Monday, March 9, 2009

Printing a Prototype

In late January, I spent a Saturday with master printer Fletcher Manley, in Lunenburg, Vermont. We are seen here holding a prototype digital collage which I am producing for the Art of Action. The images are of root vegetables and mesclun greens which I scanned on a cold December day at Pete's Greens in Craftsbury, Vermont. The text in this prototype is one of a number of vision statements written by the Center for An Agricultural Economy in Hardwick, Vermont. My project will, in part, address the viability of high quality food production and distribution and how, through education and thoughtful community effort, there are many individuals and businesses who are developing a vision for Vermont's future. See the Hardwick website

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Time for Reflection

Digging out after a late February snowstorm and now spending time at the computer reviewing some of my landscape photographs made in northern Vermont and in Italy. Especially this time of year, I am thinking about planting the garden, yearning for the smell of freshly tilled soil and the coming of spring. To perpetuate these thoughts, I am opening images from Umbria made over the past number of years and considering relationships between work made in northern Vermont and rural Italy.

I have inserted a couple of photographs in this blog which, although from slightly different cultures and working landscapes geographically (Irasburg, Vermont and Torre' de'l Colle, Umbria, Italy), I was drawn to these landscapes which share the omni-presence of agriculture in everyday life.

My focus over the next 6-8 months for the Art of Action project is the working landscape in northern Vermont. Although I will be photographing in an area of Vermont that I have spent almost forty years documenting, I plan to work from slightly different perspectives, using digital technology and the camera and scanner to elaborate upon what I envision to be traditional and variants upon Vermont's "working landscape" of the future.

There has been a major disconnect in American culture around the subject of food (since World War II), evidence of which has been the insidious decline of regional food systems when individuals and communities were more closely involved with, and responsible for, generating a fair portion of what they ate by gardening, raising and storing. When I grew up in northern Vermont in the 1950's, almost everyone had a garden and farm families, in particular, produced all of their food on their land other than the bi-yearly purchase of such staples as flour and sugar.

Since the 1970's, food coop's began to flourish and more recently, extraordinary food initiatives have begun, particularly in Vermont, where individuals and organizations are working hard toward encouraging regionally grown, high-quality food that will be available to all; K-College cafeterias, regional markets and cooperatives. Rationales for such extend far beyond the concept of localvore and revitalizing economies in outlying regions of Vermont, for by re-introducing this nutritous food to youth in school, and in the home, studies suggest a direct link between food quality and brain function and performance.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Winter Sunday Evening

Just put a few more logs into the woodstove before heading upstairs to bed. So many books and seed catalogues on my bedside stand that if I roll over too far and hit the stand, the carefully balanced stack crashes to the floor. On the top of that stack is a fascinating book which I am now reading entitled Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington. Montgomery spends much time discussing early working landscapes and how cultures often disappeared because of soil depletion or climate change. I have scanned forward into the book a bit to see that he discusses land reform and how land has affected this country and legislation. I am now reading about how the Chinese addressed land issues in earlier millenia. For instance, according to Montgomery, "the Yao dynasty (2357-2261 B.C.) based taxation on a soil survey that recognized nine distinct types of dirt." When one considers how land is taxed in Vermont - views, location, and criteria other than dirt, I wonder if taxes might rise significantly for all those corn spreads in those beautiful river bottom lands.

Over the past thirty or so years, I have sadly watched beautiful farmland slowly fall into decline and either grow up to puckerbrush or slowly be sliced, graded and traded into some form of tract housing because the land "perced." So often the land between the homes becomes a mowed landscape, often without a vegetable garden cut somewhere into the turf.

As we sat at lunch today, I thought about the number of people in the village who still had a summer garden and there were very few who still planted one. As I tried to remember driving out on the back roads in Town, I recalled far fewer vegetable gardens than there once were thirty, forty years ago. Considering our present economy and how far worse it might devolve, I wonder what it's going to take to motivate people to again have a garden to produce food for not only the summer but to hedge in some small way for the winter.

The decline of the village center, the questionable convenience of the automobile, availability of out-of-season food in markets which has been shipped in from who knows (cares) where...
How far can education deliver us from this weakened state of non-productive consumerism?
Anyway, back to Dirt.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

That Landscape Dilemma - Old vs. New

Clair and Curtis and Susan.
As you and I and a number of the AofA artists look toward the land or the landscape, or the human-scape as I like to call it, for inspiration for our projects, , might I suggest a few readings most thought-provoking.
Yes, some of John Brinckerhoff Jackson's writings are indeed academic but I do believe his observations are quite astute and worldly as was the writing of George Perkins Marsh versus Thoreau when it came to people mucking around with the land. Food for thought as you/we put together our thoughts for the next round at the end of the month. I participated in a conference in the Fall of 2006, sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council, which addressed the Vermont landscape from many perspectives. The Council produced a wonderful book of annotated readings which were distributed in advance of the conference in order for participants to become familiar with diverse perspectives on and about the land, and of course the human altered landscape, past and present.

The title of the conference was Setting as Character: Vermont’s Landscape, Stories and Sense of Place. I recently re-read some of the material in this for it was very appropriate and helped me to more thoughtfully craft my proposal. I'm not sure if this is still available from the Humanities Council but excerpts in quotes are from the following books:

- "The Lost Language of Villages" from The Same Axe Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age by Howard Mansfield. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2000
- “Puckerbrush, Cellar Holes, Rubble: Observations on Abandonment in Vermont” by Shaefe Satterthwaite, from Vermont Landscape Images, 1776-1976 (Burlington: Robert Hull Fleming Museum)
- “From Pictorialism to Progressivism: Myth and Reality in Twentieth-Century Vermont,” by William Lipke, from Celebrating Vermont: Myths and Realities: Middlebury: Christian A. Johnson Memorial Gallery, Middlebury College, 1991.

This anthology has much other fine writing from Barry Lopez to Jan Albers who authored the book Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape. Not part of this anthology, but read Ernie Hebert's novels about the insider/outsider - have/have-nots when considering the nature of extreme poverty rubbing up against wealth as often observed and sensed in Vermont REAL ESTATE these days. Whereas, as you discuss the vernacular landscape, box stores or other kinds of generic architecture a la Jackson in editions of more than one, I ponder the stripped-aesthetic sensibilities that often pervade much suburban habitation where architects and "thoughtful" are often replaced by money-driven development and building.

When I think of vernacular, I think of unique, personal, thoughtful action, be it architectural design, folk-art produced with no formal academic training, a small garden whose beauty and layout transcends mere functionality. I have spent years photographing this in northern Vermont, many places in this country and overseas, and for me, that is the genuine article. Whereas, as we all witness change in the nature of the land and building forms in general, we are also witnessing changes in the manner with which people interact - from active, more personal one-on-one interactions to now more accepted vicarious methods of conversation, communication and participation. I have spent hours the last few days after turning in my proposal for the Art of Action, not putting my feet up to relax and celebrate, not photographing or writing in my journal, but deleting hundreds, thousands of emails that are choking my server so I won't continue to receive warnings that my mailbox is beyond capacity before I go back to college. And now, I'm blogging. At least now I am trying to be a bit more thoughtful in my use of words versus the blather that I have been voraciously deleting...

I am glad that a number of the artists have been embracing the land in their proposed work in some way, from pure aesthetic to cultural observations. I often searched for a more ideal landscape in my early work aka Ansel and Strand, but then I was drawn to Walker Evans and his recording the vernacular life, the vernacular forms in architecture and for instance, trade signage. His work was loaded with commentary about inequality, racism, and humanity, often in photographs without humans.

So, as we yearn for certain landscapes and human-scapes of the past, there is an immense amount of land that could be farmed and gardened for food in this State and despite some popular opinion, there is a growing community of younger generations with a work-ethic who can and will create and regenerate life-styles and human-scapes and community on a scale which is local and vernacular, sound and thoughtfully envisioned!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Formation of an idea

    Another winter solstice has passed and during this season of relative darkness, I think about the economic challenges that have always maintained an adversarial grip on even the most industrious people in the Northeast Kingdom. Particularly, over the last couple of generations, the working agricultural landscape has changed with so many small farms slowly giving way to larger scale farming complexes with bottom land, corn fed livestock. As I remember many small farms selling off their herds with the Federal Buyout programs in the 1980's, and twenty years prior in the early 1960's, the State revamped many of the roads around Vermont which often involved bypassing small villages and then the development of the thruway system. 
    In Coventry, Route 5 always snaked its way through my village and with the 1960's rerouting of the highway, the village was left far more quiet yet also without the travelers who frequented the two garages and general store. Within a few years the general store closed permanently, the garages no longer sold gas, due in part I believe to the rerouting of Route 5 but also due to increased mobility and presence of retail stores and particularly markets in neighboring towns. 
   In the 1950's and 1960's, many people had small gardens which produced fresh vegetables
for their families. Those on the farms usually tended gardens of much greater proportions and with their livestock (chickens and beef, eggs and raw milk), were always able to maintain a constant source of quality food both during the summer and also during the winter months with canned, dried and frozen food; thus, providing one important sense of security - quality food and a relatively healthy diet. 
   As the tradition or perceived need of maintaining a summer garden declined, larger commercial food markets have enjoyed a growing clientele thanks to not only a winter clientele who wishes for fresh produce from anywhere, but the periodic food needs of tourists and Canadians from Eastern Townships. Newport, for instance, the largest town in Orleans County, now has one private food market, a Shaws market and a large Price Chopper, all of which tend to buy from distant wholesale markets, the one private market periodically selling fall squashes and perch caught locally by ice fisherman in the winter. There are a number of small farm markets during the summer whose stock ranges from a good selection of local produce or such specialties as the full season of berries - strawberries, raspberries,  blueberries and blackberries. Again, most prefer to purchase instead of grow their own.
   Along side this more traditional and pervasive manner of food procurement has been a burgeoning food economy far more resourceful and hopeful in terms of extended season fresh local food and networks providing other kinds of produce year around. This interest and responsibility for producing one's food was more recently practiced by many younger, often sophisticated college-educated people moving into the State during the late 1960's and 1970's, probably guided northward by then Vermonter Scott Nearing's seminal book, "Living the Good Life," and due in part to the convenience of a new thruway system allowing far faster access to Vermont from eastern cities in southern New England and New York.  Some of these "newcomers" found more immediate communities by establishing communes and co-purchased larger tracts of farmland. Gardens and quality food were often a priority as was creating a lifestyle of relative independence far removed from the suburban lifestyles with which they were raised.
   As I have continued to read portions of the Art of Action CD provided us by Sarah Waring from the Council for the Future of Vermont, I have been struck by Vermonter's wishing for traditions as the working landscape yet also wishing for change and hoping for far more security in terms of resources, jobs, health, applied common-sense educational concepts from elementary through post-secondary  and more technology driven preparation and development for the workplace.
   I very much feel this desire for the "good life" of rural living and privacy (Scott Nearing advocated for far more individual responsibility re. food generation and community responsibility) but also admittedly enjoy being able to purchase an organic mesclun mix in the local food coop and high-speed internet.  I have been amused by my ongoing and sometimes conflicting desires for what had been perceived as not coexistent without huge changes in the demographics and lifestyles of place. Traveling to a richly diverse agricultural region of rural Italy has helped to dispel some of my rather narrow attitude about how Medieval and contemporary technology and infrastructure can exist, to a point where I have been drawn more and more to how critical the working landscape is in terms of food, health, community, economy, identity and sustainability and how certain conveniences or modernity and technology can help make these earlier traditions not only sustainable but can assist in implementing and regenerating older, useful traditions along side future ones. 
   Over the last number of weeks, I have been honing in on how I might work with these ideas beyond, as Curtis Hale says, the intellectual. Field testing with image-making and talking with many people I am slowly forming a proposal for the Art of Action. I have enjoyed many of the candid and informative blogs by everyone. Thank you all for sharing your brainstorming and thoughts. Best wishes!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Recommended Day Trip

For the first time in my life I skipped eating turkey on Thanksgiving and instead spent a couple of days in Montreal checking out a few museums and galleries but I must admit, I honed in on some of the culinary delights that Montreal has to offer. As for museums, well, I always make sure to visit the Canadian Center for Architecture. Their main exhibits often work with themes to address how people interact with space, be it architectural or natural, and often from perspectives which may be multi-generational, multi-cultural, often global and always expansive intellectually. And, many of their exhibits reflect upon history, address the present, and often consider the future in a somewhat non-la la land manner.

The Center has just installed another brilliant thematic exhibit which could be very thought provoking for Art of Action artists as we all work toward our proposals and form a project. I quote from the web description of the exhibit below. The link to the CCA and this exhibit follows:

Actions: What You Can Do With the City

November 2008 - 19 April 2009
An exploration of how everyday human actions can animate and influence the perception and experience of contemporary cities. Seemingly common activities such as gardening, recycling, playing, and walking are pushed beyond their usual definition by the international architects, artists, and collectives featured in the exhibition. Their experimental interactions with the urban environment show the potential of a new level of participation by city residents.

With the word "City" in the title, please don't be mislead. Many of the ideas conceptually and visually could be quite easily adapted to a rural context. Instead focus upon the word "Actions" for this is the premise of the exhibit. Architects, artists, scholars, and designers (not to suggest that these are four entirely different m.0.s) want this exhibit to stimulate change from the traditional perceptions about urban mind-sets. As the exhibit collaborators suggest, through using video, a range of material culture artifacts, photographs, designs and text (narrative and substantive labels), there is a subconscious need to appropriate and rethink how people use and enjoy urban space. Hmmm, how might we appropriate this concept in our relatively rural State.

If you make it to this exhibit, make sure to then go to the CCA bookstore which is one of the best for visual thinkers outside of New York. Tables of books are always organized for reference to each exhibit, many of which are published in Europe and might never find their way into the lower 48. And, when you head south out of town, consider stopping at the Atwater market to indulge in a large warehouse filled with food vendors.

An addendum: Sorry - Out of Gas was the CCA's prior large-scale exhibit which entailed the same attention to detail with rich multi-media perspectives upon energy dependence, alternative energy experiments through history, and philosophies (videos of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and a Sheik) centering around the debate.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Art of Action thoughts

I have been deeply thinking about this project, keeping my early am and late pm journaling notebook next to my bed. And, there is another one that travels with me. The blogging form, and even the website presence I have not used. Not wishing to be a luddite, but due in part to some of the intimate/private nature of my work with people, I have been hesitant to put it out there on the world-wide web. Landscape, architecture, no problem but with people I have been a bit more cautious. A fair amount of that work has found public venues in books and exhibitions but usually for consumption by those who were either affiliated with the projects directly or those interested in the work, be it for aesthetic or personal reasons.
I must admit this has put me in a slight quandry as I am brainstorming about
how to put my work to work to consider some of the very important issues facing
Vermonters and those way beyond the borders of this state. As I entertain the concept of the blog, I would hope to have it break me into a new way to work and think about not merely engaging visually, but even conceptually - the public, AofA artists and particularly my respondents with whom I will not only work but will DEPEND upon.

So the process goes and I am very honored to be part of this project, even as a finalist. This kind of work is very difficult in terms of conceptual formation and also technical/artistic formulation and development. I have been reading parts of Sarah Waring's et al rich CD. That verbal information must now percolate into the intuitive visual mode combined with some divine intervention. I am beginning to contact others who may function as advisors and respondents.