Room for 5 Million – An artist’s Westward expansion of the mind
Words by: Altman Studeny. This incredible piece was Altman’s keynote presentation at the 2016 OTA Bismarck event on March 14, 2016.
Photos by: Chad Ziemendorf. These images are part of an ongoing personal project titled WIND.
In 1891, at the north end of Main Street in my hometown of Plankinton, South Dakota, a group of local businessmen and citizen volunteers erected a structure that was to showcase the bounty of Aurora County land to the rest of America, far and wide. “Room for Five Million,” it was said of the region’s potential; “One hundred thousand immigrants per year at least.” The project they were enacting was to pick up where Sioux City’s Grain Palace, the first in the nation, left off and would be the first of its kind in the new state of South Dakota.
In the commemorative edition of the Aurora County Standard Newspaper, which would later become the South Dakota Mail and would, even later than that, become my family’s business for four generations, a column was printed, entitled “The State Feels Proud as a Turkey Cock Over the Agricultural Outlook for 1892.”
“She is this season the bright particular star in the agricultural firmament, the sparkler whose brilliancy makes every other star pale and wan and diminished in luster, the only one which can rank of the first magnitude. She comes out from behind the clouds which at one time or another in its history have obscured every other star, and now beams her attractions throughout the sky.
“It will need no almanac nor astronomical chart to locate South Dakota hereafter, she’ll stick out so luminously prominent that no man can turn his gaze upward or outward without seeing her.
“And now let every resident turn astrologer and induce the people of the east and the west and the north and the south to accept the opportunity to get directly under the denignant influence of this luck winner, this star of the empire.
“It shines for all, under its rays the home seekers of a whole continent may come. Say to them as Emerson said, ‘Hitch your wagon to a star,’ and while you’re hitching, pick out the dandiest blazer in the firmament, Sigma Delta in the new northwestern constellation.”
Now, if one were to have been a guest of the Plankinton Grain Palace that autumn of 1891, and (between the artfully arranged shocks of wheat, the marching band acts, and the taxidermy displays of local fauna) glanced out from the second story landing, one would have looked upon a landscape of not much more than rolling grassland as far as the eye could see. All of that grandiloquence, all of that language, was for this. “The dandiest blazer in the firmament.” All that empty space.
But I know and you know that the spaces we look out upon are not empty, and you and I both do our best to share that truth with others.
Our spaces are, in fact, FILLED. Filled with inspiration, with potential, with room for one more mind working in its own way to crack the riddle of what it just can’t ignore: that we love these spaces.
In her 1913 novel “O, Pioneers!,” Willa Cather wrote that, “A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves.” It’s a phrase that echoes in my thoughts a lot when considering what it might take to carve out a place as an artist in this region because, in a very real sense, a new era of pioneering is occurring in the Great Plains: not a pioneering of physical space, but rather, a Westward expansion of the mind. I’m sensitive to the fact that the history of settlement in the United States carries with it some significant cultural baggage, but for the purposes of furthering a crucial conversation about the future of the places we live and love, I’d like to submit that:
Pioneering is not nor ever was a product but a PROCESS: a process of adaptability, of curiosity, and, perhaps most importantly just simple grit.
And, like all good processes, reaching the end brings on a new beginning.
A single harvest, successful or otherwise, doesn’t mean the farmer stops; far from it. In spring, new seed is dropped in the furrow of the field to sprout new challenges, new variables to negotiate, and new successes and failures. Always, however, is that fidelity to the idea: that the seed is good and that the land is fertile. So it is with our pioneering, as well. The creative class of the Upper Great Plains is an incredibly diverse group of people with wide-ranging passions. But one common belief seems to run through each and every change-maker who is able to see his or her aspirations realized: they have an unwavering insistence that now is the perfect time and here is the perfect place to reveal the rightness, you could even say the righteousness, of the idea that pushes them out of bed every morning.
Like the homesteader Per Hansa from O.E. Rolvaag’s “Giants in the Earth,” we are carried farther and ever farther away on the wings of a wondrous fairy tale— a romance in which we become sole possessor of countless treasures revealed though surrender to the winding paths that our idea steers us.
“In this,” writes Rolvaag, “as in all other fairy tales, the story grew ever more fascinating and dear to the heart the farther it advanced. Per Hansa drank it in; he was like the child who constantly cries: ‘More – more!’”
Rarely is the cultural infrastructure already in place to make realizing these goals easy, but with Westering comes wildness. In order to accomplish the radical redefinition of what communities both rural and urban might expect from their creative workers, we must embrace each place on its own terms, humbly adapting ourselves to incorporate local knowledge that can enrich and improve the value of our engagements with those communities where we choose to make our stand. Which is all to say, that while the creative workers of the Great Plans might be unique, we are not special.
For the past eight years, I’ve worked as resident artist for the State of South Dakota and have had the privilege of seeing, in communities large and small, countless representations of the totally unique visual culture that the geographic and societal environment of my home state engenders. Art is being made constantly, and often times without even knowing it, by those individuals who perform the duties of their daily lives with intention, consideration, and curiosity. In short, as a creative, critically thinking artist would.
As exciting as it might feel to believe that art and artists run counter to the norm, it would be far more accurate to say that both are now springing out of a cultural trend in our region toward a greater social intelligence and collective talent. It is, therefore, in our best interest as workers in the creative economy to advocate for the inclusion of such voices that might normally be overlooked as too small, too removed, or too anachronistic. Whatever else they might be, they are also the voices of those who consult the genius of the place in all, people who have found a way to adapt and survive to the specific needs and challenges of the communities where they live and love.
The farmer who counts the hawks he sees from the seat of his cultivator; the café owner who sculpts her masterpiece from a hot beef sandwich with Jell-O for dessert; the grandmother who tats endless yards of lace just to keep her hands busy; the festival that draws out an entire population proud of its potatoes, its pageant, its pow-wow, its polka; the petrified garden in the backyard; the historical marker pointing out where a cottonwood once stood.
These unique demonstrations of the innate drive towards self-expression have the distinction of being forged in the home fires of a wholly specific history and geography and we have been given a great opportunity to now open our arms wide and embrace them not only as inspirations for our own work in the arts, but crucially as perfectly articulated artworks in their own right.
And, why will that inclusiveness be so crucial? Because we’re just too connected to be so divisive.
The social interactions which can be brought about by the practice and processes of our specific arts have a tremendous capacity to unite disparate communities, to empower each individual to take an active role in the creation and evolution of his or her own culture. And those practices which will thrive in their individual cultural ecosystems will express an understanding and acceptance of that individuality at every level. To do that, to understand and accept, might demand that we think very deeply and critically about how our role truly intersects with the innumerable others required for communities to survive.
Every situation will demand its own particular answer. The maps for this territory haven’t been drawn, and what we believed were fixed landmarks might seem to have shifted since the last the time we took our bearings by them.
But, like Ma Ingalls said in “The Long Winter,
Well, Laura, we wouldn’t do much if we didn’t do the things nobody ever heard of before.
About Altman Studeny:
Altman Studeny is an artist living and working in Plankinton, South Dakota. His practice addresses questions of Midwestern mythology and regional responsibility in cultural creation, with a strong emphasis on fostering inclusiveness through collaborative art making. Studeny has worked as a resident artist with the South Dakota Arts Council since 2008 and holds a Masters of Fine Art from Maine College of Art in Portland, Maine. http://altmanstudeny.com
About Chad Ziemendorf:
Chad Ziemendorf is a documentary and commercial photographer based in Watford City, North Dakota, and is the founder of Intersection Journal. Formerly a professional baseball player, Chad thrives in the unknown and is constantly seeking new challenges. When not making pictures or growing Intersection Journal, you’ll find him drinking coffee with his wife, in the batting cage (or building Legos) with his son. http://ziemendorf.com
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