School & Library

Rural Art Exemplars Through Time and Place

There is risk in discussing times and trends in art since masters in any age may not conform to prevailing approaches, and certainly change styles subject matter interests over their lifetimes. Moreover, the multicultural experiences of many great artists defy their association with a single country or national art movement. Camille Pissarro, for example, was born on the island of St. Thomas in the West Indies to Jewish parents, lived most of his adult life in France, but was a Danish citizen! Such enriching influences have contributed manifold perspectives in agrarian art and literature which inform understandings of the condition of the land and the spirit of its dependent humanity.

Grigoriy Myasoyedov,  Time of Toil—The Reapers  (1887), Oil on canvas, 70 ½ x 108 ¼ inches, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Grigoriy Myasoyedov, Time of Toil—The Reapers (1887), Oil on canvas, 70 ½ x 108 ¼ inches, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

The pantheon of eminent national artists and authors who created masterpieces on agrarian themes includes Vincent Van Gogh, Jean Millet, and Émile Zola; Leo Tolstoy and Russian masters Alexey Venetsianov and Grigoriy Myasoyedov; Thomas Hardy, John Linnell, and Lea Anna Merritt of Great Britain; and Americans Fannie Palmer, Willa Cather, and Thomas Hart Benton. Study of Western culture through the centuries also reveals that artistic interpretations of rural experience have been variously shaped by the religion and predispositions of painter, author, and patron. While depictions of harvests generally retain noble aspects across times and cultures, they also can serve to realistically show other harsh realities of rural life, or use the power of symbols like sickles and the gleaning poor has also been used to advance political or social causes. Consideration of art and works of fiction and literary-nonfiction through a critical lens informs understandings of the ancient, feudal, and early modern past in ways that also influence contemporary creative expression and meaning making.

Identification of this unifying theme has had limited treatment in scholarly literature. Of over 45,000 entries in the authoritative thirty-four-volume Grove Encyclopedia of Art (2011), for example, no subject headings are included for agrarian, agriculture, rural, or rustic. A similar conspicuous absence is any reference to harvesting, the essential endeavor that variously occupied the overwhelming majority of the populace in the ancient world, in the monumental Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (2007). The Smithsonian Art Museum’s inventory of world art, however, contains approximately 500 entries with titles that include the terms “harvest,” “threshing,” and “reaping.” (Dozens of others include words like “Ceres,” “gleaner,” and “grain.”) The Union Index of English Verse (2018), substantially drawn from the Early Modern (c. 1500-1900) period, contains reference to these and other related terms in the title, first, or last line of 745 separate works.

 

Agrarianism as Essential Discipline

Many folks will recognize the colorful flowing Great Depression farm art of Thomas Hart Benton. American regionalist painters like Benton and Marion Greenwood sought to portray the tensions of rural social and economic change wrought by the Great Depression and global farm commodity markets. Their British contemporaries included writers George Ewart Evans and Lady Francis Donaldson, and renowned artist-author Claire Leighton. Themes of sustaining values amidst economic dislocation were also subjects of the stirring 1930s harvest photography of Federal Security Administration photographers Ben Shahn, Marion Post Wolcott, and Arthur Rothstein.

Ben Shahn,  Wheat Field  (c. 1958), From  Ecclesiastes or, The Preacher  (New York, 1971), 8 ⅞ x 12 inches

Ben Shahn, Wheat Field (c. 1958), From Ecclesiastes or, The Preacher (New York, 1971), 8 ⅞ x 12 inches

Rural change in the wake of world wars, the rise of consumerism, and environmental challenges have been explored more recently in essays and stories of conservationists like Russell Lord and Wallace Stegner. As founder of Stanford University’s Writer’s Workshop, Stegner mentored a new generation of influential regionalist authors including Edward Abbey, Scott Momeday, and Wendell Berry. Traditional themes of deliverance drawn from the Bible have been expressed anew in such modern art as Chagall’s Ruth Gleaning the Grain (1960), Ben Shahn’s Wheatfield—Ecclesiastes (1967), and recent operatic works by Lennox Berkeley and James Niblock. One of the founding “mystic artists” of the abstract Northwest School, Mark Tobey (1890-1975) painted After the Harvest (1970) and The Harvest’s Gleanings (1975) with the small, overlapping brush strokes that suggest the Oriental influence of his spiritual beliefs.

The reciprocating influences of agrarian art and literature offer important understandings to this contrasting complex of cultural ideas involving fulfillment and struggles with rural labor, individual and cooperative endeavors, and the facts and fictions of life on the land and impacts of technology. Progressive change to promote well-being of the countryside and future generations can be unwisely limited by amnesia as well as nostalgia. Amnesia is forgetting about cultural legacies bequeathed by ancestors and society, while nostalgia appeals to life in some halcyon past often overlook very real challenges of such times. We remember places, mark lines and verses, and appropriate elders’ counsel for synergy and solidarity to foster human flourishing and to safeguard natural resources for future generations. For these reasons aesthetic understanding through agrarian art and literature remains an essential discipline. 

When Bill Murray Met Jules Breton: “Another Chance Every Day”

On a recent train trip through Chicago, I found myself with a couple extra hours between trains at the city’s main railroad terminal. I glanced at a city map and saw that I was only about a ten minute walk from the Chicago Art Institute so braved a brisk wind to take a look. The CAI is well known for its priceless collection of Monet’s Grainstack paintings (more on that someday soon), but what struck me were several images about harvest time gleaning. These evocative images attest to the widespread rural poverty of past centuries and how grateful we can be for many of the conveniences we take for granted.

Given many poor women’s dire circumstances in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern times, they periodically sought to reaffirm the ancient privileges of gleaning. But so did less scrupulous miscreants who sometimes gleaned by night in harvested fields where crops had not yet been completely gathered. King Henry II of France’s Edict of 1554 had blamed, “…a number of scoundrels, both from the city and suburbs and hinterland, [who] make use of such permission and form gangs, and under the pretense of gleaning, steal the sheaves, wheat, and cereals left on the fields….” In these cases, gleaning was no longer an incidental act of charity, but an offense that could significantly threaten crop yields for worker and owner, as well as tithes for the church, seigneurial dues, and taxes for the state. For these reasons, stricter laws were enacted to regulate gleaning, especially in the emerging free market economies of France, Germany, and England.

Jules Breton,  Song of the Lark  (1884), Oil on canvas, 43½ by 33¾ inches, Henry Field Memorial Collection, Chicago Art Institute

Jules Breton, Song of the Lark (1884), Oil on canvas, 43½ by 33¾ inches, Henry Field Memorial Collection, Chicago Art Institute

These conditions suggest other interpretations of scenes sympathetically depicting the saintly qualities of ordinary people in solemn nineteenth century master works by Realists like Millet, Breton, and Léon-Augustin Lhermitte. These artists came of age during a time when European social revolutions spawned a new creative and idealistic spirit. The emergent social awareness and sense of individual dignity regardless of class-bound constraint is reflected in the period’s art and literature that challenged prevailing academic notions of classical aesthetics and subject matter.

The enduring popularity of these depictions is evident in Breton’s timeless Song of the Lark (1884) which garnered the most votes a half-century later in a public poll conducted, ironically, for the 1933-1934 Chicago’s futuristic Century of Progress International Exposition. The painting continues to inspire. Actor Bill Murray credits it with pulling him from despair at a time of particular disappointment early in his career: “I saw it that day and I just thought, ‘There’s a girl who doesn’t have a whole lot of prospects but the sun’s coming up anyway and she’s got another chance.’ I think that gave me some sort of feeling that… you get another chance every day.” Millet’s The Gleaners (1857) may be the genre’s apotheosis, and like his other harmonious compositions shows masterful use of soft forms to portray field laborers, inviting viewers to thoughtful reflection. Claude Monet’s Impressionist canvases of ponds, groves, and gardens inspired early twentieth century French artists Camille Pissarro (who taught both Gauguin and Cézanne), Pierre-August Renoir, and George Seurat to depict forms like sheaves and stacks of grain in highly individualistic patterns of light and color without Romantic moralizing. Monet’s style also greatly influenced Vincent Van Gogh whose synthesis of religious belief with the rustic wonder of the French countryside led to his completion of thirteen large expressionistic paintings of writhing grain fields in thickly layered bright colors that were his final works. 

The Abiding Significance of Agrarian Art

On numerous occasions in recent months I’ve been reminded how by the names of notable humanitarian groups like Second Harvest and Food for the Hungry that “gleaning” remains a highly relevant endeavor for our time. Although often associated with bygone days, gleaning has never been more relevant in this day when so much food goes to waste while hunger still stalks substantial numbers of the population. Hats off to the many dedicated workers in these organizations who devote themselves to collecting excess produce, and to farmers across the country who partner with these groups to provide these valuable commodities.

2nd Harvest Delivery Truck Trailer Mural (2018); Pasco, Washington

2nd Harvest Delivery Truck Trailer Mural (2018); Pasco, Washington

Universal themes of deliverance from want through rural toil and fellowship have been variously represented throughout history through images of reaping and gleaning in art and literature. The Bible and ancient writings by Homer and Virgil include numerous references to sickle and sheaf, which are also graphically depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings and Near Eastern mosaics. Representations of them continued to appear in stirring, numinous form for the next two millennia. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Valley of the Arno (1473), which shows distant Florentine fields from a mountain slope vantage, is considered the first landscape done for nature’s sake, though evidence of humanity’s presence is limited in Leonardo’s drawing to distant stone ramparts and partitioned fields.

But development of landscape as an artistic and literary theme was slow to develop in Europe and only in the mid-1500s do graphic works by Titian, Domenico Campagnola, and other Italian masters appear as idealistic countrysides with human figures to enliven such subjects. Images of scythe-wielding harvesters first appear in Late Roman Era sculpture and wall decoration, and as illustrations for religious works in the Early Middle Ages.

Lodewijk Toeput, Summer Harvest (c. 1590), National Archives

Lodewijk Toeput, Summer Harvest (c. 1590), National Archives

Sixteenth century Flemish painters and printmakers Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Lodewijk Toeput were among the first artists to depict harvest scenes. Such masterpieces as Brueghel’s celebrated The Harvesters (1565) significantly contributed to the validity of agrarian landscape as a prominent theme for painting and drawing. Farmer-poet Thomas Tusser, Brueghel’s English contemporary, composed A Hundreth Good Pointes of Good Husbandrie, first printed in London in 1557, to express the country year in rhyming couplets for a long poem that contributed to agrarian literature as an accepted genre.  In every country, as with most every artist and author, the function of art as expression of meaning and beauty is different and changes in manifold ways over time.

Northwest Colonial Festival — Heritage Grains under the Big Top

The Northwest’s Olympic Peninsula is famous for hosting continental America’s only rain forest which averages about 150 inches of annual precipitation. That fact might make ocean-side grain culture there a hopeless prospect, but far from it on the dry and sunny north side of the Olympic Mountains. To the contrary, the imposing mountains shelter the vicinity of Sequim, Washington, from the region’s prevailing southwesterly winds to create a rain shadow effect causing only about fifteen inches of rain to fall in that area. The peculiar semi-arid climate combined with fertile landscape create ideal conditions for raising wheat, barley, and oats. Match the geography with the patriotic dream of Dan and Jan Abbot to build a full-scale replica of Mt. Vernon as a five star bed and breakfast and you get… the spectacular George Washington Inn.

Barley Field near Sequim on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula (2018)

Barley Field near Sequim on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula (2018)

The Abbots have been friends of Palouse Heritage since we first met several years ago at one of the WSU Grain Gathering conferences. Dan shares our interest in health and history and wanted to learn about the crops of America’s Colonial Era in order to provide a “living history” experience to visitors to the Inn. He might not have expected them to harvest the crop, but thought that establishing test plots with actual varieties that once grew at places like Mt. Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello would be a fascinating project. And so was launched a partnership between Dan, the WSU Bread Lab in nearby Burlington, and Palouse Heritage.

British Army Reenactors approach the George Washington Inn (Mt. Vernon)

British Army Reenactors approach the George Washington Inn (Mt. Vernon)

The third annual Northwest Colonial Festival was held at the Inn this past August with hundreds of visitors attending a series of special events and reenactor encampments of British regulars and American patriots. Along with demonstrations of tool making, cooking, printing, weaving, and other traditional crafts, the August sunshine brought the landrace grain plots to maturity. Many of the guests gathered under an enormous tent where longtime WSU senior agronomist Steve Lyon and I teamed up to tell about the various varieties and discuss the challenges and benefits of heritage grain production. Several once prominent early American grains like Virginia White and Red May also made their way to the Pacific Northwest by the late 1800s, and seeing bountiful stands again wave in the seaside breeze presents scenes worthy of a painting.

Three (Colonial) Musketeers

Three (Colonial) Musketeers

Early American Mediterranean Red Wheat Test Plot

Early American Mediterranean Red Wheat Test Plot

One of the winter wheats planted last fall, Mediterranean Red, yielded terrifically and represents a remarkable chapter in the history of American agriculture. Most folks are familiar with the story of Hessian troops from Germany being used as mercenaries to fight for the British during the Revolutionary War. Many agricultural historians believe that these soldiers brought more with them to the Colonies that love of schnapps and sauerkraut. It seems that a tiny pernicious pest that came to be known as the Hessian fly likely arrived with the hay and grain brought over to provision the soldiers livestock. This insect wrought enormous havoc on cereal grains that had long been raised in North America, and local news and correspondence of George Washington and other farmers from the era is full of news about the calamity that ensured which threatened the food supply. Fortunately for the new nation, enterprising “farmer improvers” introduced Mediterranean Red which seemed to have a natural resistance to infestation. Scientists today study the remarkable genetic diversity of landrace grains that developed in locales throughout the world for millennia and continue to exhibit valued traits for hardiness, yield, and flavor.

Bridget Baker,  Olympic Gold  (oil on canvas, wheat field near Sequim), Palouse Heritage Collection

Bridget Baker, Olympic Gold (oil on canvas, wheat field near Sequim), Palouse Heritage Collection

Artist Katherine Nelson Creates Drawings Inspired by Grain

Our longtime Palouse Colony Farm friend, Baltimore artist Katherine Nelson, learned of our mutual interests in country life, history, and art through our cousin, photographer and musician Tom Schierman, of nearby Lancaster. In recent years Katherine has visited the farm several times to study locations for her phenomenal artistic creations in charcoal, paint, and fabric. She was here in the Northwest again this summer to participate in an art show held at Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where we both made presentations on agrarian art. A video of those presentations is provided below, along with an article from a larger feature written by Carrie Scozzaro for the July, 2018, issue of The Inlander.


The Palouse has inspired countless artists with its iconic vistas of grain-covered hills, yellow-gold and green against an azure blue sky and dotted with farmsteads. When clouds roll through and the light shifts, the hills appear to undulate as if a vast carpet of living color. Yet for artist Katherine Nelson, the allure of the Palouse goes well beyond the visual.

Drawing the Palouse is a quest to express the obvious and implied human connections within a unique place formed by nature and agriculture," Nelson writes in the artist's statement for the Art Spirit Gallery's July exhibition of her charcoal drawings alongside Jerri Lisk, Mark Lisk and Al Swanson. "After thousands of field observations, I have developed an admiration for farmers and agrarian fortitude. I see my work aligned with the work I observe, and think that sowing seeds of grain to nurture our bodies is analogous to developing artistic imagery for visual nourishment.”

Nelson's affinity for the Palouse began in 2001, when she relocated to Eastern Washington with her husband and two young sons. Early pieces, which she exhibited at the Art Spirit in 2005, ranged from still lifes to ravens, and from Oregon Coast scenes to rolling fields and broken fences amidst farmlands. By 2007, Nelson was featured in an Art Spirit exhibition entitled The Circle in the Center and Beyond. It conveyed the Palouse through graphic elements of design—light, value, pattern, shape, line—from ribbons of roads to the upswell of morning mist over the land.

“Charcoal is a perfectly suited medium for expressing the undulating Palouse fields and farmsteads," Nelson says in an interview from her home in Washington, D.C. "I love charcoal because it is fluid, forgiving, mysterious and strong. I draw by layering dark velvety values and build textures that are obtained through an additive and subtractive process using a variety of charcoals, pastels, blenders, brushes and erasers.”

What Nelson says she's trying to express is a "luxuriant textural carpet full of patterns, shapes and values" not unlike the antique carpets and weavings she remembers her father collecting while a diplomat in the Foreign Service who travelled throughout the Middle East.

The panels also suggest relationships, such as those Nelson developed while immersing herself in the grain community during Palouse visits from the East Coast, where she relocated in 2012. During one such visit she was introduced Tom Schierman, a St. John-area farmer and photographer who helped Nelson in her quest for Palouse vistas. He also introduced her to his cousin, Don Scheuerman, who co-founded Palouse Heritage — they grow ancient or landrace grains on their Palouse Colony Farm — near Endicott, Washington, with his brother, Richard Scheuerman.

Nelson has visited many private Palouse farms, talked with farmers, attended numerous grain-related events, including the Cascadia Grains Conference and the Grain Gathering, an annual event led by Washington State University to unite producers, consumers and anyone interested in grain. “From my perspective, as an observer and a visual artist," Nelson says, "these interdependent artisanal connections between farmers, millers, bakers, brewers and distillers are in fact, weaving people together quite like a carpet.”


Katherine Nelson,  Palouse Colony Farm  (charcoal on wove paper, 2017)

Katherine Nelson, Palouse Colony Farm (charcoal on wove paper, 2017)

Katherine at Art Spirit Gallery, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Katherine at Art Spirit Gallery, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Katherine and Tom Schierman, Palouse Colony Farm (July, 2018)

Katherine and Tom Schierman, Palouse Colony Farm (July, 2018)

Palouse Colony Vista (2018)

Palouse Colony Vista (2018)

East Meets West—WSU’s 2018 Farmwalk Tour and Our Seattle Damsel & Hopper Friends

This past June we were privileged to take part in Washington State University Extension Service’s Farmwalk 2018 program organized by Nichole Witham and Aba Kiser of the Food & Farm Systems Program headquartered at scenic Port Hadlock on Puget Sound. Thirty-five guests showed up on a breezy morning at the end of Grove Road between Endicott and St. John to learn about the history of the farm and tour the property.

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Founder Rob Salvino of Seattle’s Damsel & Hopper Bakeshop

Founder Rob Salvino of Seattle’s Damsel & Hopper Bakeshop

We were pleased to make the acquaintance of folks from across the state who shared our interests in health and heritage through landrace grain production, processing, and marketing. Several passed on greetings from our good friend in Seattle, master artisan baker Rob Salvino of Damsel & Hopper Bakeshop (4405 Wallingford Avenue North). Rob was the first professional baker to use the landrace grain flours that we had grown and milled courtesy of Kevin Christiansen at Fairhaven Mill in Burlington. Rob established a thriving business in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood that features both a retail sales area and subscription delivery service for an array of delicious whole grain breads, scones, pastries, and crackers made from Palouse Heritage Sonoran Gold, White Lammas, and Crimson Turkey. His shortbread cookies are to die for!

I was surprised to learn that almost half the group had traveled from places west of the Cascades to find our place tucked away deep in the rolling hills of the Palouse Country. Several appreciated that our farm’s location even seemed beyond the pale of MapQuest though they did manage to join us in time thanks to the old reliable system of a green road sign that identified Grove Road. I remember Jack Grove very well as he lived at the Colony when I was a boy and was grandfather to our distant cousins who lived in other houses there. Mr. Grove related many tales to me of yesteryear life along the river, and some of these for a book to be published by WSU Press this fall titled From Hardship to Homeland. In a future post I’ll share some extracts from that work.

Palouse Colony Farm Manager Andrew Wolfe Speaking to Farmwalk Participants

Palouse Colony Farm Manager Andrew Wolfe Speaking to Farmwalk Participants

Thanks to Nicole, Aba, and the WSU Farm & Food Systems team for bringing producers, processors, and vendors on both sides of our state closer together through the Farmwalk program. Aba also coordinates the very successful Cascadia Grains Conference which will be held next January 18-19 in Olympia. I hope you can make it.