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Art meets agriculture in program that invites artists to live on Iowa farms

Former poet laureate Mary Swander created AgArts to tell Iowa's stories

Oct 7, 2020 at 7:30 am
    Stills from video dancers Marie Lynn Haas and Emily Climer shot duing their AgArts residency at Whiterock Conservancy in Coon Rapids, Iowa, in July, 2020. (Marie Lynn Haas and Emily Climer)

    How do you get people without a connection to agriculture to pay attention to issues affecting farmers and rural America?

    Maybe with ballet and poetry and theater.

    That’s what Mary Swander hopes, and it inspired her to form AgArts, an organization dedicated to telling stories from Iowa’s farmland.

    The program gives fellowships to artists of all kinds, from around the world, to live on an Iowa farm and produce art connected to their stay.

    “I want artists to interact with farmers to understand what agriculture is about. Most artists live in cities and don’t have a clue what’s going on and, frankly, have condescending attitudes to rural areas,” Swander said. “I want them to get the word out, in whatever fashion they can, about the issues there.”

    A former poet laureate of Iowa, Swander has spent much of her career getting the word out, writing plays such as “Vang,” about immigrant farmers, and “Map of My Kingdom,” which examines land transition between generations.

    “People are much more liable to come to a play and engage an issue than they are to read a brochure or go to a lecture,” Swander said. “We’ve found it to be a great way to engage an audience with these issues.”

    The pandemic changed the way AgArts operates. Instead of working with different farmers, a few artists have spent time this summer at Whiterock Conservancy, a 5,500-acre land trust in Coon Rapids, in west-central Iowa.

    “We’ve been using Whiterock this summer exclusively because Carroll County had very low numbers of COVID, and it has a separate house, completely isolated. It’s about as isolated as you can get,” Swander said.

    Whiterock Conservancy was established in 2004 to manage a land gift from the Garst family, who wanted the property to be preserved for future generations. It includes conservation areas, including restored and native prairie, wetlands and savanna, and it includes trails, paddling, fishing and camping areas.

    Dancers Emily Climer and Marie Lynn Haas met at the conservancy in July for an AgArts residency. Though Climer now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Haas in New Orleans, the two have been dancing together for more than a decade. Climer earned her MFA in dance at the University of Iowa and was happy to return to the state — especially as a chance to get out of her small apartment during the pandemic. She drove to Iowa rather than flying.

    “It was mostly just giving us the gift of space and time and being on that land. We went to a lot of different sites, we did some dancing in the beautiful old barn and out in the landscapes,” Climer said.

    “What was particularly cool about being at Whiterock was not only that we got to dance in that amazing barn space but that we got to be on that land,” Haas said. “We were choosing spaces where the location spoke to us — the landscape or a specific tree. And we would create dances in those particular spaces based on whatever was striking to us. It was very experimental.”

    Their initial plan was to do a performance at the end of the residency — but because of the pandemic, they ended up filming some of their dancing instead. It eventually will be uploaded on, where video and photos of previous residencies also can be found.

    In addition, Whiterock Conservancy is a demonstration farm for sustainable farming practices, which Swander wants to highlight.

    “With the AgArts residencies, I say, ‘Here’s this lovely place, and this is not for you to just hole up and do your own little project and not pop your head out of the door for two weeks,’ ” she said. “This is about going to a farm and learning to understand what agriculture is about and what it takes to have a successful farming enterprise. And at Whiterock, they’re doing all these wonderful farming techniques. … I give every artist an assignment — get to know the farmers, what their challenges are, what their successes are and reflect that some way down the line in your artwork.”

    Iowa City author Jeff Biggers completed an AgArts residency at Whiterock earlier this year. He brought his son, Massimo Paciotto Biggers, a high school student and Iowa City Youth Climate Strike activist, and some of Massimo’s friends and fellow teen climate activists with him.

    “They would hike every day and kayak, and I would go interview farmers,” Jeff Biggers said. “It was great to see a part of Iowa that was both representative of the past and looking to the future. What’s the legacy of Iowa in terms of being a prairie state and the legacy of

    large-scale farming and now our legacy of climate change and how we can play a role in that?”

    He’s working on a story he will pitch for publication in magazines. He said the history of the Whiterock property inspired him.

    “The Garsts were innovators in shifting into large-scale agriculture. That really defines the state. And now here is this small, little community again trying to transition us back into something more sustainable,” he said. “I’m interested in the stories of the land and legacy we can still learn from today. I think there’s a lot to learn from both how we’ve transformed the state into what we are today and what we need to be in the future.”

    Closer to her home in Kalona, Swander has set up an AgArts office, which she opened in February. Along with the residences, AgArts is producing a new podcast, based around life in rural Amish country.

    “It has folklore and local musicians and some storytelling, some reading from my own work,” Swander said. “It’s very rural, very much about what goes on beyond the radius of Iowa City.”

    The first episode is about farm implements — a topic Swander said she never expected to know so much about before moving into a community with many Amish.

    “They don’t have any electricity or the telephone. People think they just use horses and that’s it. But most of them have tractors. Some do use horses, but they still need a plow, a harrow. They have to use old tractors, ones we would classify as antique tractors and implements,” she said.

    The Amish used to go to sales to buy such tools, but these days most of the trade has moved online, which has created problems.

    “They gradually discovered I had internet in my house and could help them. These Amish guys come over, and they’re looking for a certain tractor, so I’ve learned to scroll through the sites. … I basically have an online tractor dealership,” she said.

    AgArts also is producing workshops — many of them virtual during the pandemic. Topics range widely, from poetry writing sessions taught by Swander to skills such as harvesting and preservation taught by Anna Geyer, who owns a farm in nearby Oxford that hosts Geyer’s Pizza Oven, a flower-cutting garden and the Land Alliance Folk School, which is dedicated to passing on practices such as these.

    Other classes include topics like making dyes from nature, how to design a “food forest” garden or even filmmaking on a cellphone.

    All these are ways to tell stories of the land, in some way, whether through words or art or textiles or meals. They connect the creator and the consumer with a specific time and place — Iowa, in the summer and early autumn, when the bounty of gardens and forest alike is at its fullest.

    Swander hopes to keep expanding AgArts, involving more artists and more farmers, especially after the pandemic ends.

    “It all works on donations, so how many residencies I do depends on that,” she said. “I’ve got more farmers who want to do it than I have money right now. We pay the farmers and try to pay the artists for travel and transport.”

    As the program expands, there will be more artists such as Jeff Biggers, trying to translate the intangible essence of rural life into stories for the wider world.

    “The beauty of the prairies is not only the flowers you see rolling across the hills but the deep, deep roots. They help maintain the soil, help maintain the water and help maintain the communities,” he said. “Stories bring that to life. Ultimately, we have to figure out, what’s our role in this story. That’s the great question I wake up with every morning — OK, what role am I going to play in this great, unfolding story that’s happening in Iowa right now?”

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