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Friday, February 24, 2017

Farm Art

Folk Art Farm, 2012, Toni Grote.
She lives on a farm in Iowa, by the way.
Very often we take for granted that which is most critical to our survival. We assume that when turn the faucet, water will come out, and that it will be safe to drink. We assume that somehow, somewhere, someone is designing and making our clothes for us. We buy or rent a house or apartment and take for granted that whenever we unlock the front door everything will be as we left it. We don't even think about the very air we breathe. We know our food comes from farms, but when was the last time you even thought about a farm, much less set foot on one. Yet this nation (the United States) was founded as a fundamentally agriculture society. Today less than one percent of our total population live or work on a farm. In 1790 (counting slaves) the figure was ninety percent. That radical change is reflected in all aspects of our daily lives. And since I, and those who read what I write, are involved in art to some degree, it is also reflected in our notions as to farm art. But if we seldom think about farms, it's a good bet we're even less likely to think about farm art. Quite apart from art, we think nothing of any of these vital items until our life-giving supply chain is interrupted or broken.
Farm art by Walt Curlee
If and when you think about farm art, you picture images such as those above by the popular rural artist, Walt Curlee, then you've fallen into an antique stereotype that is at least two or three generations old. Absolutely none of Curlee's images (above) reflect farm life in the 21st-century. Occasionally you'll spot an antique pickup truck or a tractor in one or two of his works, but for the most part, this Georgia artist and his art wallows in agricultural nostalgia. It's not surprising that his art sells so well, half of America is wallowing with him (yearning for the way things used to be). On the other hand, if you found the painting by Toni Grote (top) somewhat jarring...welcome to today's Postmodern farm art. (She's from Iowa and lives on a farm.)
Almost four-hundred years of farm art.

Today artists don't paint pictures of
barns so much. They paint pictures
on barns.
For those wanting to see farm art of the past, then check out the work of those famous artists (above) which records farm life from the era in which it was painted, starting with Pieter Bruegel (the elder) dating from 1565 and ending with the "oh, so neat and trim" work of Grant Wood in the 1930s and 40s. A more accurate representation of farm life in the past can be found in the little known work of F.H. Shap-leigh and his Old Barn in Eaton, New Hampshire (below) dating from 1878. I love it when a painter resists the temptation to dwell on surface details and in-stead goes inside, in this case probing behind the weathered barn siding.

Old Barn in Eaton, New Hampshire, 1878, F.H. Shapleigh
Although no farm today could get along without one, I've purposely omitted paintings of tractors and all the other mechanized labor-saving equipment responsible for the drastic decrease in our farm population over the years. Today, you're just as likely to see farmers (or their wives and kids) riding a bicycle or a motorcycle to and from the barn to do their chores or to round up cattle for milking. Today, it's quite likely the most important piece of equipment the farmer owns sits in the kitchen with a glowing screen, mouse, and keyboard.

Digital painting of an old bicycle against a barn by Sandra Lise.
Just as farming has changed over the years, so has art.
Even that computerized kitchen, perhaps the most used room in the farmhouse, and arguably the most important fraction of acreage on whole farm, looks nothing like the "thoroughly modern" kitchen as seen below from the 1930s. Perhaps the raw produce on the kitchen table is the most anachronistic. If the farm is small, very often the farmer and his wife have second jobs making in or farming a part-time endeavor. Whatever the case, who has time to pick and preserve fruits and vegetables when both are available cheaper and almost as fresh at Walmart?

Farmhouse Kitchen, by Gayle, Southern Maine.
For farmers, now and then, the road to the present and future has not been easy. Artists such as Terry Redlin and Thomas Hart Benton have portrayed the travails of rural life from the from the romantic sod-busting days marking the end of one century and the beginning of the next, to the "dust bowl" era of the Great Depression (below). Their paintings are marked by nostalgia, myth, folklore, trials, tribulations (disastrous weather), hard work, inspiration, and fortunately, a good deal of humor. This is what farm art is all about...not trucks and tractors.

Hard work and hard times.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Out Behind the Barn, ca. 1980, Jim Lane,
my version of farm art.


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