as a promising step towards shedding a rural-urban binary that only works to the disservice of both places. 

Here's more information on The Harrow & The Harvest, with a few songs included below:
June 28 will see the release of Gillian Welch’s first album in eight years, the stunning The Harrow & The Harvest. The Harrow & The Harvest was recorded at her own Woodland Sound Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, and was produced by guitarist and collaborator David Rawlings.
38 independent record stores will preview The Harrow & The Harvest (go to for details). Welch and Rawlings will launch a tour of seventy cities on May 20 that will stretch into the fall.
The Harrow & The Harvest “is a new Southern sound,” writes Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, “with the sort of songs you wouldn’t be surprised to hear issuing from some verdant, wooded hollow in Appalachia; Songs you’d expect to hear hollered from an Asheville grange hall, all too late in the evening. Songs with the wry humor of the back porch. Listen to this record with the lights low. Listen to it on an old radio, cradled next to your ear.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative and the New Visions Media Project

This week the Southern Foodways Alliance's Facebook page posted a video that caught our attention--and led us to learn more about The Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative and their New Visions program, which puts media tools in the hands of rural women and gives them the training and the platform in which to tell their their story. Here's an introduction to this organization:
The Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice (SRBWI) grew out of a meeting convened by the Ford Foundation in New York, in late 2000. A small group of women met there to discuss with representatives of the Foundation, their experiences working in the rural South assisting low income, low skill and underemployed Black women who were trying to improve the quality of their and their families’ lives. In January, 2002 a slightly larger group of women held a follow-up meeting which led to the formation of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice which works in a 77 county target area across the Black Belt regions of Alabama and Southwest Georgia, and the Delta in Mississippi.
The SRBWI now houses a number of programs designed to foster leadership skills within these communities and to recognize the qualities unique to the many social circles that comprise this region. Within that mission, the SRBWI also features the New Visions program:
New Visions engages and involves young women in the work of SRBWI through teaching marketable skills in media technology and production.    With trained local filmmaking-mentors in GA, AL and MS., New Visions Apprentices receive instruction on industry standard software, artistic forms of storytelling and technology throughout the year.   Participants produce short films and documentaries which are featured at the Unita Blackwell Young Women's Leadership Conference as well as other venues.

These films document and promote SRBWI’s work among our constituents and to others in the field.

The New Visions site offers much valuable work--in particular "Portrait" by Carol Perez, (who also created the video above), a piece that is a combination of spoken word poetry and autobiography. Like the work of the SRBWI as a whole, it reveals the other less-spoken-of stories that comprise life in the Delta. While popular notions of the Delta don't run too deep (blues, cuisine, etc), "Portrait" stands as an excellent example of the mission of this organization, and how it highlights the work of women who are, in every sense of the word, sustaining their families and their communities. (The video cannot be embedded, so please click on the "Film Production" link to locate Ms. Perez's work.)

A selection of these videos have been uploaded to SRBWI's YouTube page. As the Southern Foodways Alliance reported above, one of their oral historians, Amy Evans Streeter, has just completed a media project with New Visions. Here is the short video introduction to their work, which the SFA tells us was  "the product of an oral history workshop conducted on May 21, 2011, in Cleveland, MS:"

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Contexts: Crooked Roads, Quilts and Meth

From considering Gabriel García Márquez's imagined Macondo to the confluences of Christo and federal land-use, we turn today in our Contexts series to one of the most valuable online spaces for discussions of rural arts and culture: the Legal Ruralism blog. We've featured the site before, but the work of Dr. Lisa Pruitt and her contributors locates itself on the contemporary edge of these issues, so it's a very important place to find a commentary not only on rural-based stories, but on the ways in which the media, the public sector, and even the legal system are constructing what it means to be "rural." 

Dr. Pruitt is a law professor at UC-Davis and a native of the Ozarks; each of these categories of experience inform her work for Legal Ruralism and grant a perspective to the site that is both intellectually rigorous and rooted in the realities of rural place and culture. It's in evidence in recent posts on Virginia's Crooked Road music trail and in her extended reportage on how issues local to the Arkansas Ozarks carry national implications. Dr. Pruitt has contributed a series of pieces considering the politics and legal issues surrounding rural Arkansas schools, as well as an extended series called Law and Order in the Ozarks that places local events within a broader discussion.

What's also unique about Legal Ruralism is the inclusion of many of Dr. Pruitt's students as contributors. As many consider how to integrate "the next generation" into these discussions, this site offers a virtual model for those conversations--as these writers come from different backgrounds and cultivate exciting interdisciplinary ideas. One piece that underlined the value of this exchange is Piecing a Life Together: Quilting, the Great (Rural) American Art. Here's how the author, Chez Marta, begins:
On my recent flight across the country, as I was gazing out the airplane’s window, I looked down on vast stretches of sparsely populated farmland. The ground looked like a big patch-work quilt of browns, greens, and yellows. The scene reminded me of the short story, A Jury of Her Peers by early feminist writer Susan Glaspell. In that story, first published in 1916, the wives of the county’s important officials tag alongside their husbands to visit a murder scene. Apparently, a rural woman has killed her husband, nobody knows how or why. The women discover the causes of this tragedy by observing the details of the first floor of the house (i.e., the kitchen and the parlor), details which only a woman would understand, while the men fail to find any evidence pointing to a possible motive of the crime. In short, the men fail to understand the intricacies of this household's dynamics.

One of the key pieces of evidence the women understand is the quilt the lady of the house worked on. They notice that her quilt had some impeccably pieced squares but, all of a sudden, the work turned shoddy, as if the maker of the quilt had suddenly lost her touch with the quilt — and with reality. The story poignantly shows why rural women, in their solitary and frugal lives, had long embraced the tradition of quilting, used it not only for providing their families with warm blankets at no extra cost, but also for telling stories about their nearly invisible lives. Continue reading here:
At the risk of merely summarizing all the valuable writing and commentary on Legal Ruralism, it's best to follow the link and spend some time perusing the archives. Folks may also be interested in Dr. Pruitt's consideration of new Appalachian drama, which has inspired us to work on an article that we will soon share in this space.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?

photograph by Henry Horenstein, from his excellent collection of work in  Honky Tonk

Before the weekend begins, we'd like to give everyone a taste of a new series we will publish over the course of the summer. More information next week, but, until then, we can all start the weekend off on the right note:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Contexts: Flooding, Farms and Modern Art

Sketch by Christo; New York Times

These three articles may be useful to consider together. Nature and agriculture, rural place and man-made artifice comingle here; combined, there's an ambiguous narrative at work, sketching a series of scenes from the ongoing discussion over how we figure the urban-rural interchange and what assets contemporary culture locates within rural place.

1. Christo's Colorado Project May Hinge on Sheep, by John Collins Rudolf, New York Times:
Nearly 20 years after the artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, proposed draping a river canyon in southern Colorado in miles of translucent fabric, a federal thumbs up or down on the project may hinge on one factor above all others: the happiness of several hundred bighorn sheep. 

Crucial to the federal government’s decision, expected in August or September, will be a final environmental impact statement on the $50 million installation, known as “Over the River,” that federal land managers plan to unveil in coming weeks. 

Some wildlife experts worry that sheep could be displaced or even harmed if the fabric is unfurled over 5.9 miles of the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City. Last week the Colorado Wildlife Commission voted unanimously to urge federal officials to reject the proposal, citing in part its concerns about the bighorn, Colorado’s state animal. Continue reading here:

 Army Corps of Engineers exploding the Birds Point-New Madrid Levee; CNN

 2. Speak Your Piece: Breaching The Levee, by Timothy Collins, The Daily Yonder:
Breaching the levee on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River to lessen the impacts of the 2011 flood is more than a rural-urban conflict. 

Flooding thousands of acres of farmland to lessen the pressures of raging Ohio River waters on cities such as Cairo, Illinois, and Paducah, Kentucky, was, at the moment, clearly about saving developed urban property at the expense of less developed and less populated rural areas.

But there’s a long history here, one that reveals big mistakes by leaders of the Conservation Movement during the twentieth century. They believed that wise use entailed controlling the nation’s rivers by building levies and draining wetlands to create farmland and promote other development. 
The same principle applies to the massive irrigation projects that spurred farming and urban development in the western United States.

Sadly, in retrospect, these projects were called reclamation. People who claimed to want to preserve nature really sought to put our species above nature. They acted on misguided hubris that all of the gifts of the Earth were there for our use. Meanwhile, we made minor accommodations for plants and animals in the name of conservation. Continue reading here:

 A flooded wheat field near Vicksburg, Mississippi; Scott Olson, Getty Images

3. Flooding Takes Economic Toll, And It's Hardly Done, by Christine Hauser, New York Times:
Like the very nature of water, the trickle-down effects of the historic flooding are leaving no corner untouched. Retail gasoline prices, already at two-year highs, and food prices could rise in the region because of supply disruptions. Tens of thousands of people are unemployed, shut out of jobs at establishments that are literally under water. State and local government coffers, strained because of the economic downturn, may lose many millions of dollars in revenue from tourism and taxes. 

In about a dozen interviews, economists, farmers and industry officials said they expected hundreds of millions of dollars in damages including crop and infrastructure destruction in communities along the 740 miles of river that meanders from Memphis to New Orleans. But while the final bill has yet to be determined, the costs are already being felt. 

In Yazoo County, Miss., John Phillips, a 61-year-old farmer, said thousands of acres of his cotton and corn crops had been destroyed. “In our area in the south delta, it is a widespread and very economically devastating disaster,” he said in a telephone interview, as he tried to run a pump. He said his annual revenue would be reduced by 40 percent because it was too late to replant. Continue reading here:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Native American Basketry: A Living Tradition

The Autry National Center in Los Angeles is currently offering The Art of Native American Basketry: A Living Tradition, a wide-ranging look into the basket arts across cultures and geographies. Here's the Autry's introduction to this exhibit:
More than 250 objects will be on view, ranging in size from small Pomo feather baskets made for sale to tourists, to massive Apache olla baskets used for storing large quantities of seeds. Because the works shown have been selected from a remarkably wide-ranging and distinguished collection, visitors will be able to see how the materials, techniques, and designs of the baskets vary from region to region, reflecting different physical environments and traditions. Also evident will be the distinctive styles of individual artists, whose signatures can be instantly recognizable to other weavers. The Autry has invited thirteen contemporary basketweavers to serve as consultants in research and planning and will purchase a basket from each consultant to add to the permanent collection.
The museum, in its efforts to stress the contemporary element of this tradition, is also featuring a series of video installations that carry the voices of these modern basketweavers into the gallery space:

We haven't spent enough time with The Autry National Center in the past, so we look to correct this soon. Their Native Voices program, "devoted to developing and producing new works for the stage by Native American playwrights," is particularly exciting--we'll discuss these productions soon. Until then, The Autry's YouTube channel is well worth a visit; they offer over 50 well-produced videos that suggest the range of their cultural and artistic mission.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chris Verene And The Galesburg Series

When I last corresponded with photographer Amy Stein (see our feature on her work here), she suggested that The Art of the Rural also consider the photography of Chris Verene -- a suggestion for which we are very grateful. Ms. Stein interviewed Mr. Varene last year in her blog, and it's an insightful discussion that will interest many of our readers.

As Ms. Stein tell us, Chris Verene is a photographer who--aside from other projects and series--has been taking photographs of his family in his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois for the last 27 years. The Galesburg Series does not flinch from the hard social and economic facts of life in Central Illinois. "His approach to depicting his family is tender and humorous and often disturbing," Ms. Stein writes. "His style is distinctive; marked by his use of fill flash, a square film format and the addition of neatly handlettered text surrounding the image." 

This style, we learn, is meant to evoke a "family album" in an age where such photographic heirlooms are becoming increasingly rare. The images, combined with the handwritten text, puts an extra-familial viewer in a strange position--there's an intimacy, almost a sense of a secreted story to these photographs, yet there is also an inescapable cultural commentary. We are taken in by this intimate and local tone, only to have that impulse defamiliarized by Mr. Verene's brief title-narratives. 

When representing any rural community, but especially when articulating something from the "center" (the city) to the "periphery" (rural place), viewers will rightfully interrogate everything that's implied in the role of the observer. (For instance, consider our coverage of Aaron Huey's work alongside Mary Annette Pember's editorial in The Daily Yonder). Ms. Stein addresses this question head-on in her interview:
Amy Stein: I’m interested in your relationship with your family. In particular with the members of your extended family in your images. Are you close? How do you deal with the distance that comes with the repeated act of photographing your family, of placing yourself in the role of observer. Or does the act of photographing them bring you closer?

Chris Verene: I'm very close with my family, pictured and not pictured. As an only child, I clung to my cousins like siblings, and we still are very connected. I do not work as an 'observer,' that is your job as the audience. I am relating the stories from their source, our family, town, and neighbors out to the world at large. I think that the act of photographing makes me close with only the people who really enjoy the photography-- the people who time and again ask for pictures, and compel me to tell those stories.
Included below are a few photographs from Chris Varene's site; a monograph of this work, Family, has been released by Twin Palms Publishers, complete with 120 pages and 80 full color plates. The images which follow, in their compressed space, offer a hint at how powerful the photographs will appear when printed on a full-color page.

Here's Mr. Verene, also from Amy Stein's interview:
The North American Free Trade Agreement meant that Maytag could make their fridges about 10 feet across the Mexican border, and make so much more money, because the people in Mexico will work for a lot less money, and the safety restrictions are very shallow across the border--which also is good for corporations' profits. For Candi and Craig, who both worked at the factory, it meant a carefully balanced life of two working parents with young children was dumped quickly for corporate cash. Galesburg workers were suicidal. Their pensions were dumped, their dreams wasted. 


Related Articles:

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Art of Regional Change In Rural California

On site with Art of the Regional Change participants: Up From The Understory blog

Today we'd like to share some information on an program that's putting together work that's both inspirational and instructive for how we might envision the intersection of the academy, the arts and community sustainability: The Art of Regional Change

Headquartered at the University of California-Davis campus and directed by jesikah maria ross, the ARC brings together scholars, artists, members the community (and a cohort of media-savvy undergraduates) to consider ways to revitalize local communities. As the student writers and media-producers work to tell the story of the place and its people, artists work to transmute those narratives into a lasting expression, and scholars observe the lessons learned from this shared effort--and transmit these strategies so that the process can be replicated elsewhere. It is a brilliant way to bring together a collection of perspectives that--though they all may be thinking and working toward the same larger goals--too often are skeptical or isolated from each other. Here's how the ARC describes this mission:
Community members, artists, humanists, and social scientists all come together to re-examine a place. They bring particular stories: humanists bring narratives of art, history, literature, culture; social scientists chronicle data, models, and empirical evidence; artists paint stories with brushes, capture moments with digital tools; community members relay accounts of daily life, personal experiences, and political struggle. The convergence of such a diverse group of story-tellers challenges all to consider, to translate, to stretch, and ultimately sharpen their thinking.
The Up From The Understory project immediately captured our attention:
Nestled among the rushing forks of the Mokulmne River and the pine covered Sierra foothills of Northeastern Calaveras County, the four towns of the Blue Mountain community were once rich in gold and timber. After a century of boom and bust resource extraction cycles, the close of the mining and timber industries left the region challenged by the loss of local jobs, boarded up businesses and difficulties attracting new development. While residents had started several community renewal initiatives, many of these projects were struggling to sustain themselves. After a decade revitalization efforts, the community needed a vehicle to better publicize local issues and bring concerned citizens together to work for change.
The "vehicle" The Art of Regional Change provided to Blue Mountain area residents centered on the power of storytelling, its ability to not only preserve local history and culture but to also provide a way for the community to re-envision its place and its future. Through this process of inter-generational storytelling, previously antagonistic groups within the community found common ground.

The youth who took part in this media project also produced a series of excellent short videos that feature the voices of folks from their community--and they can be viewed here.

jesikah maria ross has led a number of other exciting projects; one that many of our readers would also find valuable would be Farewell to a Rancher, an audio piece originally broadcast on Weekend America. Here, 85 year-old Sierra Nevada rancher Attilio Genasci tells his story, and records his views on how, culturally and agriculturally, life has changed:

Saturday, May 14, 2011

In the Field With Mark Linkous And Sparklehorse

It's been over a year since Mark Linkous passed away; his perspective is still an inspiration and a foundational example for many young artists who are rooted in rural culture yet interested in  representing their place in new ways. We recently discovered some wonderful documentary footage online that we'd like to share -- it patiently captures the prevailing spirit behind Mr. Linkous and Sparklehorse.

As we wrote in our remembrance of Mr. Linkous last year, his music stood in a profound position between traditional and avant-garde rural art forms; perhaps for those reasons, Sparklehorse found a large audience in Europe, as American listeners either had a hard time with a lyrical perspective too often pigeonholed as "southern gothic" or the music was simply not formulaic enough to make it onto the airwaves and stereos of more listeners.

Luckily for all of us, this 1998 Italian documentary has made its way to YouTube; it's an intimate and artfully-done portrait of Mr. Linkous and rural Virginia. The film is split into nine parts and may make for some peaceful rainy-day weekend viewing. If folks haven't heard the music of Sparklehorse, we highly recommend Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (1995) and also It's a Wonderful Life (2001). 

Here's the first part of Sparklehorse = Mark Linkous = Southern Man

Here also is a live version of "Cow" from Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. Though there are many artful fan-made videos of Mr. Linkous's music, this audience-level live clip seems to get at the obscure beauty of his music:

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Mapping The Rural Food Desert

this image links to the Food Desert Locator

The Rural Blog recently covered the USDA's release of their interactive Food Desert Locator map, and this news seems to inform our previous post on Matthew Moore's Digital Farm Archive. The USDA defines a food desert as "a low-income neighborhood with high concentrations of people who are far from a grocery store." Al Cross, writing on The Rural Blog, breaks down the rural component:
To qualify as a “low-income community,” a census tract must have a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the census tract's median family income. To qualify as a rural “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store. 
There is a bitter irony to these demographics, as many of the very areas that are producing food for the entire nation are themselves enmeshed in a food desert. At once, it only makes more prescient the work of artists and writers ranging from Mr. Moore to Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan. Given that central cities are the other primary locus for food deserts, this Locator map also reveals the common challenges facing rural and urban Americans--and perhaps opens up another line for dialogue and cooperation.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Digital Farm Collective

the Moore Estates installation; from 20x200

We will be writing in depth about farmer and photographer Matthew Moore's vision for the intersections of art and agriculture shortly in this space, but today we wanted to share with everyone this video for his upcoming project: The Digital Farm Collective

This crowdfunded project, through United States Artists, only has only two days left to reach its goal. As folks will see below, Mr. Moore's project aims to both address the issues of suburban sprawl, the "rural brain-drain," and, more broadly, the future of agriculture itself. Mr. Moore is a fourth-generation farmer from Arizona, an artist who has lived the interconnections betwee sustainable agriculture and artistic practice. There is a personal mission, as well as an aesthetic one, behind this project--as with this previous project The Urban Plough, which used aerial photography and mapping so that an audience could visualize how suburban developments are eating away at the farmland in his region.

The project's introductory video is included below, along with an artist's statement. More information on The Digital Farm Collective, along with details on the rewards for pledging to help can be found here.

Introduction to the Digital Farm Collective from Matthew Moore on Vimeo.
I am a fourth generation farmer whose land and life are quickly being overcome by suburbia. Because of the encroachment I was inspired to create the ‘Digital Farm Collective’ to collect and share the images from the most important daily process of agriculture, the growth of our produce. Using time-lapse photography, I have begun the process of filming everything I grow, and inviting other farmers to do the same. The arranged short films show a single production cycle of each plant/tree. Ambient noises are taken from the farm and plants while growing, and musicians inspired by the footage are invited to compose music to accompany the films.

The films will be used to educate consumers on the produce they purchase by showing the growing process as it happens in the field, reconnecting them to the land and time based concepts integral to the agricultural process. This project is a part of a larger effort to create an international database which conserves footage of plants grown across the globe. What is being created is a digital film herbarium that will build from growers filming their best crops, telling the story not only of the plants, but of the farmers and families as well.

We have created time-lapse photography packages to send to farmers to film their crops. Each package will include camera equipment, weather and soil monitoring system, file transferring hardware and instruction manuals. We will compile the data into short films for general audiences and map the soil and growing conditions through the data garnered in the units for scientific and future growing knowledge

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Almanac For Moderns: The Homing Instinct

May Sixth

What can it be, this homing instinct, that brings the birds back to us every year? That brings the wrens and the swallows to the very same nests around the house and barn? That leads the carrier pigeon home across a hundred, five hundred miles? 

The trainer of pigeons has something significant to tell about this. He cannot release his birds for the first time in Moscow and expect them to fly home to Paris. He must first take them not a mile from home, and when they have learned all landmarks thoroughly, he may take them thirty or forty miles away. Each pigeon must be educated in its route. Birds, then, in their mirgrations would seem to have a memory for landmarks, and flying very high as they do, they see so much country in one little eyeful that the memory need not be burdened with a crushing weight of detail.

But the slippery question of the ways of birds upon their majestic travels will not rest as this. If it be true that the young of the season, who have never made the flight before, often travel in little jaunty bands of adolescents, as they appear to, without the oldsters accompanying them, then memory of landmarks cannot be all the story. Something else draws on their restless wings across the sea and the unbroken forest, some feeling in their light, air-filled bones, that sweeps them north in a grand phalanx in spring, and surges south with them in autumn.

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

Monday, May 9, 2011

Contexts: How The Magnet Changed A Village

 a mural outside Aracataca, Colombia, the hometown of Gabriel García Márquez

Many year later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display their new inventions. First they brought the magnet. A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands, who introduced himself as Melquíades, put on a bold public demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Macedonia. He went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs, and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Melquíades magical irons. "Things have a life of their own," the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. "It's simply a matter of waking up their souls." Jose Arcadio Buendia, whose unbridled imagination always went beyond the genius of nature and even beyond miracles and magic, thought that it would be possible to make use of that useless invention to extract gold from the bowels of the earth. Melquíades, who was an honest man, warned him: "It won't work for that." But José Arcadio Buendia at that time did not believe in the honesty of gypsies, so he traded his mule and a pair of goats for the two magnetized ingots. Ursula Iguarán, his wife, who relied on those animals to increase their poor domestic holdings, was unable to dissuade him. "Very soon we'll have gold enough and more to pave the floors of the house," her husband replied. For several months he worked hard to demonstrate the truth of his idea. He explored every inch of the region, even the riverbed, dragging the two iron ingots along and reciting Melquíades incantation aloud. The only thing he succeeded in doing was to unearth a suit of fifteenth-century armor which had all of its pieces soldered together with rust and inside of which there was the hollow resonance of an enormous stone-filled gourd. When José Arcadio Buendia and the four men of his expedition managed to take the armor apart, they found inside a calcified skeleton with a copper locket containing a woman's hair around its neck. 

This is the first paragraph of Gabriel García Márquez's  Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), a book no doubt familiar to many of our readers. While it's one of the twentieth century's finest works of literary art, it also tells a grand Genesis-like story of rural place: how it deals with cultural and intellectual change, how it manages the conflicted magnet-like pull between insularity and exchange with an increasingly modern, urbanized, and technologically advanced world.

The novel's Macondo is inspired by Mr. Márquez's hometown of Aracataca, Colombia. His coming-to-terms with this place and its colonial past gave birth to the rich emotional variety of his masterpiece. As he has said, and as muralists have recorded above, "I feel Latin American from whatever country, but I have never renounced the nostalgia of my homeland: Aracataca, to which I returned one day and discovered that between reality and nostalgia was the raw material for my work."

Artists from across the globe have responded to this imperative to find the "raw materials" in their local culture. Ghanian writer Nii Ayikwei Parkes once told The Guardian that One Hundred Years of Solitude "taught the west how to read a reality alternative to their own, which in turn opened the gates for other non-western writers like [himself] and other writers from Africa and Asia." I would argue that, amongst Mr. Marquez's lush, enveloping magic-realist narrative we also come to understand how a writer from rural Columbia may have taught the city "to read a reality alternative to their own." When reading these opening lines, we see a parable for the ways in which many rural communities, from Columbia to Appalachia to China, have embraced--or have been forced to embrace--"new inventions," often resulting in contradictory ends. 

This is the first in a new series of articles we're calling "Contexts," pieces of art found from beyond the contemporary American experience that, though perhaps distant in time and geography, have important lessons to impart to our understanding of rural place and its arts and culture. 

We would love to hear folks suggestions for this series--and also to hear what American works (or art, music, literature) you might think are "equal" or parallel to Mr. Máquez's masterpiece. Which  "opened the gates" for you? Also, if we're thinking about One Hundred Years of Solitude in these terms, what is the great Genesis-like story of rural America?

Thanks again for reading The Art of the Rural; I hope everyone enjoys this new series and finds it useful to their own conversations and visions of our shared rural space.