Editor's note: The West Bend Art Museum provided source material to Resource Library Magazine for the following essay from the exhibition catalogue, titled "Farm Stories: Studies of a Disappearing Landscape" which is reprinted with permission of the Rahr-West Art Museum and the West Bend Art Museum. The exhibition "Remembering our Icons: Wisconsin Barns and their Environs" appears at the West Bend Art Museum January 2 through February 17, 2002. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the West Bend Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Long considered a visual arts cliché, Wisconsin barns and rural landscape takes on a new urgency as these icons disappear at an alarmingly rapid rate. Painters, Bonnita Budysz and Steve Gerhartz of Two Rivers, WI and Craig Blietz of Evanston, IL have in the last few years pursued the process of plein-air painting in the Wisconsin rural setting to capture the essence of the once prominent, but now vanishing rural environment of Wisconsin.
Catalogue essay excerpt from "Farm Stories: Studies of a Disappearing Landscape:"
The Disappearing Landscape
The Development of American Farms
America has been farmed successfully for centuries; first by its native people and next, by those who immigrated to this continent, bringing new crops with them. Corn remained the truly American plant, sustaining the nation, and now, sustaining its livestock. (left: Craig Blietz, Untitled, 2001, oil on linen mounted on panel)
As plantation systems developed in the South, independent farmers began to flourish in the North, beginning in Pennsylvania with settlers from Germany, Switzerland and Holland. The independent structure that grew in America was unique, creating a tremendous change from the European tradition. In America, farming became a lifestyle, as well as a livelihood where families owned their own land, worked the land themselves and returned to their own homes built on their own property, at the end of the day. [i]
Pennsylvania farmers found continued self-sufficiency by establishing a tradition of mixed farming, raising crops and livestock. This led to new barn designs that would house both. The establishment of today's family farm grew from this tradition which spread rapidly as European immigrants sought independence, freedom and a piece of land they might call their own.[ii]
From the 1870's to the 1920's American farming experienced rapid growth and prosperity. Local Wisconsin sites that inspired the artists were also being farmed during this period, with settlements dating to the 1850s. The growth and prosperity of the later part of the 19th century and early 20th century can be attributed in part to the development of several factors. More machinery; an economic infrastructure that was previously not in place; the beginning of farm cooperatives; and social support systems that braced the nation's farmers for the tumultuous economic years ahead all contributed to changes in farming.
A period of growth through exports created an economic boon in the 1970s giving way to a crisis by the mid-I980s for those heavily mortgaged family farms that were highly leveraged to meet expansion of the previous decade.
The independence of this American icon, the family farm, was severely threatened as more mortgages were foreclosed or small farm operations were taken over by corporate operations. The evidence of these changes haunt our rural landscapes as ghosts of a previous way of life, leaving collapsing barns, and stone foundations of silos that once reached skyward.[iii]
The Story from the Artists' Perspective
It is this history, this struggle for economic freedom and the love of working the land that parallels the interests of Blietz, Budysz and Gerhartz, who have aspired to document the story of this lifestyle before it fades completely from its telling role in American culture. (left: Bonnita Budysz, Lush Fields and Farm, 2001, oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches)
Dramatic changes have taken place over the last century. At one time more than 90% of the nation farmed, which dwindled to only 2% of the total population according to a 1994 New York Times report.[iv]
Craig Blietz sensitizes us to this grim statistic in his selection of farms on the periphery of a burgeoning tourist community, where the original function of the farm has been displaced by a new economy. The buildings are well cared for, however, many no longer serve the purpose they held as functioning farms, but are now leased for a new purpose. In some cases, the barns have become mere storage facilities for expanding business ventures in town.
There is a paradox established in the hauntingly beautiful landscapes, depicting painstakingly rendered, strong vibrant structures, that mask an emptiness and abandonment created by the prosperity of a transitioning lifestyle in Door County, Wisconsin, a community burdened by its own natural attractiveness.
Blietz' still-life paintings set the view on edge by taking this issue one step further. In carefully orchestrated compositions of hand tools and farm implements Blietz captures a sense of loss through objects that were once held by human hands and have obviously lost their usefulness, becoming relies of an active hand hewn lifestyle.
The bucolic landscapes captured by Bonnita Budysz offer a different perspective that favors a humble reverence for the everyday nurturing that sustains the still operating family farms.
Budysz becomes personally familiar with the lifestyle of the farmers on whose land she is working, and draws inspiration from their fortitude. Her works are laced with a sentimentality, perhaps drawn from fond memories of her childhood, recalling days spent with absolute abandon and with a sense of wonder on her grandparent's farm.
The duality of nature/nurture fuels her work in pursuit of the total sensory experience gained when immersing herself in a landscape. The smells, the scenes, the labor and the elements instill immediacy to the work, apparent in the captive colors and loose, impressionistic mark making. (left: Steve Gerhartz, Near Kellnersville, 2001, 11 x 14 inches)
Steve Gerhartz creates a very different impression through his work that emits a quiet reverence to abandoned structures. There is a contemplative solitude and dignity instilled in the objects he paints, Like Blietz, his spaces are devoid of a human or animal presence, yet, there is an evocative, symbolic presence captured in the strong contrast of light creeping into the darkest recesses of an abandoned, decrepit place. Through Gerhartz, we see that these are not dilapidated structures, but symbols of places, once teaming with life and activity.
Light floods Gerhartz' paintings, instilling them with a vigor and sense of hope. By using light as his magic wand, the old tractor, truck or sleigh, is not abandoned; it is only resting, awaiting the next opportunity to serve. The light-filled landscapes reference the cycle of nature with the change of seasons and the elements that are so co-mingled with farming.
Through this exhibition, the artists have approached plein air painting as a method to document subject matter that had direct, personal meaning. The results open a dialogue between the artist, the viewer and the subject about a transitioning society. It raises questions about continuity, and future visions, but also presents affirmations of a tradition that is continued because of a love of the land and the values instilled through hard work leading to the satisfaction gained through the efforts of one's own hand. These affirmations are paralleled in the daily work of each of the artists who also weather the elements, respond to the outdoors and link their creative efforts to a reliance on nature.
i. Goldberg, Jake, The Disappearing American Farm, 1995, Franklin Watts. A Grolier Publishing Company, pg. 27.
ii. ibid,, pg. 29.
iii. ibid, pg.49-103.
iv. ibid,, pg.11.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the West Bend Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine.
Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.
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