Thursday, August 4, 2011

In Brief: The Witch of Foxpoint, Pokey LaFarge, and The Art of Corn Mazes

In Brief offers a selection of links and videos for folks to explore. While in the early months of The Art of the Rural I faced challenges locating material, thanks to our readers and the wonders of the internet (including the increasing rural presence on Facebook, Vimeo and YouTube) there's now more great stories to share than I have time to responsibly cover in a given week. I feel it is important to get the word out about these pieces, and I hope that In Brief will help keep the conversation going.

1. Here's an introduction to Barbara Manger and Janine Smith's Mary Nohl: Inside & Outside, which was recently published by the University of Wisconsin press:
Outsider artist, sophisticated naïf, and witch are all labels that have described Mary Nohl (1914–2001), creator of a magical and mysterious site on the shore of Lake Michigan near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Here she constructed huge concrete heads, stone-encrusted creatures, and imposing driftwood figures to fill the yard surrounding a modest cottage where she spent most of her life. Carved heads hang from the eaves, wind chimes tinkle in the trees, and pebbles at her doorstep spell “Boo.” The cottage is painted and embellished inside and out with wooden fish, boats, animals, and leaping figures. Wire, hemp, chicken bones, egg shells, aluminum pans, broken glass—almost any castoff materials available—were used by Nohl to create her art and ornament her surroundings.
Included below is an excellent 12 minute documentary on the life and art of Ms. Nohl, from what promises to be a full-length film:

2. Though I enjoy some of these genres' music, I take often take the alt-country and old-time music revival groups with a grain of salt. At its best, this music can merge rural and urban sensibilities. At its worst it's the equivalent of putting on an accent and playacting, inciting all kinds of arguments over what's "authentic" country or "real" blues--a situation perfectly captured in the timeless "Blues Hammer" scene from Ghost World

What makes the just-released debut record Middle of Everywhere by Pokey LaFarge so refreshing is that he has considered all of this, and, most importantly, the potential pitfalls haven't stopped him and the South City Three from making a fantastic record. In his liner notes, Pokey LaFarge notes the ways in which modern life and its attendant technologies have transformed and decentralized these previously regional art forms:
In the earliest of 20th century recordings, the music people made was in most cases influenced by the area in which they were raised, where they had roots. Today, technology is evolving faster than ever and information is exchanged across the world at the click of a mouse. Even though where you come from can still greatly influence the music you make, you don't have to be from Mississippi to play the blues. When jazz, blues and country took off early on, where the artists came from was as much of the music as the music itself, that framework giving deep meaning and relevance to what they were saying and playing. While the old music may have origins in regions and communities, it's been grabbed hold of and evolved as it's spread across America. For me, the point is to find my place in this changing landscape and continue to express myself speaking the language of the old music while holding on to the roots...For at the crux of all good music there is a true and clear voice. It's the way you perform the tune, the way you sing, play and arrange the tune--that's your style, your voice, your identity. Here in Saint Louis, we literally have a river of influence to draw from. It's part Midwest, part south. Part city, part country. We are right in the middle of this great country, art the confluence of the two mightiest rivers, at a place where American ideas meet and flourish.

3. The Provisions Library Project, a "a research, education and production center investigating the intersection of art and social change" located in Washington D.C., offers a host of online resources as well as the excellent SignalFire blog--which recently covered a subject that we've been too long in coming to terms with: corn mazes as landscape art. Evelina Scott's post contains a series of links well worth following:
Here’s a topic that doesn’t usually come up. When does an agri-tourism venture become a work of art? There’s an article (and video) on The Huffington Post that considers the artistic merit of the corn maze, which has become a quickly growing trend in recent years despite its old-timey reputation.

Farmers often create mazes to add a little family fun to their communities, but many struggling family farmers have also turned to these surprisingly lucrative projects to help them get by in the poor economy. The article quotes a farmer who says selling his three acres of corn gets him $10,000 while turning the field into a maze raises $50,000. While I’ve definitely heard of corn mazes, and probably even been to one or two, I had no idea people actually make a profit from them. Or that there are entire businesses that work in maze production.
The Provisions Library also cultivates a lively Facebook and Twitter profile.