38. Ag as Art


Vincent van Gogh: The Harvest, 1888

For over a decade, I made my living in art and media jobs: I exhibited blockbusters, produced video, snapped pictures and sold fine ethnic art. After making such a distinct pivot into a completely different line of work as an urban vegetable farmer, I often hear echoes of my artistic past as I gaze into the gardens. The backyard farm is so photogenic, with apartment buildings and schoolhouses peeking into the background. It has me thinking about all the ways that these two worlds, art and farms, intersect. The depiction of agriculture by art is so very common: think of the bucolic essence of van Gogh’s The Harvest, or the pitchfork in the center of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Wood didn’t stop there, of course, with later idyllic works like Young Corn, Fall Plowing, and Spring Turning. These portrayals of pastoral life create the lens through which the masses view this vocation we call farming.

There’s something so very attractive about a perfectly groomed garden. The symmetry, the robust color palette, and the random surprises nature tends to sprinkle in. Mother Earth does not do her work in straight lines or perfect circles. So humans, the pattern-recognizing machines that we are, find ourselves drawn to the manipulation that a well planned landscape applies to the out-of-doors.

There are entire institutions devoted to the depiction of farming in art. At Oregon State University, the Art About Agriculture program has been collecting and displaying works of art that illustrate horticulture for over 35 years. Their permanent collection includes the work of more than 150 artists and over 300 pieces! Most recently, the gallery features screen prints of eccentric chickens in an effort to examine the relationship between humans and poultry. Artist Kristie Potwora writes, “My hope is that the affectionate nature of these remarkable beings is as evident to the viewer as it is to me.”

Dave Nichols: Morning Chores, 1976

Across the country in Philadelphia, a cultivation-centric exhibit opened last month at the Studio B Fine Art Gallery under the title “Farm to Table”. A recurring annual show, the Farm, as it’s affectionately called by studio regulars, is in its 11th year and is open to submissions from the general public. And the appropriately located Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City, Nebraska has also been displaying art that connects people to the land for over a decade. Largely revolving around the permanent collection of Regionalist painter Dale Nichols, a David City native, the museum is a thriving beacon of creativity in a town of 3000 residents. Amanda Mobley Guenther is the curator at Bone Creek, and she’s pleased to be able to bring a bona-fide art museum to what many regard as flyover country. “This agrarian focus that we have, it’s perfect that we are in a small town. It immediately resonates with this community that we have art about the land,” she says. “And the majority of the people that live around here make their living from the land. So it’s not a foreign concept...”

If we all dig deep enough, it’s not a terribly foreign concept to any of us. All modern humans have an intrinsic connection to the fields and pastures from which their food comes. Most of us don’t have to trace our lineage back more than a generation or two to find ancestors who spent a lot of time with their hands in the dirt. In such a context, as creators and collectors of art, our fascination with works that highlight the beauty of gardens and landscapes is not a surprise.

radicchio planted in near-perfect rows

And the beauty works both ways, of course. Home-growers flock to arboretums and botanic gardens and annual garden shows every spring searching for inspiration that can make their own yards works of scenic art. We all have different tastes when it comes to landscaping. Whether you’re a mowed-and-manicured fescue kind of fella, or you prefer herbaceous flowering perennials, many of us find ways to express our tastes in our personal patches of dirt. I, for one, think a productive front yard that generates food crops is the most handsome statement a property can make. But as I meet with clients and customers regularly to talk about these topics, I find that not everybody sees their yard through that prism.

I think that viewing the world around you as a work of art represents a unique perspective, and can offer a real uplift to your spirit. It’s a consistent goal of mine to make things as exquisite as possible in my work. I love finishing transplanting a bed of lettuce, looking up and seeing perfectly spaced, linear lines of green in the black dirt. I want as many colors on my market stand as possible: yellow pear tomatoes, crimson radishes, purple and orange carrots, dazzling white spirals in my romanesco heads. Often I find myself thinking, as I take my phone out to snap a pic, “this is gonna be great for the ‘gram”.




our backyard: form and function