Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Late May Ohio Valley Sabbatical

Flea Shack and $1 Flea Market, Outside Steubenville, Ohio; Matthew Fluharty

With Memorial Day approaching, we will be taking a much-needed break from publishing new work on this site -- though we are looking forward to new articles and projects coming at the start of June. We will be welcoming more writers to the AOTR staff, and launching some new series, while also learning more about Kenyon Gradert's Course on Midwest Culture.

To keep the conversation going during this brief sabbatical we will add frequent updates to the Arts and Culture Feed.

We hope everyone has a safe and peaceful Memorial Day holiday!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Introducing A Course On Midwest Culture

Steam Coming Off The Grain Bins, Outside Sioux Center, Iowa; Kenyon Gradert

Art of the Rural is excited to announce A Course On Midwest Culture, a new series that promises to apply a wide interdisciplinary lens to a region of the country often relegated to reductive myths and cliches. 

With this, we are also pleased to welcome Kenyon Gradert to our staff. Kenyon is a doctoral student in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis with primary research interests in religion and philosophy, romanticism, and nineteenth-century American literature. He was raised on a third-generation grain and cattle farm in northwest Iowa. His father and younger brother continue to live in this region and work as cropdusters.

Kenyon will curate the Course on Midwest Culture series, a project that seeks to utilize new media to find a common ground between the discussions that occur within the Academy and those that take place everyday in the American Midwest. His introduction to this effort begins below.


The Midwest holds a complicated spot in American cultural thought. While it has competing claims to both blasé “flyover” and that core of American moral fiber, the “Heartland,” other regions encroach upon its cultural capital. The South seems to have a monopoly on popular rurality and the East coast keeps old-school cosmopolitanism tucked in its pocket, never mind the lake cities’ key role in our industrial revolution, the historical centrality of St. Louis and Chicago in the 19th-century, and the rather straightforward fact that the Midwest today has almost twice as many farmers as the South.

Culturally, the Midwest may seem nothing more than that quaint vacuum between New York and LA without even the literary charm of the south. Indeed, some may think “Midwest culture” the height of oxymoron.

But the region has been home to significant literary endeavor--and long before the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Someday I’d like to use this literature to form a college course that challenges presumptions and assaults (im)pieties both within and towards the Midwest, a place that is neither quaint Georgic pastoral nor vacuous meth ghetto. Perhaps a bit of both, with much in between.

A Course on Midwest Culture will be a recurring series, a syllabus in the making, if you will. I’ll post a brief excerpt of a possible primary text along with my own brief observations and arguments for why such a text should be in such a course. 

Like the internet itself, this cultural studies project will be interdisciplinary. Mosaic-like, I may use a post on Hamlin Garland’s short story “Under the Lion’s Paw” to examine the rural complications of Marxist thought, meanwhile providing web links to Johnny Carson’s Public Service Announcement for the Farmers’ Crisis of the 1980s, a University of Missouri sociological study on rural versus urban poverty, or even John Mellencamp’s first Farm Aid show on the University of Illinois-Champaign campus.

Most importantly, I’ll look for your feedback

When it’s all said and done, my hope is that this project demonstrates the necessity of such a course offering, which I might teach at some point in my time as a doctoral student. Thus, with your help, this series becomes an experiment in a more democratic course-construction. 

Professors most often go to other professors via listservs to determine course material. Why not let Midwesterners outside of the academy help?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Eamon Mac Mahon: The Landlocked North, On The Edge Of Great Change

Photograph by Eamon Mac Mahon

Many thanks to artist Richard Saxton for leading us to the work of Eamon Mac Mahon, a photographer raised in a mining community in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, at the precipice of the massive expanse of boreal forest. 

Mac Mahon's photographs of this place have received much attention in recent years, and for good reason. They balance a strong compositional eye with a sensitivity for cultural nuance and an awareness of the threats posed by expanded natural resource operations. An argument for environment and indigenous culture coexists with these stunning visual elements; in the hands of a lesser artist, this material would seem overly political, a strident kind of photojournalism. Instead, they alternate between wondrous and stark evocations of the landscape we would otherwise never encounter.

We will reprint below Mac Mahon explanation of the Landlocked series, alongside a few further images and an excellent multimedia piece on the work produced by Daylight, a photography magazine. The artist also places his work alongside the environmental threats to the region in a moving photo-commentary in The Walrus. Please find larger, high-resolution examples of this work on Eamon Mac Mahon's site.

This series of photographs is part of a larger project that began in the autumn of 2004 with a series of extended journeys by bush plane into the Canadian wilderness. Since that first journey, I typically spend three months each year in the north with a bush pilot in a two-seat airplane built in 1946. We set off in the autumn, at the end of the pilot's season, when we have the skies to ourselves.
In the beginning I was drawn to the boom and bust resource towns scattered throughout northern Canada. I wanted to know what happened in these places: what the people were like and what it felt like to be in a place that is surrounded by so much uninhabited, wild land. It would sometimes take weeks to make our way to these remote villages. Along the way we camped in wilderness, took shelter in fire towers, and were often taken in by strangers. When we finally arrived in an isolated community we would often get stuck waiting for the weather to change, or a shipment of fuel to arrive, or parts for the plane. Most of these communities had no access roads and had generally experienced reckless growth or stagnation, and then decline.
The surrounding wilderness has a deep effect on the inhabitants of these towns and, in turn, the towns have a great impact on the wilderness. And in these small isolated communities, it is possible to see clearly how individuals have made each community vastly different. I have become increasingly captivated by the wilderness between lonely settlements. Vast areas of land not yet exploited, or briefly plundered and left uninhabited. Growing up in western Canada on the edge of the boreal forest, I had vague impressions of mysterious and wild, yet monotonous places. I thought of the north as an endless expanse of homogeneous forests, lakes and tundra. I was wrong. I have been astonished by the variety and complexity of these landscapes. These photographs show a wilderness of increasing importance to the world, on the cusp of great change.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What If All The Natural Gas In The United States Was In Urban America?

Photograph by Les Stone

An open question for consideration: suppose that the United States' massive natural gas reserves were located exclusively beneath urban sites. Would these regions encounter hydraulic fracturing? Would the practice exponentially increase across the metropolitan areas of Dallas or Boston as it has in rural America? 

Would the political and cultural rhetoric which unites both sides of the "fracking" debate assume a different shape? What might this tell us about the place, and the value, of rural America within these debates?

Feel free to join this hypothetical discussion on our Arts and Culture Feed

Many thanks to Les Stone for permission to reprint his extraordinary work; please find larger, high resolution examples of these images at his photoblog and also at his official site, which presents a range of work from West Virginia to Haiti.

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Monday, May 14, 2012

Farmer of the Future and Harvest Public Media

Photograph by Alison Rose; Forgotonia

This morning the excellent team of reporters and editors at Harvest Public Media began a series, entitled Farmer of the Future, that considers how "technological, cultural and political forces are bringing immense change to those people who commit to building their lives around the land." 

Kathleen Masterson offers the first dispatch, a report considering how the northwest region of Iowa, with its recent population growth and cultural diversity, presents both a model for the future and set of complex questions. Here is the transcript introduction to "Blending of Culture May be Blueprint for Growth:"
Sioux County, in northwest Iowa, is known for its Dutch pastries. The landscape is dotted with Lutheran and reform churches.  But today, Catholic churches and tortillerias are creeping into the landscape — signs of the new residents joining this vibrant community.

In Sioux County, as in a scattering of communities across the Midwest, Hispanic immigrants are working in meat processing plants, dairies, egg-laying facilities and hog barns. In fact, the majority of U.S. farm laborers today were born outside the U.S.

And while some parts of the rural Midwest are hollowing out, areas like Sioux County and its biggest city Sioux Center, are actually growing as immigrant populations move in to take jobs that otherwise employers cannot fill.

Sioux Center’s population has grown 17 percent and the county is up 7 percent over the last decade. Meanwhile, government figures indicate 91 of Iowa’s 99 counties have declined by about 9 percent over the last three decades.

No surprise, Sioux Center looks very different than many other rural communities in Iowa. But although this area may well offer a glimpse of the farming community of the future, the melding of cultures is not always easy.
Masterson continues in her piece to talk with folks from all sides of the Sioux Center community. We find that, for many farmers in the region, the rhetoric of immigrants "stealing American jobs" masks the pressing need for agricultural workers. Furthermore, these new residents are contributing to an expanding local economy, in contrast with other rural regions of the state.

Harvest Public Media also provides, embedded within Masterson's report, an interactive map illustrating the influx of hispanic immigrants within Iowa.

If we consider this news from Sioux Center alongside last week's "Readings" piece on Thomas Hardy's view from rural England -- as workers fled from the fields for industrial centers, in some cases to complete against English agriculture as newly-American farmers -- then we might see this news not as a political "hot-button" issue, but as part of a larger continuum, another element of a broader arc of international rural diaspora across the last two centuries.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Honey and Sustainability in Rural Nepal

Here is a new dispatch considering rural - international connections, where sustainability and food security meet, raising the quality of life and illustrating to rural youth how prosperity could be under their noses, or in the hive:

Plan International reports today on news of their work in Nepal:
Until recently, Shover Singh Praja often went to bed without dinner and had to work on an empty stomach, barely able to feed his family. Born to a poor family in Makwanpur district, central Nepal, Shover now earns way above the national average and has become a role model among his fellow Chepang, an indigenous ethnic group who depend on wild yams. The secret of Shover’s success? Bees.

For the last 2 years, Shover has looked after 55 hives and last year he netted US$1,000 selling honey, as well as hives to other keen beekeepers. Right away, the money was put to good use.

"I didn't get the opportunity to get an education when I was a child, but I send all my children to school now," he said.
Folks can continue reading here, as the article elaborates on how rural youth have found a path to success doesn't necessarily have to lead out of their home region:
Ramesh Praja, 28, cancelled his plans to go overseas.

“At home, living with my family, I can earn around US$120-300 during the honey production season and US$60-180 in the off season. When I realised this, I wondered why I should go abroad to earn a wage no more than the amount of money I can earn in my very own community," he said.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

We Juke Up In Here: Mississippi Juke Joint Traditions

Red Paden at home in Red's Lounge; Lou Bopp

This month will see the release of a new documentary from Jeff Konkel of Broke and Hungry Records and Roger Stolle of the Cat Head music and art store. We Juke Up In Here, co-directed with Damien Blaylock of Atavistik Pictures, explores the living tradition of Mississippi juke joints:
We Juke Up In Here follows producers Jeff Konkel and Roger Stolle as they explore what remains of Mississippi’s once-thriving juke joint culture. The film is told largely from the vantage point of Red Paden, proprietor of the legendary Red’s Lounge in historic Clarksdale, Mississippi. Paden, a true Delta character and jack-of-all-trades, has been running his blues and beer joint for more than 30 years – providing one of the region’s most reliable live blues venues and an authentic stage for a cavalcade of veteran blues performers, both legendary and obscure.

Told through live music performances, character-driven interviews and rare on-camera blues experiences, viewers are taken below the surface of the quasi-legal world of real Delta jukes – while it’s still living and breathing. Mississippi’s juke joint culture may be at a crossroads, but as Red likes to say, “The Game’s for life . . . and that’s for damn sure!”

Konkel and Stolle previously collaborated on 2009's award-winning documentary M for Mississippi: A Road Trip through the Birthplace of the Blues. The producers have made a life's work of recording and promoting the living blues in Mississippi -- through the artists on Konkel's Broke and Hungry label and through Stolle's legendary Cat Head music and art store and his book The Hidden History of Mississippi Blues.

The trailer for M for Mississippi, also co-directed with Damien Blaylock, is included below:

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Bartering A Rural-Urban Connection

Yesterday we learned via Arts Journal of a new effort aimed at taking the crowd-funding platform and removing the monetary exchange from the process. OurGoods pairs creative individuals and their projects and allows for mutually-beneficial collaborations. 

Though the project is centered in New York City, there's no reason why the model can't expand out and become a way for rural and urban artists and organizations to share ideas, resources and expertise. Epicenter, who've we've discussed previously, applies this approach in Green River, Utah: designers, publishers, and media makers have helped the businesses in this small western town expand and revitalize their local presence.

Here's Ben Valentine, on the Hyperallergic art site, in conversation with Caroline Woodward of OurGoods:
What is OurGoods?
OurGoods is a barter network for creative people, connecting artists, designers and craftspeople in order to trade skills, spaces and objects with each other. It was started in 2009 by Carl Tashian, Jen Abrams, Louise Ma, Rich Watts and myself. We connected to a wide range of creative practices: choreography, computer engineering, design, sculpture, drawing, furniture-making and writing. We work on the site together and produce in-person events like Barter 101 workshops and Trade School, an alternative learning space that runs on barter (at Cuchifritos).
Why did you start OurGoods?
When the economy collapsed in 2009, arts organizations closed programs and fired staff. We all had less cash to work with, but that didn’t mean we had fewer skills or ideas. Barter is a way to get work done no matter what the global economy is doing. It’s a way to see the ideas, skills and resources available in the creative community, and to actively engage one another in making new projects happen. We see OurGoods as a resilient model for cultural production, building relationships of trust and shared resources from the ground up.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Readings: Rural Traditions Sunk Into Eternal Oblivion

from The Farmer's Year: A Calendar of Animal Husbandry; Clare Leighton, 1935

In our Readings series, we offer selections from visual and printed texts that offer perspectives, expand dialogues, and challenge assumptions. Today we feature the response of Thomas Hardy to a query by Sir Rider Haggard, who, at the turn of the last century, was working on Rural England, the first study of its kind.

A poet, novelist, and architect, Thomas Hardy chose to spend his life in his home region of Dorset, an area mythologized in his work as "Wessex." Hardy witnessed in this lifetime the erosion of a rural culture that had been relatively stable for five hundred years. By the 1840s, the Corn Laws removed protections on English agriculture, which changed farming, its labor force, and the population of rural England. As fields turned to pastures, and as laborers fled for better paying jobs in the industrial centers (and those lures of entertainment and cosmopolitan culture), Hardy's Dorset became a ghosted, alien place in his late poetry. 

As a counterpoint, "A Sheep Fair" is also included below.


For one thing, village tradition--a vast mass of unwritten folk-lore, local chronicle, local topography, and nomenclature--is absolutely sinking, has nearly sunk, into eternal oblivion. I cannot recall a single instance of a labourer who still lives on the farm where he was born, and I can only recall a few who have been five years on their present farms. Thus, you see, there being no continuity of environment in their lives, there is no continuity of information, the names, stories, and relics of one place being speedily forgotten under the incoming facts of the next. For example, if you ask one of the workfolk (they always used to be called 'workfolk' hereabout--'labourers' is an imported word) the names of surrounding hills, streams; the character and circumstances of people buried in particular graves; at what spots parish personages lie interred; questions on local fairies, ghosts, herbs, etc., they can give no answer: yet I can recollect the time when the places of burial even of the poor and tombless were all remembered, and the history of the parish and squire's family for 150 years back known. Such and such ballads appertained to such and such locality, ghost tales were attached to particular sites, and nooks wherein wild herbs grew for the cure of divers maladies were pointed out readily.


A Sheep Fair

The day arrives for the autumn fair,
            And torrents fall,
Though sheep in throngs are gathered there,
            Ten thousand all,
Sodden, with hurdles round them reared:
And, lot by lot, the pens are cleared,
And the auctioneer wrings out his beard,
And wipes his book, bedrenched and smeared,
And rakes the rain from his face with the edge of his hand,
                                    As torrents fall.

The wool of the ewes is like a sponge
            With the daylong rain:
Jammed tight, to turn, or lie, or lunge,
            They strive in vain.
Their horns are soft as finger-nails,
Their shepherds reek against the rails,
The tied dogs soak with tucked-in tails,
The buyers hat-brims fill like pails,
Which spill small cascades when they shift their stand
                                    In the daylong rain.


Those panting thousands in their wet
            And wooly wear:
And every flock long since has bled,
And all the dripping buyers have sped,
And the hoarse auctioneer is dead,
Who "Going--going!" so often said,
As he consigned to doom each meek, mewed band
                        At Pummery Fair.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Affirmed: Nathan Salsburg and the Kentucky Derby

Photograph by Tim Furnish

This weekend's Kentucky Derby offers a fresh chance for folks to revisit the work of musician, writer, and editor Nathan Salsburg. As many readers may be familiar, last autumn saw the release of Affirmed, a record of eight solo guitar compositions that meditate on the lives and afterlives of Kentucky Derby horses -- from Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner, to Eight Belles, a filly that won second in the 2008 Derby only to be euthanized minutes later after fracturing her ankles. The songs speak to these contexts, but ultimately exceed their references, in lines that modulate between grief and joy, the terminal and the transcendent.

Thanks to NPR Music's Tiny Desk Concerts, we can give a listen to "Affirmed" and "Eight Belles Dreamt the Devil was Dead:"

Though references to John Fahey accompany many reviews of solo guitar records, Amanda Petrusich writes eloquently of how Salsburg's music resists such commonplace comparisons. "Affirmed," she wrote in The Onion, "is more a counterpoint to Fahey’s rhythmic early work than an explicit homage: Bright and elastic, his songs are less concerned with pulses and scales than with the ripples they kick up in your gut."

This video for "Sought and Hidden," created by cinemanonymous, works in concert with that quality in Affirmed, here combining "amateur Kentucky Derby footage shot on 8mm in 1936 and 1947 and Super 8 in 1973 and 2000." Like these songs, an expectation of nostalgia gives way to something more surprising and direct:

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