Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Almanac For Moderns: Out Of All This Great Debris

[Editor's Note: I am working for the next few days on a borrowed PC, as the AOTR Macbook is currently under repair at a local shop. The style changes to these posts will be corrected when I am reunited with this laptop and its editing software. Thanks for your patience!]

November Twenty-Second

The end of autumn comes, and one by one the plants in their little stations and many small creatures hole up and turn to sleep. We feel a great longing for that sleep, in the woods, in the very air and the soil that nightly grows colder, a little less kindly. The year's great living settles to its close, and not alone because the harsher cycle demands it, but because it is in the nature of most things to rest. Winter has a meaning beyond the meteorological one; it is that surcease must compensate all this perfervid existence.

For many beings in the great packed store room, autumn represents finality. They will be thrown out complete as waste, all the annual plants, the ephemerid insects. They have their chance at immortality, I know, through seed and egg. But individually the time for them has come, the time to go. For species on the wane, each autumn, perhaps, represents a step toward extinction. So be it; it is written.

But out of all this great debris new forms will be made, as in the first place life took its origin in ways mysterious to us, and alighting like light from a star upon a dark dead world informed the water and the rock itself.

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

Rural International: Excavated Shellac

Felix Sunzu's Vejika 78 rpm record; Excavated Shellac

[Editor's Note: I am working for the next few days on a borrowed PC, as the AOTR Macbook is currently under repair at a local shop. The style changes to these posts will be corrected when I am reunited with this laptop and its editing software. Thanks for your patience!]

As folks who check in to our Facebook page may have already noticed, Excavated Shellac - an excellent online site for international vernacular music - has posted a series of thanksgiving videos from across the globe. Here's some gorgeous polyphonic singing from the village of Politsani in Albania:

The work of Excavated Shellac unites both our concerns on the rural - urban dialogue as well as the dynamics of international rural experience; Jonathan Ward's efforts to bring 78 rpm recordings to the digital realm have also expanded to include a few releases with the outstanding vernacular record label Dust-to-Digital. Last year's global review of sting music from the 1920's to 1950's in Excavated Shellac: Strings is joined this year by Opika Pende: Africa at 78rpm, a large and gorgeously presented collection of music from the continent, presented across 4 CDs and a 112 page book. This music has never been issued on CD, until now.

Here's Mr. Ward, in an excerpt from his introduction, followed by "Tu Nja Tengene Elie" by Mbongue Diboue Et Son Ensemble:
It is truly astonishing to consider the tremendous variety of music that was pressed to shellac discs on the continent of Africa. Popular songs, topical songs, work songs, comic songs, songs of worship, ritual, dance, and praise—the sheer range of musical styles resists any easy categorization. Further, African geography itself resists boundaries. The boundaries of cultures and languages are often far more complex than political boundaries. Complicating things further, entire countries seem to have been skipped over by both commercial 78 rpm record companies and ethnographers during the 78 rpm era. No doubt it was the same with many cultures. But that doesn’t mean that 78s weren’t everywhere, even in remote parts of the continent. By the mid-1960s, 78s were still a popular if not preferred medium in much of Africa, as a significant amount of the population still used wind-up gramophone players.
"Tu Nja Tengene Elie" by Mbongue Diboue Et Son Ensemble by dusttodigital

Alongside these releases, I would highly recommend paying a visit to the Excavated Shellac site and then also linking to their Facebook feed, which will offer, quite literally, a whole world of music to explore. What's so striking about meandering through this online archive is the immediacy and intimacy of the experience; like the song of family and friends gathered around a table in Albania, we find ourselves in the midst of a communal experience.

Ultimately, we also find ourselves far from the soft-focus rhetoric of "world music" as it was previously marketed - or at least as how I understood the genre as a young person. While part of the aim of those earlier releases were to suggest that we were living in a global artistic marketplace, there was also a bit of a "It Takes a Village To Raise A Child" sheen to it. Too easily, it became background music, or a soundtrack for a very different kind of film.

Exploring the work of these musicians on the Excavated Shellac site, we're faced with music and performances that ask for a deeper connection - a credit to the work Mr. Ward has done as a collector, audio archivist and curator. He describes this sense best himself, in his introduction:
It’s been my philosophy that good music is best when it is shared. Of course, nothing beats that feeling, say, when you alone break open that box from Turkey or Indonesia, place the fragile platter on the turntable, only to feel your hair stand on end when the music begins. The feeling that you’ve never heard anything like this before in your life; it transports you to a place where words are irrelevant. But part of that feeling is thinking how you’d want to share that with others, to have them feel exactly the same way. This music – old music – never sounds “old” to me, personally. In fact, I believe that it is music of THE FUTURE. Our future.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hard Traveling

Hello folks--we hope your week is off to a good start. Unfortunately, the AOTR laptop is currently awaiting repairs at a local shop...which is going to delay this week's articles. We will try to amend this situation tomorrow; thanks for your patience in the interim. All the best, Matthew Fluharty, Editor

Friday, November 25, 2011

Maskers, Occupiers, Photographers

Painting a Thanksgiving Masker, 11 / 29 / 1911; Library of Congress flickr photostream

This Library of Congress archived  photograph captures a Thanksgiving tradition from one hundred years ago - children dressing up as Thanksgiving Maskers. In the era before Halloween rose to its cultural prominence, children would dress up at hobos and go door to door on Thanksgiving afternoon, asking for pennies and apples.

Thanksgiving Maskers Scramble for Pennies; LOC flickr photostream

The Bowery Boys: New York City History has recently published an excellent overview of masking in the city. Here's short excerpt from their article, I'll include their helpful links:

Newspapers advertised 'Thanksgiving masks' and 'lithographed character masks' for the tots. These featureless disguises were often sold in candy stores alongside holiday related treats like spiced jelly gums, opera drops, crystallized ginger and tinted hard candies.

"This play of masking is deeply rooted in the New York child," said Appleton's Magazine in 1909. "All toy shops carry a line of hideous and terrifying false faces or 'dough faces' as they are termed on the East Side."

Boys frequently wore girls clothing on this occasion, "tog[ging] themselves out in worn-out finery of their sisters" and spending their afternoon "gamboling in awkward mimicry of their sisters to the casual street piano."

The New York Times in 1899 found the streets filled with costumed tricksters that Thanksgiving. "There were Fausts, Filipinos, Mephistos, Boers, Uncle Sams, John Boers, Harlequins, bandits, sailors... In poorer quarters a smear of burned cork and a dab of vermilion sufficed for babbling celebrants." 

Thanksgiving Maskers; LOC flickr photostream

Scramble For Pennies - Thanksgiving; LOC flickr photostream

It's worth considering the reaction to this element of urban community in the mainstream press and city officials of that era - in an excerpt from this article posted in the comments section to the Library of Congress flickr photostream:
"Progressive era reformers regarded child begging on Thanksgiving as immoral and thought children who engaged in it should be arrested. Why were parents not able to control their offspring? the New York Times in 1903 wanted to know. The newspaper castigated parents who allowed children to demand treats or money as indecent. The police tried to enforce a ban against begging. In response to complaints from the public, the clergy, school superintendents, and classroom teachers issued warnings. The New York Times in November of 1930 worried that demanding coins could teach children to become professional beggars and blackmailers and that children were annoying the public. Begging, decided the paper, was a "malicious influence on the morals of children of the city." Boys' clubs and other child welfare agencies organized parades and costume contests as alternative activities. As a result of these efforts, child begging on Thanksgiving finally disappeared by the 1940s."
On this Black Friday, these gatherings and scramblings of Maskers makes a complicated parallel with the Americans congregating inside and outside of retail outlets today. Both the media forces behind the Occupy movement, on one side, and the conservative press, on the other, provide critical readings - yet each reading of these swarms of shoppers neglect the fact that many folks - perhaps out of work, burdened with debt - see these Black Friday deals as their best chance to afford these consumer goods. Certainly, this cultural phenomenon should be examined, but we should also recognize the force of necessity behind those lines of midnight shoppers.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Thanksgiving Teaser

Folks, today is a day of rest at Art of the Rural Headquarters. We hope everyone has a peaceful and restive long weekend with family and friends.

Here's a teaser for a Thanksgiving ritual I will offer tomorrow that reminds me of one of my favorite photograhers. More soon...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In Brief: The Food Of A Younger Land

As folks may be preparing for family meals in the next few days, here's some news on The Food of a Younger Land, a book by Mark Kurlansky that examines a national food culture project initiated by the WPA that included the likes of Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, and many local writers. Here's a portion of Maureen Corrigan's introduction to the work on NPR:
Nine years ago, when Kurlansky was doing research for an anthology of food writing, the author says he stumbled upon the dusty archives of the America Eats project — an undertaking of the Depression-era Federal Writers Project which was a wing of Franklin Roosevelt's WPA. The Federal Writers Project provided employment for over 6,000 out-of-work writers, among them Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston and Nelson Algren. During the 1930s, the Federal Writers Project produced those now classic guidebooks to all 48 states, but by 1939 it needed another assignment. That's when Katherine Kellock, the director of the program, came up with the idea of a guide to American food and eating traditions which would shed a light on everyday American society. 

A great idea; but America Eats was never completed. The deadline for all copy was Thanksgiving week, 1941; the writers, of course, dragged their heels and then Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II blew America Eats out of the water. The rough copy — typed, on onionskin — that writers across the country had sent into Washington was boxed up and shelved.

In this interview with Mr. Kurlansky in GOOD, offers a taste of America Eats:
Each entry offers a portrait of American custom and American food, before highways, modern agribusiness, or fast food. What people ate was seasonal and, above all, cultural-the traditions from one state to the next varied wildly, and reveal undiluted customs that are all but gone now. So, for example, you've got Choctaw, Sioux, and Chippewa foods; Nebraska pig fries; Florida hush puppies; Georgia possum and taters; and "Washington Wildcat Parties," whose signature draw was fresh cougar meat, which apparently tasted "a little like veal" with a "stronger odor."
Below, please find a link to an hour-long conversation with food columnist Rich Nichols, compliments of C-SPAN's Book TV:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rural - Urban: Chris Crocker

Still From Me At The Zoo

When Michael Stipe and Mike Mills recently sat down to talk with Pitchfork about the R.E.M.'s retirement, I read that Mr. Stipe is working to help produce Me At The Zoo, a documentary about the internet phenomenon Chris Crocker (of "leave Britney alone" fame). 

What surprised me about the film's narrative is the backstory of Mr. Crocker: he's from eastern Tennessee, where he was raised by his Penecostal grandparents. Though he has engaged with various celebrity-media outlets (and is reportedly becoming an adult film star), he lives there -- and not in LA. He doesn't disclose his exact location, as he has received numerous threats for being openly gay, but he reportedly lives in a small town in this region.

It remains to be seen how the filmmakers choose to address the rural - urban dynamic (or the regional, Appalachian dynamic) but this might be a documentary for folks to keep on their radar. Here's the trailer:

Frybread: In Film, Art, Architecture, And Beyond

Photograph by Visible Narrative, from RPM's Frybread Stand flickr gallery

Revolutions Per Minute: Indigenous Music Culture is a relatively new site that's offering a wealth of news on contemporary music and arts. One of the recurring features on RPM is #frybreadfriday; a multimedia series that explores the centrality of this delicacy across Native American culture. From playwrights to rappers, interpretive dance to comic book art, RPM has opened up a vibrant discussion on this relationship between food culture and the arts. The photograph above is included within RPM's Frybread Stand gallery, a collection that demonstrates how this food is also influencing vernacular art and architecture.

One project that's appeared across a few #frybreadfridays has been Holt Hamilton's More Than Frybread, a hilarious mockumentary currently set to be released in early 2012. Here's an introduction to the film:
The First Annual State of Arizona Frybread Championship, sponsored by the World Wide Frybread Association, will be holding the first ever state frybread competition. All twenty-two federally recognized Arizona tribes will be sending their best frybread maker to represent their nation and to compete for the coveted frybread title. The winner will receive $10,000 cash, the official WWFA frybread trophy and a spot to compete for the National Title, which could possibly then lead to a shot at the World Wide Frybread Championships later in the year.

Five contestants; Buddy Begaye (Navajo), Sharmayne Cruz (Tohono O’odham), Betti Muchvo (Hopi), Sunshine Smith (Yavapai-Apache), and Sammy Powsky (Hualapai) allow a small documentary team to follow them as they travel the frybread road to the state finals. You won’t want to miss this exciting, never before seen, frybread event of the year!

The folks behind this film have made the World Wide Frybread Association a reality -- follow the link for videos, maps and further information.

Again, there's much more to explore on RPM - it has become one of our favorite sites, and we highly recommend a visit. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hiss Golden Messenger: Poor Moon, Rich Harvest

MC Taylor and his son; Paradise of Bachelors

Earlier this month, Hiss Golden Messenger released their fourth record: Poor Moon. It's a meditative and beguiling collection of songs that claims a space within some noticeable traditions, yet stands outside of a full-membership within a rock, country, or folk genre. 

This may speak to the boundary crossing of MC Taylor, an accomplished musician whose path led him out of San Francisco and into the folklore program at the University of North Carolina. Mr. Taylor, who collaborates in HGM with former Court & Spark bandmate Scott Hirsch, has settled in the rural Piedmont town of Pittsboro, North Carolina. Mr. Taylor wrote these songs at the kitchen table of his farmhouse, during spare hours while his son slept. These songs (some of which appear in stripped-down, field-recording form on his previous LP Bad Debt) speak to this context, but also exceed their creation myth in startling ways.

From the songs to their sequence, and even to the material object itself, Poor Moon is a stunningly complete work. The LP (or download) was brought into the world by the Paradise of Bachelors label, the same folks whose first release was one of last year's stand-out records, Said I Had A Vision: The Songs and Labels of David Lee. While the transition from a collection of North Carolina soul to Hiss Golden Messenger would be an unlikely bridge for some record labels, it makes perfect sense here. The Bachelors, Brendan Greaves and Jason Perlmutter, come from a folklore and record-collecting background, and their attention to place and culture expands how we think about southern music and reveals surprising commonalities between local soul 45s and the rooted meditations of Mr. Taylor.

The limited-edition, hand-numbered LP release, which also features illustrations by UK-based visual artist Alex Jako, offers a few things to hold on to while listening. All of this culminates in a physical presence that sets a visual analog for the songs themselves - so clear when reviewing the album art alongside the opening track, "Blue Country Mystic."

David Bowie has called the music of Hiss Golden Messenger "mystical country," "an eerie yellowing photograph," some well-deserved praise that will no doubt be mentioned in many reviews. While such a quote seems to get at the atmosphere of the first side of Poor Moon, even the lines from this opening track suggest this is a "mystical country" with a vertical depth. In just a few lines we understand this mystic may also be a "little wandering one," possessed of a vision leading "from the city into the mountains," and that, by song's end, the singer himself becomes the mystic. Between the "wise one" whose image opens the opening song of Poor Moon, and the "little one" who follows, we discover a powerful metaphor for this collection of songs - a kind of spiritual search that reaches backwards while also reaching forwards to a new generation just beginning to learn their language and understand their place. The singer stands where so many of us stand: in between tradition and change, the past and future, looking for a foothold.

Such complex ideas are punctuated by the expert collaborations of over a dozen musicians. From lap steel to gongs, pump organ to saxophone, their contributions offer a coherent counterpoint to the lyrics. We hear many of these collaborators on "Drummer Down," [the third track locatable in the player above] and their instrumentation alongside Mr. Taylor's voice begs repeat listenings. After a few, though, the lyrics emerge - and the floor falls out from that taut, joyful rhythm:

Well it's alright now, the pain is gone.
It's alright now, little one. 
Riven from my body, as a ghost I dwell,
But my home, O I know I loved well
They drew a hex around my body, a hex around my soul,
called me from a place where I did dwell,
driven by my mind, down roads I didn't know
they were roads that I would never see again.

These cycles of birth and death, child to ghost, recur across Poor Moon - as do certain specific images and end-rhymes - and offer another testament to how complete, and how cyclical, a statement is captured on this LP.

Barring Mr. Bowie's words, and the comparisons to The Greatful Dead (and Canned Heat's "Poor Moon"), perhaps one of the most moving ghosts within this project is that of William Butler Yeats, an amateur folklorist, lifelong student of the occult, and, of course, a Nobel poet laureate. While many rock records get mileage by quoting a few lines from "The Second Coming," Poor Moon lives out a Yeatsian poetics without ever having to talk about slouching to Bethlehem. Beyond a line that may or may not reference Yeats's extraordinary late poem "What Then?" we're left with an overwhelming notion that the poet's ideas on lunar phases and their relationships to time and personality might be lurking beneath these songs. One of the rewards of Poor Moon is how it will send you to other sources, across mediums.

In the context of The Art of the Rural, and our interest in the rural-urban exchange, Hiss Golden Messenger's reading of Yeats offers a context and look forward to how else rural folk tradition could be honored and made new within contemporary music. In correspondence with Mr. Taylor, he confirmed that Yeats was an influence on these songs (along with Wendell Berry and the Bible); the Irish poet's own use of folklore and Biblical reference was a mixture of Victorian antiquarianism and a kind of cultural nationalism where the visions of Irish peasants signified how rural space was un-English, inscrutable, and the anchor of Irishness. In short, it was a pastoral, not that far from the pastorals that still flourish in the American arts today.

While some musicians like Sam Amidon take a more curatorial approach in relation to this complicated inheritance, Hiss Golden Messenger's music finds a deeper source, what Yeats himself found in the vernacular: "a powerful and passionate syntax." This selection from an interview with Emma Brown in Interview magazine, where Mr. Taylor discusses his field recording work in North Carolina, seems to suggest the common philosophical ground of his field work and his music:
Emma Brown: Have you always been interested in folklore?
MC Taylor: I guess I was, if you want to consider just being a really obsessive music fan and listener and collector and reader a folklorist, which it sort of is.  But when I went to graduate school, my definition of folklore both narrowed and deepened. We didn't talk about things like myths, not a single time, that's not what it's about. It's more about expressive and/or vernacular culture and how it's deployed in the public realm. To get a little academic about it! [laughs] I'm not looking for people that are old and possibly the only ones playing a certain type of music, I'm not looking for the last remnants of an old ancient story. If people are interested in a certain kind of cultural expression, whether it be low-riding, or hip-hop, or bluegrass music, that's what I'm interested in documenting. Obviously it's important to that group of people, so the question is how to they interact with that art form, what do they do with it, that sort of thing.
There's a gorgeous confluence of art forms in Poor Moon - poetry, music, and folklore - but not what folks might expect. There are indeed field recordings here, but no instruments, no human voices are heard. In interludes between the songs on the second side we hear cicadas, birds, and a rainstorm, as the rhythm of one subtly shifts into the rhythm of another. As these songs conclude with questions of religion and redemption, these field recordings not only place the singer back in the North Carolina Piedmont but they suggest how the largest, most cosmic cycles are rooted in our local hills. That knowledge is part gift, part revelation, part responsibility. As the LP or CD spins in its cycle, alongside that lush album art, we're reminded of the process inherent in what we create, what we cultivate. And we keep listening.

In Brief: The Hispanic Plains

Population change across the Plains; larger graphics on view at The Daily Yonder

For further news from the changing face of rural America, please head over to The Daily Yonder, where yesterday they shared news of some dramatic population shifts across the Plains.

The Yonder quotes from this New York Times piece  from A.G. Sulzberger as well:
For generations, the story of the small rural town of the Great Plains, including the dusty tabletop landscape of western Kansas, has been one of exodus — of businesses closing, classrooms shrinking and, year after year, communities withering as fewer people arrive than leave and as fewer are born than are buried. That flight continues, but another demographic trend has breathed new life into the region.
This report works in concert with a number of other in-depth features on The Daily Yonder that challenge what we mean - now and in the future - by such slippery terms as "majority" and "minority."

Monday, November 14, 2011

American Georgics: Old and New

Plowing It Under; Thomas Hart Benton, 1934

To start off the week, I'd like to point folks toward a recent review published in The Englewood Review of Books by Art of the Rural Contributing Editor Rachel Reynolds Luster. American Georgics: Writings on Farming, Culture, and the Land is the latest title in the Yale Agrarian Studies Series published by Yale University Press, and it features a roster of writers who will be well-known to our readers, but also some folks new to us. 

American Georgics: Writing on Farming, Culture, and the Land, offers readers a concise and well-heeled collection of agrarian thought and writings from the founding of our Republic through the current wave, including speeches, essays, excerpts from novels, and poems. The writings in this volume trace the evolution of “the economic, political, social, and ecological dimensions of agrarianism” (372). Some of the authors will be most familiar to readers of agrarian writing including James Madison, Henry David Thoreau, and Wendell Berry; others, such as Jesse Buell, Louisa May Alcott, and Nate Shaw (Ned Cobb), will come as delightful surprises. The collection is rich in many ways but one of its greatest strength comes from the variety of perspectives offered but perhaps the most striking aspect of reading American Georgics is its undeniable relevance to our current political, economic, and agricultural moment.
Georgics, as a poetic form and sensibility, can be traced back to Virgil. Unlike his Pastorals, these poems merge considerations of mythology and poetics with elaborate descriptions of agricultural practice. I heartily recommend David Ferry's translation of the Georgics; folks can hear his reflections on the poem and its translation on the excellent ThoughtCast site.

John Dryden once called Virgil's Georgics "the best poem by the best poet." Here's an excerpt from the Third Georgic, as translated by Mr. Ferry:
If raising sheep for wool is your concern,
Be sure to avoid pasturing where the grass
Grows high, and you must keep your pasture clear
Of caltrops, burrs, and other bristling growth.
From the beginning be sure to choose for your flock
Only the sheep whose fleece is soft and white; 
But no matter how white the ram, if there are veins
Of black on the underside of his moist tongue,
Reject that ram and look for another one,
So that the newborn lambs won't be dark-spotted.
O Moon, it was with a lure of pure white wool
That you, if what we're told is true,
Were captivated by Pan, Arcadia's god,
Calling you to the innermost forest glade,
And, so it is said, you did not spurn his call.

Friday, November 11, 2011

11-11-11: Not Forever, Just For Now

There's something about the numerological specter of 11-11-11 that seems to inspire a certain feeling of saturnalia, subversion, or just that fleeting-moment feeling of living through a day-long solar eclipse. The day conjures a certain mythic frame of mind, enough so that the Egyptian Pyramids were closed today on rumors of planned 11-11-11 rituals.

Our Contributing Editor Rachel Reynolds Luster heard NPR's piece on songs to turn up to 11 this morning and suggested that we offer an Art of Rural playlist as well. Our list is less inspired by Spinal Tap-esque moments, and more interested in music that might match the eleven winds sweeping across the land.

This is just a short list that was more-or-less spontaneously generated. At the very least, we hope these songs help ease folks into the weekend. Please share your 11-11-11 songs as well on our Facebook page. [We will post additions there.]

Monday we will publish a review of the stunning new record by Hiss Golden Messenger, Poor Moon. This is a record to put on today - in the midst of Egyptian rituals - to find solace and instruction:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jim Denomie: Reworking American Myths

Selection from untitled (Untruthful Series), 2011; Bockley Gallery

The Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis is currently featuring Works on Paper, an exhibit of new prints and paintings by Jim Denomie, a Minnesota-based artist and member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe.

Mr. Denomie's work is striking and unforgettable - these paintings, and the many others archived on his site, present a dynamic use of color and a compositional depth that reward repeated viewings.  These conscious decisions with process and presentation invest these pieces with an emotional weight that runs parallel, and sometimes counter-current, to a playful, clear-eyed commentary on American history and culture. We discover in this work a new vision of our country's place and its history: part indigenous iconography, part surrealism, part American vernacular.

Greener Pastures; Bockley Gallery

Here's a selection from the Bockley's Gallery's press release:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto appear in one series, while a couple canoes alongside a grinning duck in another series. The exhibit includes a number of prints, both etchings and monoprints, as well as paintings created in acrylic on paper that introduce new Denomie characters in colorful portraits. These works on paper, mostly created since May of 2011, suggest just some of Denomie’s recent creative outpour. During a two-week residency in Oregon, Denomie created a body of over 72 new monotypes and monoprints.  He has since reworked dozens of those prints in oil stick, which results in dramatic texture and wonderful clarity of color.   For Denomie the process has been a distinct change and he delights in the radical shift from original print to reworked image that allows what he calls “the unexpected” and that now influences his painting as well. Of his print-making process, Denomie has said: “… laying portraits over the tops of these random patterns would feed into the final project, where you’d get this unexpected juxtaposition of colors that wouldn’t have come if I’d have started with a blank palette.” 

The exhibition presents dozens of images unframed in order to reveal the intimate nature of works on paper and to bring into focus how the artist’s materials influence his creative outcome.  The result of this presentation of unframed works creates a feel as informal and as deeply informative as a studio visit.  The installation allows us a close-up view as Denomie encounters “the unexpected” within his own new work. 
 C.E.O; Bockley Gallery

The pieces on view at the Bockley Gallery offer a sharp summation of Mr. Denomie's work over the last few years, when an attention to process and the "reworked image" led the artist to commit to painting a new piece each day for an entire year. In "Jim Denomie: Finding the New Country in the Old," mnartists.org's Lightsey Darst interviews the artist on this process and also offers an insightful reading of what's at stake in the series -- and in Mr. Denomie's aesthetic. Here's a selection: 
After painting a face, he might work on other projects, paint another face, or simply go to bed, but every day he makes himself paint at least one of these small canvases. He does not try to create a perfect work of art; instead he lets himself play with the paint. He uses the colors already on the palette or adds new ones based on his mood. Daily surges of emotion affect the work, sometimes directly—one day’s face is grinning, another sour, one yelling (after the Red Lake shooting)—but more often indirectly: the faces evolve their own personalities, their own neutral but suggestive expressions, so that looking at many of the faces at once is like staring into a crowd of strangers. Denomie’s not dogmatic about what goes into a face; some of the more abstract faces lack eyes and might not be recognizable as faces but for their company. When the face is done, Denomie signs the back and names it, if it happens to have reminded him of anyone.

Why is Denomie doing this daily painting project? Speaking on his cell phone from his full-time construction job, Denomie tells me he began the project because he found painting too often pushed to the side. Between work, family, and the rest of a normal life, he wasn’t getting time to go to his studio every day; when he did paint, sometimes after a week away, he felt “like a foreigner” in his own work. He was getting out of the habit and wanted back in. Inspired by other artists, Denomie bought supplies, told friends about his idea so he wouldn’t back down, and began.
To hear Mr. Denomie in his own words, folks can give a listen to this radio interview conducted by mnartists.org's Marya Morstad, and view this talk by Mr. Denomie on his "Non-Negotiable" and what it means to be an artist and a Native American:

Non-Negotiable from SMM Media Design on Vimeo.

UPDATE: Also highly recommended: this large gallery of work, alongside an interview, with Mr. Denomie from the Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists site.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rural Farmers Feeding The Occupy Movement

Produce from western Massachusetts farms; Actions and Investigations

As a companion piece to today's article considering Crystal Bridges, Alice Walton, and the Occupy Movement, Contributing Editor Rachel Reynolds Luster has just sent word of Feed the Movement, a grassroots effort by farmers in the Northeast to help feed the Occupy gathering in New York:

WNYC has also profiled the work of the folks on the ground in city who gladly receive this food and then work to prepare it to be put to use on Wall Street. Jennifer Hsu writes of how one OWS member and an unemployed chef are cooking for thousands of people each afternoon:
Every night at Zuccotti Park, dinner is served around 7 P.M. What protesters may not realize is that their meals are made from fresh, organic produce donated by a dozen or so small farms located throughout the Northeast.

Since the early weeks of the protest, regional farmers have been coming down independently to Occupy Wall Street to donate fruits and vegetables. In those days, meals were prepared in volunteers' homes. Yet, as the protest quickly gained momentum, food preparation needed to get more organized, and Occupy Wall Street set up a daily dinner operation out of a soup kitchen in East New York, Brooklyn.

Crystal Bridges, Alice Walton, and the Occupy Movement

Crystal Bridges; Mike Pirnique, InArkansas.com

As the 11-11-11 opening date for The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art approaches, many high-profile articles on the site and its guiding spirit, Walmart heiress Alice Walton, have begun to appear across the airwaves and the internet. 

Just this morning Elizabeth Blair reported on NPR about the museum and its relationship with its local cultural and natural environment. As has happened across much of the media coverage, Ms. Blair's otherwise excellent overview characterizes the Bentonville area as being small-town, though the region's statistics suggest otherwise; please see Contributing Editor Rachel Reynolds Luster's previous piece on "Art & Identity In a Not-So Rural Corner of Arkansas" for a deeper discussion of Bentonville and Walmart's place in this expanding corner of the state. 

Across Ms. Blair's piece, as well as Martha Teichner's feature from CBS Sunday Morning below, Crystal Bridge's rhetoric on the synthesis of art, architecture, and nature is taken at face value - with no consideration of how rural culture (let alone Ozark culture) comes to inform the space. Ms. Teichner's piece is a success in many other ways -- as it humanizes a figure vilified by certain segments of the art world -- even suggesting, if we read between the lines, a kind of rural-urban narrative within the reactions to an Major American Museum built in the Ozarks. However, the emphasis on "nature" over local culture allows for another piece of reporting on Crystal Bridges that offers the Museum as a pastoral retreat. Ultimately, this does a disservice to Ms. Walton's vision, and to the more engaging discussions that could emerge from such journalism. 

[Unfortunately, CBS disables the YouTube embedding for Sunday Morning; please follow this link to view the 9 minute feature.]

Both of these pieces do succeed in suggesting that the story of Crystal Brides is complicated -  and that a knee-jerk reaction against the museum or its founder misses the unmissable fact: that most major art museums, art institutions, and, indeed the art world itself, is motivated in large part by the largesse of such individuals and their corporate partners. While many citizens might criticize Corporate America's business practices, they gladly partake in the latest Impressionism exhibit. 

Such interconnectedness suggests the argument the Occupy movement has not yet made forcefully enough to its followers: that they are implicated in the very structures they critique. (For instance, the We Are the 99 Percent tumblr page displays the extent to which the movement is energized by frustrated arts and humanities graduates.) A self-examination of where the 99% and the 1% might converge, or at least have shared values or interests, could do profound good for the cultural and political atmosphere in this country - much more so than Guy Fawkes masks on one side and the cartoonish reporting of Fox News on the other.

I find it interesting that this weekend the media will provide dispatches both from the opening of Crystal Bridges and from a new weekend of Occupy events across the country. As these demonstrators begin to feel the effects of winter, as their figures march across the screen, we will also be presented with images of the stunning architecture of Crystal Bridges - a museum set in one of the most caricatured and misunderstood regions of America. Both of these stories suggest that our easiest and most impassioned arguments may not, in the end, bring us any closer to understanding what we might learn, and what we might have in common.

Monday, November 7, 2011

In Brief: Water In The West

Unbridged Crossing Destroyed By  Flood, Salt River, 1983; Mark Klett; Places

We have a wonderful range of articles planned for this week on The Art of the Rural and would like to begin today by briefly pointing folks toward yet another excellent feature on the Places site - an enlarging companion to last week's article on the Epicenter project.

In this essay and slideshow, Mark Klett discusses the decade-long project Water In The West, and situates the work of these photographers and critics within the tradition of landscape photography of the American West. From the 1970s forward, these artists anticipated the kinds of discussions that are now occurring across this region. The work of these many artists counters the popular notions of this genre, as Mr. Klett describes it in his introductory paragraph:
For more than a century the landscape photography of the American West was understood as the solitary pursuit of men who lugged large cameras into wild and remote places. The pioneering work of 19th-century photographers such as William Henry Jackson, J.K. Hillers and Carleton Watkins focused on grand landscapes — places that seemed sublime, destined to endure. They began the practice of emphasizing the natural world, a tradition followed later by 20th-century photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. From the start the effects of humanity were almost always framed out of the landscape view.  
The work which followed these photographers sought to correct the iconic romanticism of such views; for The Water in the West group, they acknowledged that "the clash of nature and culture has become the default subject for the landscape photography of our time," and worked to create art that not only contained a pointed political critique, but could, more importantly, create a conversation:
We were hardly in agreement about what role photography should play in changing the social awareness and cultural understanding of water. But we did agree about the central idea: our mission was not to advocate for specific political changes but rather to unite those committed to photographing water as the leading icon of the late 20th-century West. The goal was to produce an archive of photographs that would contribute to an emerging and urgent dialogue about an essential and dwindling resource, a resource that shaped both our natural and social landscapes — and indeed, our survival.
Mr. Klett's essay and extensive slideshow of this group's work can be viewed at Places, and it illuminates some prescient rural-urban concerns. From this article folks can also follow links to similar articles published in Places that consider both the history and the changing face of the American West.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Striking the Epicenter in Rural America

The Epicenter staff at home in Green River, Utah

Every piece of architecture should express some moral. If it has moral merit, it deserves the title of ‘architecture.’ For me, the professional challenge, whether I am an architect in the rural American South or the American West, is how to avoid becoming so stunned by the power of modern technology and economic affluence that I lose focus on the fact that people and place matter… Everyone’s too busy trying to make a living. We have to be more than a house pet to the rich; we need to get out of that role.
      - Samuel Mockbee, quoted on the Epicenter site

Folks, I'm still getting on track from a few days of writing deadlines; today I'd like to share an introduction to a project that should be exciting to a number of our readers: Epicenter.

They are group comprised of members with training across the arts and humanities, and, for the last two years, they have lived in the small town of Green River, Utah, (population 953) located "at the trifecta of the Green River, Interstate 70, and the railroad." Many of the Epicenter staff were influenced by The Rural Studio and the vision of Samuel Mockbee, and their early work in Green River already demonstrates this sensitivity to rural place and local culture Mr. Mockbee found so lacking in the field of architecture.

A visit to their dense and visually-striking site will reveal the extent of their current and future projects. I'd like to offer this brief article as an introduction -- I expect to share the particulars of this work across a series of posts. 

Until then, I'd also recommend giving their own detailed introduction a read - what excites me about the work of Epicenter is how its serious aesthetic focus is integrated within a respect for local place, and also how these folks are considering art and architecture as engines for local economic growth. 

Below is an excerpt from Epicenter's introduction, followed by a few images of their work and their proposed projects:
The Epicenter is a community-based housing and business resource center, instigating economic progress and creating decent shelter in the town of Green River in the desert of southeast Utah. It is a part of a larger umbrella non-profit organization, which serves the town with a myriad of unduplicated social services including affordable rental housing, a Boys & Girls Club, a soup kitchen, and a thrift store. Epicenter is a comprehensive creative studio. We are young, enthusiastic designers.
From the Project Green River festival, 2010
The Epicenter Crew is a studio-of-sorts currently made up of graduates of architecture, graphic design, industrial design, sociology, and theology. Expertise is valued in any allied design field, or in anyone simply willing to sweat and wanting to build something with their hands. In this rural town, the Epicenter has an opportunity to engage, collaborate with, and learn from a community that the profession has chosen not to serve. Current projects include the renovation of a 104-year-old building on Broadway, developing affordable housing through Habitat for Humanity and USDA, Rural Development, holding a music, art, and film festival, acting as a liaison for the design and construction of a new community center (designed by Marlon Blackwell Architects), provoking the idea of a river walk as an aesthetic and functional asset for the town, applying for grants and involving the community in the construction of a skate park, collaborating to build volunteer housing, and partnering with the University of Utah’s College of Architecture + Planning to infuse expertise and student-led enthusiasm to the town.

We see ourselves as part of a change of tone occurring in the design professions, led by students and emerging professionals who want more than what the professions have settled for: working unapologetically for the socio-economic elite. We are crafting an alternative model of practice, one that can accommodate our fervent desire to collaborate, to provided “shelter for the soul,” and to emphasize place and circumstance. Our insistence for these ideals has led us to a radical mission taken on by “citizen architects” (and citizen designers, more broadly).