This blog is the beginning of a series on my (Richard's) trip across the country visiting important sites related to heritage and landrace grain studies. View the other posts in the series here.
Last spring I was checking the calendar for dates of what our family calls “coming attractions”—the periodic gathering of the clan at Camp Casey on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, family birthdays, an annual Cascades high country hike, and the like. In doing so I noticed that I had long since qualified as a member of the faculty at Seattle Pacific University for a sabbatical, and had probably missed the application deadline for this year, which turned out to be the case. Since I had done a fair amount of research and writing on environmental sustainability education which dovetailed nicely with my interests in Palouse Heritage regenerative agriculture and heirloom crops, I pled mercy from Dean Eigenbrood’s department court since the trail for further study led beyond Seattle. Many sources of information I sought were not available online but would greatly benefit from visits to the Library of Congress, Rockefeller Library at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, the University of California-Riverside, and other locations. With strong enrollments in our SPU teacher education and my pledge to supply the dean with bread and ale from the King’s Arms Tavern in Williamsburg, my request was thankfully granted for this current spring quarter.
Valued travel support for these endeavors has also come from the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, founded by Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, Columbia, South Carolina. Glenn is one of the founders of the country’s “back to land and table” heritage grains and culinary arts movement, a fellow incredibly generous with his time and wisdom, and known to fly cross-country for breakfast made by our mutual friend and “Pancake Queen of America” author Amy Halloran of New York. (As I recall he also took part in Oregon State University’s Barley Conference that day last year, but mostly came for the pancakes.) I am very grateful to the SPU administration, Glenn, Amy, my wife, Lois and family, and a host of others for encouragement and arrangements and invite you to let me be your guide on this fun cross-country adventure. I’ll be posting updates here to our Palouse Heritage blog in the event you’d also like to experience new insights related to heritage, sustainability, and health. Onward! --Richard
WASHINGTON, D. C.
Capitol Mall Classical Agrarian Sculpture
For the past couple years I’ve been composing a sequel to Harvest Heritage: Agricultural Origins and Heirloom Crops of the Pacific Northwest (WSU Press, 2013), and for various reasons found the muse leading me to a work tentatively titled “Hallowed Harvests: Gleaners, Reapers, and Threshers in Western Art and Literature.” Although I barely picked up an undergrad literature minor long ago, and my formal art training chiefly consists of having watched legendary educator Arden Johnson in action at Endicott-St. John Middle School when I served as principal there in the 1990s, the prospect of completing a proper study has been somewhat daunting. But I take heart in knowing that many of authors and artists featured in the burgeoning HH manuscript had little formal training though I have tried to make up for that by reading far more library and abebooks.com volumes than I ever anticipated, and thought someone who grew up with good Palouse Country dirt on his shoes might be able to offer at least a dusting of some fresh insight on van Gogh’s Wheatfield series, Monet’s Grainstacks, Thomas Hart Benton’sharvest fields, and the sculpted Art Deco treasures at the Chicago Board of Trade Building. This trip is greatly furthering this hope by enabling me to view such works in person and meet their thoroughly informed guardians.
My intention has been to fly from Washington State to Washington, D. C. in order to begin this peculiar expedition by viewing examples of notable monumental agrarian art on the Capitol Mall, and then discussing heritage grain restoration with staff at the National Arboretum, Mt. Vernon Living History Farm, and Colonial Williamsburg’s Great Hopes Plantation. This begins with a confession that both back in the day as a chaperone with student groups and on personal trips to Washington, D. C., I have passed most of these monuments without ever noting their presence let alone significance. And since they grace the entrances to some of the nation’s most prominent places—the National Archives and Arlington Bridge, for example, it isn’t as if they’ve been inconspicuous. But having a dozen or so kids in your charge in the big city does have its diversions.
In 1923 the U. S. Commission of Fine Arts, an independent federal agency charged with reviewing design of all construction in Washington, D. C., began consideration of plans authorized by Congress to build Arlington Memorial Bridge as part of a major route connecting Arlington National Cemetery with the Lincoln Memorial and Capitol district. Sculptors James Earle Fraser (1876-1953) and Leo Friedlander (1888-1966) were later commissioned to present designs for four heroic equestrian monuments at the bridge’s eastern plaza entrances—The Arts of Peace and The Arts of War. Minnesota-born Fraser had attended the Art Institute of Chicago and later studied under Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. He conceived of Music and Harvest and Aspiration and Literature in Neoclassical style to symbolize the aesthetics of peace, while Friedlander’s martial designs were titled Valor and Sacrifice. Earlier notable works by Fraser included the Indian Head (Buffalo) Nickel and End of the Trail, the iconic melancholy image of a mounted Sioux Indian he had created when just fifteen years old for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition.
Music and Harvest featured a male figure grasping a sickle and carrying sheaf of grain while striding alongside Pegasus. After fashioning a series of smaller working models, the final works were cast in Italy using the lost-wax process and fire gilding to form a 400-ton monument on a granite pedestal measuring nineteen feet high and sixteen feet long—the largest equestrian statue in the America. Budgetary constraints, World War II, and technical problems in casting works of such proportions delayed their installation until 1950.
Fraser was also commissioned to create other iconic structures in Washington, D. C., including the nine-foot tall Heritage and Guardianship monuments (1935) that flank the National Archives South Entrance. Designed by Fraser and carved from Indiana limestone by New York sculptor Edward H. Ratti (1904-1969), Heritage (see frontispiece) features a seated allegorical matriarch holding a child and sheaf of grain. The statue’s massive granite base is surrounded by images in relief of farm tools and livestock and the inscription, “The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future.”
Jeff Reinhart, Grass Coordinator; Jason Wight, Field Trials Coordinator, University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
The National Arboretum covers 440 acres and Jeff works tirelessly to promote best practices and varieties for DC area managed landscapes, while Jason works directly with farmers all across Maryland. Since our son, Karl, completed his master’s degree in public policy from the University of Maryland and I hadn’t visited the school since then, I was pleased to see some familiar sights around Terp-dom. Jeff and Jason have both helped organize the popular “Waves of Grain” exhibit of demonstration plots established in 2014 for visitors who might be unfamiliar with production of wheat, barley, rye, and other crops. Jeff also manages the Arboretum’s 1 1/3 acres of various grasses, and both report strong interest in heritage grain varieties by area microbreweries because of their unique and rich flavor profiles.
The twenty-two sandstone Corinthian columns that appear starkly in the center of the National Arboretum were part of the original United States Capitol Building and installed in 1826. They appear in numerous pictures of presidential inaugurations from the time of Andrew Jackson to Dwight Eisenhower when they were dismantled and replaced in 1958. Jeff said they rested in obscurity along a grassy embankment until someone suggested they would make an impressive assembly at the Arboretum and in 1990 they were erected at their present location.
Our American Founders’ grand vision for New World prosperity was beautifully translated into the design and decoration of the original Capitol Building. The massive inner and outer domes crowning the 1800 structure were completed in the 1860s with an inner oculus that reveals an enormous fresco coveringapproximately 5,000 square feet, The Apotheosis of Washington (1865) by Italian-American artist Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880). The painting depicts George Washington enthroned amidst the heavenlies above six allegorical perimeter scenes. Agriculture shows Ceres with a wreath of wheat and cornucopia perched atop a mechanical reaper (!) assisted by a capped Young America who holds the reins of the horses. Flora gathers flowers nearby. Next time you’re inside the Capitol Rotunda, be sure to look up!
Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration Collection Harvest Series
The Farm Security Administration (FSA) originated in 1935 as an independent government agency first known as the Resettlement Administration (RA) and one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signature New Deal programs to promote rural recovery in the wake of the Great Depression. The RA oversaw a number of farm relief efforts including government loans to enable sharecroppers and tenant farmers to purchase their own acreage on favorable credit terms and small farm owners to underwrite equipment and operational costs. In a day when many Americans still lived in rural areas, RA field representatives established offices throughout the country to screen candidates and assist in applications, facilitate extension education, and monitor progress.
In 1937 the RA was transferred to the Department of Agriculture and renamed the Farm Security Administration, and publicity efforts were launched to promote the agency’s work and acquaint government officials with the plight of the rural poor. Prior to this period the most extensive photographic documentation of American agriculture had been undertaken by George W. Ackerman and E. C. Hunter of the USDA Agricultural Extension Service in the 1920s, but their work had primarily focused on American progress in agricultural mechanization. The 1930s FSA Historical Section Photo Unit was organized by director Roy Stryker both to document the agency’s fieldwork and to foster continued support from Congress and local governments. The unit’s work under Stryker would come to significantly shape the emerging genre of American documentary photography.
Although some experimentation was done with color film as early as 1939, the vast majority of FSA photographers black-and-white. The stark and stunning visual record amassed by the unit from 1938 to 1942 yielded a prodigious collection of some quarter-million negatives ranging in size from 35 mm to 8 x 10 inches. Approximately 170,000 FSA images, digitized in the 1990s, survive as a national treasure and are now housed under controlled conditions at the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus Audio-Visual Center.
Most of the photographers recruited by Stryker for the FSA devoted considerable attention to farm life, and those who especially did so included, in order of being hired, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, Jack Vachon, and Marjory Collins. The group brought aesthetic perspectives to their far flung endeavors throughout the nation and formulated a remarkable vernacular realism of images and articles that honored the traditions of common folks while recording the lives of farm families. Complicating their plight were social adjustments in the wake of an unprecedented era of agricultural mechanization.
FSA photographers deployed across the country during the period that witnessed the waning years of cradle scythe reaping in isolated valleys of the South and Midwest horse-drawn reapers and steam threshers to the massive horse-drawn combines of the Pacific Northwest, and the advent of combustion engine-powered harvesting equipment in all these places. Since most of his photographers were from East Coast cities or Europe, Stryker provided copies of Columbia University geographer J. Russell Smith’s authoritative North America: Its People and Resources (1925) that featured detailed descriptions and maps of the country’s geophysical regions with summaries of their distinctive rural demographics and agricultural profiles. Members of the team also periodically met to discuss methodologies and subject matter for upcoming assignments.
In the mid-1930s, Lithuanian-born Ben Shahn (1898-1969) shared a Manhattan studio with Walker Evans, who collaborated with James Agee on the classic book about three impoverished Southern tenant families, Now Let Us Praise Famous Men (1941). Shahn was well acquainted with dire poverty from his youth, and his sympathy for the down and out would be evident in a lifetime of artwork and political activism. The intellectual range Shahn applied to his work is reflected in his exhortation to students at Harvard where he delivered the 1956-’57 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures: “[B]efore you do attend a university work at something for a while. …If you do work in a field do not fail to observe the look and the feel of earth and of all things that you handle…. Read the Bible; read Hume; read Pogo. Read all kinds of poetry and know many poets and many great artists.” Pre-Raphaelites, Hudson River artists, and German Genre painters were all notable for study, as were classical and popular music, big city preachers, and small town New England politicians.
Shahn used his photographs not only to advance the agency’s moral mission of informing the wider population in order to support rural economic and social reform, but also as models for various forms of agrarian art. He photographed many harvest scenes, and later created such paintings and lithographs as Bountiful Harvest (1944), Beatitudes (1952), and Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes (1967). Shahn’s remarkable series of Ohio grain harvest photographs taken in August, 1938, consisted of over 200 images with many that feature women preparing and serving meals to famished field workers.
Among the best known Depression-era photojournalists was Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) whose iconic 1936 image Migrant Mother, for which she received a Guggenheim Prize, forever associated her work with the plight of the dispossessed described in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Raised under difficult circumstances herself in New Jersey, Lange studied photography at Columbia University and spent most of her adult life in California. She began working for the RA/FSA in 1935 and sought to bring public attention to the conditions of the rural poor by documenting the lives of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and migrant workers and distributing her pictures to newspapers throughout the country.
Stay tuned for the next installment of this blog series on Richard's "Great American Heritage Grains Adventure."
Richard's trip has been made possible by generous support from The Carolina Gold Foundation, Anson Mills and Glenn Roberts, Seattle Pacific University, the University of California-Riverside Department of History, and Palouse Heritage.