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The American Farm Past and Present

 

Three exhibitions that present the fertile diversity of American farms and rural landscapes open June 26, 2004 at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. Remembering the Family Farm: 150 Years of American Prints and Beyond City Limits: Rural Views of the Midwest and Rural Wisconsin: A Photo Essay remain on view through August 29, 2004. (right: Fred Geary (United States, 1894-ca.1955), Hay Wagon, 1935, woodcut, Collection of Steven Schmidt. Image courtesy Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence, from Remembering the Family Farm: 150 Years of American Prints) 

Over the past century and a half, regionalist graphic artists -- among them Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry -- have captured the recognizable architecture, inventive implements, seasonal chores, and traditions and customs of the family farm. Through 66 etchings, engravings, woodcuts, and lithographs, Remembering the Family Farm preserves on paper a time-honored, often idealized way of life that has experienced erosion and decline due to economic and demographic changes.

Few artists, when looking to the family farm for subject matter, escape depicting the stereotype of an ideal agrarian world. This stereotype feeds on the notion that rural life is a perfect world where harmony and balance exist between humankind and nature, where humility and labor lead to simple but ample rewards, and where the traditional family is central to the social fabric.

Remembering the Family Farm includes both sentimental, nostalgia-producing views of the rural American scene as well as works that explore the cultural memory preserved in the artworks. Steve Goddard, exhibition organizer and senior curator of prints and drawings at the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence, notes, "Beneath the sentimentality of these images, there is much solid information about the material culture of the American farm." Remembering the Family Farm is circulated by the Spencer Museum of Art.

Scenes include field-related activities such as sowing and cultivating, harvesting and threshing, portraits of barns and outbuildings, natural threats, animals, and the farm depicted in all four seasons.

Thirty-six contemporary views of Midwestern agrarian landscapes comprise Beyond City Limits, organized by Woodson Art Museum curator Andrew McGivern. In selecting work that would reflect the character and strength of the American heartland and a genuine love of the land, McGivern focused on depictions by ten regional artists who specialize in depicting the vast and bountiful landscapes of rural Mid-America.

Despite the common theme, these artists bring a refreshing diversity of styles and subjects to their representations of "country." Milwaukee painter David Lenz is well known for his intimate portrayals of Erv and Mercedes Wagner and their Sauk County dairy farm. The hilltop vistas of James Butler unfold into gentle, storybook scenes, while storm chaser Daniel Chaffee seeks nature's dramatic, often foreboding sky. Different perspectives are seen in the work of Fred Easker, who specializes in exquisite panoramic views of otherwise common terrain, and the colorful, dizzyingly abstract aerial views of Harold Gregor. (right: Steven R. Kozar, Misty Morning - Spring Trees, 2001, watercolor, Image courtesy of the artist, from Beyond City Limits: Rural Views of the Midwest)

In Rural Wisconsin: A Photo Essay local photographers David Sladky of Merrill and Richard Wunsch of Wausau capture familiar scenes of north central Wisconsin's rural landscapes, each with a distinct style. Ten photographs by each artist explore the dignity and individuality of subjects often taken for granted.

 

Complementary Farm-Related Exhibition at Marathon County Historical Society

"After the Chores Are Done: Leisure Time in the Rural Home" opens June 26, 2004 at the Marathon County Historical Society, Wausau. It remains on view through April 2005.

This extended exhibition explores the leisure activities of rural Marathon County residents from the 1880s to 1960, with special emphasis on how activities changed as communities were electrified. In-home activities such as needlework, crafts, and music as well as organizational activities including 4-H, homemakers clubs, and that pinnacle of the agricultural year -- the county fair -- enjoy the spotlight.

 

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