Tuesday, December 6, 2011
The Agrarian Art of Lisa Grossman
With no TV and the long dark nights of December, I recently finished Gene Logsdons' Agrarianism and the Mother of All Arts. This inspired me to start re-reading an old favorite, The Trees By Conrad Richter.
The Trees is set in eastern Ohio after the revolution, and tells the story of a pioneer family moving into a world of endless forests and trees so large that the sun cannot reach the forest floor. The trees almost take the role of a character in the novel. A small child lost in the forest is regarded as having been taken by the trees.
The story of that family is somewhat the story of my family (and many others). In 1797, Benedict Grossman and his wife crossed from what is now Adams County to pioneer near the headwaters of Slippery Rock Creek. 210+ years later, there are lots of Grossmans still in these parts. In fact so many we no longer all can figure out our relationships without a genealogy book. Pioneers like Benedict Grossman cleared a lot of trees, but they came back, especially as marginal farmland was abandoned. Trees define the landscape of rural Western Pennsylvania. Home to me is gray skies and rolling hills covered in trees.
Sometimes between the gray weather and the trees it can seem confining. In the Summer, vision in the woods is obstructed by tangles of underbrush, and in Winter the bare gray trees match the sky. Hills can also obstruct vision to make the world seem smaller. Many people escape this region to sunny Florida or sunny Arizona. I expect to die here, and I would rather die than live in a sunbelt suburb. Sometimes I do want to escape our weather, but my dream would be sunny Kansas. Some people like seashore and mountain. I love the broad flat grassy expanses of the Plains. I love the ability to see so far without obstruction by tree or hill.
Much to my delight, I recently discovered a distant cousin that not only moved to Kansas, but has become a part of Kansas. Lisa Grossman grew up not far from where old Benedict settled. She grew up in our world of gray skies and trees. I am delighted she can show us how beautiful a place can be that many would dismiss as "flyover country". I think her art also gives us a measure for good agrarian stewardship. At our worst, we farmers try to square off corners and make the land fit the boxes in our heads. Even "flat" land contains subtle (and very feminine) curves. Those curves are dangerous, and plowing them under can be just as dumb as plowing the Appalachian hillsides where I live
The neoagrarian philosopher-king Wes Jackson talks about "becoming native to this place". Many Americans today are not native to anywhere. For the cause of community or conservation, no attitude can be more dangerous than the one that all places are alike. Lisa's art also shows us that becoming native has nothing to do with where one was born. Becoming native is like marrying-it is an adult choice to stick with a place, and love it on its own terms. Her prairie art inspires me to stick with the grey skies and trees of my birthplace.
The Prairies that Lisa paints are more endangered than most people realize. Because they are so overlooked they do not bring visitors like the more striking vistas of mountain and seashore. By showing us their beauty, she might help inspire people to steward them better.
Links to Lisa Grossman's Art:
Lisa Grossman Art
Land Institute Prairie Festival
Lawrence Kansas Arts Center