GO LOCAL!!! Oregon County, Missouri

This past weekend I drove two hours southeast of Springfield, Missouri to a little town near the border of Arkansas called Alton. In this neck of the woods, everyone remembers when in 1964 the Beatles took a break on the nearby Pigman Farm during their very first American tour. In fact, this year was the 50th anniversary and although the locals have consciously chosen not to turn their town of 879 into a shrine to the Beatles, they did dress up their windows for the anniversary, which was mostly for the town residents, and not to draw tourism. 
My reason to visit Alton was by invitation of a very bright and determined, Rachel Reynolds Luster, who was born and raised in the region, and who over the last three years has pulled together the resources, with the help of local producers, to create the Oregon County Food Producers and Artisan Co-op. I found her via Facebook last summer and reached out to learn more about her work as a culture producer and her focus on Ozark Heritage. Through her work I have learned about several rural arts programs that I find so refreshing, artists operating outside the confines of urban art centers. Coming from Northern California where many small towns have been revived over the last decade, I see much potential in the literally thousands of small towns left behind from the early 1980s, when many small farmers went bankrupted. 
The Co-op (a membership model), helps support local farmers and artisans by providing a hub for them to sell their goods. Rachel also provides an area for playing music with a piano, a rotating art exhibition, and an education corner or library of local music and written Ozark folklore. She has been collecting stories, and photographs of the regional architecture and even taught me the names of the types of homes you find here (which my grandparents lived in on their farm), flagstone and saddlebag. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, you can find her and other community members in the kitchen cooking up lunch for local visitors, "pay what you can," offering something like what she served me, which was homemade pimento cheese on grilled bread along with pinto beans.
What Rachel has created in Alton could help revive small towns across the Midwest, helping communities that have literally died culturally, and are struggling to survive economically. There is no better cure for social dysfunction than to create a safe place for community members to be themselves, to contribute to their "neighbors" by volunteering to make foods to feed those with less, to make things to sell and barter, and to teach each other our histories and build on these stories to foster the next generation of farmers and makers.

Other rural arts programs and resources to check out include:


Matthew Mazzotta at Farmers Park

Since moving to the Ozarks, my genetic region of five generations, I have been trying to figure out a way to contribute to the local arts scene. This past summer I received a Call for Artists through the Springfield Regional Arts Council that a local developer, Matt O'Reilly, was looking for proposals to include public art at Farmers Park, his LEED multi-use development with apartments, retail, and a large pavilion where the Farmers Market of the Ozarks has their bi-weekly public market. I contacted Jeff Broekhoven, who coordinated the Call, and who invited me to meet him on-site to walk the property and find out more about the project. I then inquired if they would accept a proposal by an artist from outside of this region in collaboration with myself as an independent curator to meet with people in the community first before making a formal proposal. Broekhoven encouraged me to apply, so I contacted an artist who I have wanted to work with for a few years.... Matthew Mazzotta, a nationally recognized artist from MIT who recently won an American for the Arts Public Art award in recognition of his excellence for a community arts project titled Open House, completed in 2013 in York, Alabama. 

Without delay, our proposal was accepted and on October 15th, 2014 Matthew Mazzotta held one of his unique community arts strategies, an outdoor living room where he posed a series of questions from participants to evoke a sense of place that will inform his proposed work to be build/sited next Spring 2015! Questions he asked included: what are some unknown histories, what is the towns identity, what are the challenges facing the community, and what is something special or something secret about the town.... participants were invited to bring something from their living room, a chair, a table, a lamp, a blanket.... and, their ideas and understanding of their surrounding culture. 

The Ozarks in Southwest Missouri is a big mix of religions, ecological biodiversity, musicians, wacky entertainment in nearby Branson, charities, and hide-outs (caves)! After spending five nights at Farmers Park-in-residence, Matthew Mazzotta will spend the next couple months developing his public artwork, which will be presented to the developer Matt O'Reilly at the beginning of the year. We look forward to having Mazzotta back in the Ozarks to visit some of the Mega churches in the area as well as the very progressive international seed company near Mansfield, the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, and more farms and caves.... in the near future.


The Land Institute Prairie Festival 2014

Since moving to the Midwest last summer in 2013, I've been searching out organizations that are focused on art and agriculture. Upon my arrival, ecological art scholar, Suzaan Boettger in New York City, told me to go to the Prairie Festival, which is an annual gathering, an "intellectual hootenanny," organized by The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Its founder, Wes Jackson, has been inviting global innovators to speak addressing land conservation and food issues for 36 years. Jackson proposed the development of a perennial polyculture in 1978.

Speakers are not allowed to bring slide/powerpoint presentations and are asked to talk to attendees, typically around 1,000, although this year was around 700, with words only. It felt like a Midwest prairie version of a Chatquaqua and at times like a church sermon addressing land issues. In fact, this year, the last weekend of September, Wes invited several speakers to address religion and land ethics, to examine a more spiritual approach to living sustainably on the land/Earth.                                                  

Although I was interested in the spiritual aspects of our relationship with the land, I was most impressed with Kristine McDivitt Tompkins and her husband Douglas Tompkins, who together have managed to purchase over two million acres of land in Chile and Argentina and turn it into a National Park. After all these years of attending Bioneers conferences and other ecological restoration gatherings, I had never laid eyes on these two and only heard stories about what they were doing in South America. And, although Kristine was frustrated not to be able to share images of their preservation efforts—parkland—her words were powerful and made me realize that we really need to acknowledge people like these two pioneers who took their hundreds of millions of dollars and did something lasting with it. 

Kristine and Douglas who are very competitive by nature, both highly successful business peopleshe the former CEO of Patagonia and he the former owner of North Face and co-owner of former Esprit—made it their game to give back to the Earth rather than take away from it. The images she wanted to share of the parkland became secondary to the testament of their character, sharing how they decided to do something bigger (or more spiritual?) with what money can buy.

Needless to say, I would highly recommend this event to those who want to experience a more understated like-minded gathering, not a commerical hoopla with booths selling products. The food was amazing, including bread made from Kernza flour from the Institute lands courtesy WheatFields Bakery in Lawrence and Saturday night chili, both vegetarian and bison, were so yummy I wanted seconds (but no, they don't do that). My only complaint!

Each year The Land Institute features one artist who creates an installation in the buildings adjacent to the main lecture barn. This year A. Mary Kay, who teaches at Bethany College in Kansas, was selected. The artist was also recently included in the State of the Art exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas this fall. More HERE

For more information, go to The Land Institute Prairie Festival 2014!

See you there next year..... Patricia Watts