Ruth Borum-Loveland was born in 1982 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She graduated with a BFA in studio art from The University of Oklahoma in 2005 and lives and works in Norman, Oklahoma. She has exhibited work in Chicago, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Oklahoma. Her current work consists of mixed media two dimensional work, but her background is in painting, conceptual drawing, writing and collecting projects. She is currently represented by Weinberger Fine Art in Kansas City.
This year, an invitation to retreat to the tallgrass prairie to make art and explore was a gift from the universe. Although time had slowed since March and I found myself occupied, perhaps preoccupied, with various projects, I also found myself sustained by the difficult work of getting to know myself and my relational self more deeply. It had been fifteen years since I attended an artist residency. At Tallgrass, I decided to limit my script for what to do there in order to allow myself to take in the experience, using my drawing practice to record my perceptions and my love for the sentience of this land in Kansas.
The two hour drive out to Matfield Green was the beginning of a needed catharsis. Seeing the Flint Hills emerge on the drive is like taking in a full and spacious breath. The quality of the waving grasses and prairie plants merging with the atmosphere is a full sensory experience that opens to nowness and vastness, and usually the reality of some discomfort once you step out of your car. It can be very hot, or cold, blindingly sunny, and bitterly windy, sometimes buggy, and it can change in an instant. The drama of the environment becomes an undeniable embodied narrative. At dawn on most mornings I was there, the morning sun broke through a foggy landscape, thus gifting me my favorite natural show.
I feel that the full and spacious breath afforded in the Flint Hills can be continually drawn upon in my memory to access the mindfulness of the place. Thanks to the McBrides and the stewards before them, strolling in the paths among the unmowed prairie around Matfield Station begs undivided attention to the diversity of life surrounding one on all sides. The crows are circling overhead, massive armored grasshoppers leap and camouflage, spiderwebs draw lines in the negative space between the grasses (there is no negative space), and willow leaf sunflowers arc and meander in tall thick patches. My body feels strong and interested in being part of all of this.
My residency experience was informed by some of the tools I brought with me: a laser engraving of a microscope that I have been making rubbings from to begin drawings, my bike, some cranberry kombucha, and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer along with Love and Rage by Lama Rod Owens. The microscope is a surrogate for humans in the drawings, as well as for our tools and stories, and our conquests and dominant narratives. I am the microscope and I entertain its borders and its fluidity, its self-importance, its function as a holistic entity, and its symbol of a specific narrative of science, in the drawings.
My experience was indelibly informed by the things and phenomena I did not bring with me: the sunrise and sunset, the bunkhouse room at Matfield Station and the trains that continually pass through, the faraway bison and the dead mole at Tallgrass Prairie, the tiny residential area of Matfield Green and its people, the cottonwoods and their shimmery sounds, hummingbirds, and the dense and tangled wildflowers and plants that are too many to name here. Having made a home in this region as an adult has only increased my appreciation for this ecosystem and its indigeneity. The residency became a prompt to practice intentional kinship with known, unknown, and resurfacing material realities in the present and historic Turtle Island prairie ecosphere.
Sean Nash (b. 1980, Memphis, TN) is a visual artist and food fermentation experimentalist. Nashâ€™s work integrates fermented foods into sculptures as edible, time-based, and socially engaged components of installations. His work has been shown nationally, with solo shows at the Kniznick Gallery at Brandeis (Krautsourcing, 2019), Plug Projects in Kansas City, MO (Lactobacillus Amongus, 2017), and Black Ball Projects in Brooklyn, NY (They/Them/Their, 2016).
He received a 2017 Rocket Grant Research and Development award for Garden Variety Soda Fountain, a sculptural soda cart built for naturally fermented sodas made with community garden grown ingredients. In 2017, he was a panel presenter at the inaugural Food, Feminism, and Fermentation conference at McGill University in Montreal. Sean co-authored the essay â€śBubbling Bodies and Queer Microbes: Dispatches from the Foundation of Fermentation Fervorâ€ť with Stephanie Maroney, published in Fermenting Feminism, 2017.
He is currently the William T. Kemper Visiting Assistant Professor in Painting at the Kansas City Art Institute. Sean received an MFA in painting and printmaking from Yale University in 2005 and a BFA in painting from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2003.
Little Lesson on the Prairie
As I write these words from Tulsa, Oklahoma there are noises outside that I canâ€™t distinguish. Are they gunshots, thunder, fireworks, cars on the overpass, the train, a transformer blowing miles away? Itâ€™s hard to know, especially in the dark and in the rain on the last day of the year 2020.
A lot has happened this year. That seems like it can go without much elaboration. Turns out, global pandemics can turn every humanâ€™s experience into shorthand. So Iâ€™ll say a lot happened after this residency. A few weeks after returning to Tulsa, a consistent hot-spot for Covid-19 that Iâ€™ll attribute mostly to the failure of elected officials who regularly claim to be â€śvolunteersâ€ť, I myself contracted the coronavirus.
I wonâ€™t linger much on the description of that experience other than to say that it took my previous musings on isolation and loneliness that I was having out on the vast prairie expanse of Matfield Station and amplified it into â€śdo I need to get a lawyer for end of life arrangements?â€ť kind of considerations. Growing up in the Osage community, I estimate Iâ€™ve attended nearly 100 open casket funerals in my lifetime. I am no stranger to death. Being an Indigenous person on the prairie land of my ancestors, I have grown up alongside so many forms of life and death – something with which I think most rural folk can especially relate. However, I now know that awareness of death as an unavoidable event and facing your own potential death are very different things.
If I have had any revelations as a result they are the following loose thoughts:
Prairie life feels the most honest to me. As an adult I see more clearly how profound was the freedom of my rural middle American childhood. Growing up on the land, with the land, makes a person strong in ways that are multiform, expansive, and reciprocal. People on the prairie remember the names of their non-human kin, something I think is important if we want to continue living alongside any of them in the future. They know the names of plants and bugs, they know when something is showing up outside of its season, they know the rhythm of the worlds around them.
While conceptual artists in the coastal cities of America are trying to create heady art projects that reconnect their disconnected audiences to the world they are standing within, children of the prairie are already cognizant of and utilizing concepts such as fluvial time, whether they ever call it by that name or not. Prairie folk are deep observers, practitioners of kinship ecology, and talented at balancing tradition with innovation. It takes tenacity and deep awareness to live on prairie land and I admire those that live here, knowing that is the tone of the relationship.
Nearly everyone who lives on or is drawn to the prairie has a favorite relationship, whether they consider it framed like that or not. When I hear someone say what they love about the prairie are the rolling beetles or the prairie chickens, what Iâ€™m hearing is someone saying that they love that organism in its relationship with this place, to a memory, with another organism, etc. When I say that I love fire on the prairie, really what Iâ€™m saying is that I love the relationship fire has to the rejuvenation of the grasses in tandem with grazing, a term called pyric herbivory. Fire is my favorite relationship for a lot of reasons, but the reason that feels the most true is because I grew up seeing it and I think it is beautiful.
Growing up on the prairie of Pawhuska, Iâ€™ve seen fire happening not just on our preserve, but on ranches and in yards throughout Osage county, since I was a child. Commuting between small towns, there would be times that weâ€™d get turned back, destined to take another set of roads because these ones were closed down by volunteer firefighters who were tending to a fire that had decided to take advantage of some straight winds and cross the road. We all grew up with a reverence for this powerful entity, a partner we could collaborate with towards great renewal, but one which could excite easily and expand beyond your control if you werenâ€™t careful.
So many life lessons seem to stem from that practice of burning just enough, not too much, so that the important processes which need that kind of pressure can take place. It is powerful to see burn lines cresting hills in the darkness of night. It is powerful to see how dark the prairie earth is after a prescribed burn. It is powerful to see how green a field can be when it begins to grow again.
Recently, a friend explained something called Dark Forest Theory to me. Do you wonder, perhaps, why we havenâ€™t found other life besides that on Earth in a universe so big? According to Dark Forest Theory, one must think of the universe as a dark forest. To turn on a light and look around would not only allow us to see, but it would allow us to be seen. It relies on the fear of being seen to explain our cosmic isolation. This idea had me reflecting on a similar experience I had while I was on the prairie near Strong City. After hiking for several hours and miles into the prairie preserve, I stopped my somewhat mindless trudging and took a good long look at where I had gotten myself to.
What lay out before me was cleanly divided into near equal parts earth and sky, almost like two perfect mirrors of one another except one was achingly blue and the other was vibrant green, soft and rolling, rippling and flowing like waves in the wind. It made me a bit dizzy and this was enforced by the sound of it, which was buzzing and alive, all joining together with the wind in some ancient chant or chorus. I turned slowly in a full 360 and realized that I suddenly felt afraid. This landscape is the epitome of being alone. There is no rock someone is hiding behind, no â€śjust around the river bendâ€ť out here. The lights are on and if no one is home, then you are home alone.
I settled into this thought slowly â€” alone. Then the counter-thought hit me â€” not alone. Suddenly I was afraid of not being alone, realizing that the inability for others to hide from me also denoted my own inability to hide. I was vulnerable out there against all that sky and grass, which became more apparent when I redirected my attention to all of that buzzing. I watched eternity play out in the most brutal games of tag between insects, lizards, and birds all expressing their will to live, which here we know means an exchange has to take place.
Eventually I stood and looked at the whole picture again, this vast expanse of unbroken prairie where, save for the prairie ecosystem itself, I saw no evidence of humanity not even in myself, for there were no mirrors present at the time, and I took my shirt off because I suddenly felt powerful in my immense vulnerability. Yes, anyone I would see could see me too, but the flatness of the land gave perspective a new meaning â€” I would see you coming from a distance.
When you can see things coming from a distance, you have plenty of time to prepare for the worst, but the best part of having time to prepare for the worst, in my opinion, is that you also have plenty of time to prepare to receive blessings. Things at a distance are hard to understand in clarity, even with binoculars. Patience and open-mindedness are required as distances are being closed. Who we are when we arrive is rarely who we were when we left.
I remain excited to see who we are becoming.
All photos were taken by my friend, collaborator, and fellow child-of-the-prairie Jessica Price on the prairie lands of Kansas at and around Matfield Station.
Lydia Cheshewalla is an Osage artist with a passion for community, social justice, and environmental activism. Over the past four years she has led womenâ€™s circles and co-founded the art collective Holy Mother, which served to connect, encourage, and support femme-identifying creatives in Tulsa, OK. Collaborating with artists, activists, and organizations within her community, Lydia has striven to facilitate meaningful experiences and generate inclusive narratives through thoughtful art events centering community care, systems of equitable exchange, and healing practices.
She has created and taught art curriculum to children ages 4-12 with the purpose of encouraging curiosity and understanding of our unique place within the symbiotic systems of nature. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, she worked as a studio assistant for multiple artists within the Tulsa Artist Fellowship and led community conversations around art as remediation and responsible activism in a time of climate change. Currently she serves on the board of PostTraditional, an organization raising the visibility of Indigenous contemporary artists; curates a project called Spatial Intimacy, a responsive archive of creative ways to stay connected in a time of physical distancing; and is creating two new bodies of work exploring non-anthropocentric interdependence within a framework of borders and pandemics.
After driving across the Cornbelt for two days, the Flint Hills spell relief, geographical and otherwise. Iâ€™ve come with rare, declining grassland birds on my mind, curious to see how the Flint Hills can support the Henslowâ€™s sparrows and prairie chickens as well as a grazing economy. That aside, rural, sparsely populated places hold an undeniable mystique. Iâ€™m no city girl, but this wild prairie dark, this place where freight trains crop out the sun, the stars, drips with romance.
My first night, at a panel discussion, I hear of an ancient prairie chicken lek, subsumed by a golf course. I hear Shelly Wiggam of The Nature Conservancy talk about fireâ€”how this land needs fire, but not just any fire; a system of patch burning can restore diversity.
It is humbling to spend time in a landscape that is mostly gone, all but this four percent. I do a lot of walking, wandering through the Tallgrass Preserve. My first day out, I spend an hour waiting for a sedge wren to show itself. Later, Iâ€™ll trudge right by their chattering, as if I were an old hand at the prairie. Meadowlarks become unremarkable, common as robins, though I know better.
Twice I hike the six miles to the far end and seek refuge from the heat by Palmer Creek, apparently alarming the rangers who worry about the owner of the car with Massachusetts plates who is gone all day. One day, though in late summer the birds are subdued, I flush a prairie chicken. Iâ€™m climbing a rise near the western lip of the Tallgrass, and it bursts up from where it had been hunkered down, golden in the morning sun.
I read poetry, sensing that here, all I want to do is feel; this land doesnâ€™t want my stories, it is the story. In fact, I discover I can read it as I walk through the prairie, unencumbered by the roots and rocks I am used to. I look up to see a Mississippi kite dip down and pluck a creature from the earth; I watch as, without breaking its glide, it brings its head to its feet and eats the catch mid-air. Days like this, the prairie spins out poetry.
Afterwards, as I followed the maps this fallâ€”the Covid map and then the election map, Iâ€™d always hover over Chase County. 75% voted to give the president another four years, suggesting that this is not a place I would want to live in, but I know itâ€™s not that simple.
I think more than ever about how the rural areas I am most drawn to are ideologically the most alien to me. And then I am forced to confront whether this is in part why I am drawn to them, apart from their wild, wide landscapes. Romance, â€śotherness,â€ť only goes so far.
Like the Paul Simon song, everyone loves a train in the distance. But fifty feet away, it is also like the lunge of a beast, impossibly heavy, reverberating in my body. Despite its frequency, the coming of the train often still startles me.
A David Brooks column attempting to explain why almost half the country voted how they did speaks of the distrust sowed among rural voters without college degrees, as cultural power concentrated in the cities; the empowerment offered by alternative realities. Restoring trust begins with contact, â€średucing the social chasm.â€ť
Near the end of my stay, Shelly Wiggam takes me to interview Jane Koger, a rancher who does everything right, who was using patch burning long before anyone else. We talk about cowboys and prairie chicken hunting and what it takes to run her ranch, then we zip through her patchy fields on a gator, scattering birds, as she points out plants and when everything last burned. But sheâ€™s in the minority. I donâ€™t know if artists-in-residence can bridge the social chasm, but I know Iâ€™ll return to Chase County, to see the prairie chickens booming, to interview other ranchers and mingle with locals as I couldnâ€™t in 2020, to listen to what they care about, what they donâ€™t; to humbly make contact.
The Carrying, Ada Limon
Superior, Nebraska: The Common-Sense Values of Americaâ€™s Heartland, Denis Boyles
Field Journals, Symphony in the Flint Hills
Twist, The Wiyos
Solo Piano; Field Studies, Ben Cosgrove
World on the Ground, Sarah Jarosz
Kateri Kosekâ€™s poetry and essays have appeared in such places as Orion, Terrain.org, Catamaran, Northern Woodlands Magazine, and Creative Nonfiction, where, most recently, she was awarded for best essay. Her poetry recently won a contest at Briar Cliff Review. She teaches college English and mentors in the MFA program at Western CT State University, where she earned an MFA. Kateri writes for a local magazine, and for the past few summers, has worked surveying bird populations in northwest Connecticut. She has been a resident at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska, and lives in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts.
Selected Works and Interviews:
My first steps into the tallgrass prairie were at the National Preserve in the Flint Hills just north of Strong City, KS. However, my introduction to this beautiful and complex ecoregion began months earlier when I was applying for the Tallgrass Artist Residency and hoping to be selected as the eco-exchange artist. At that time, I was devouring any natural history writing about the region that I could find. In learning about the tallgrass prairie, I couldnâ€™t help but consider comparisons with the longleaf pine forests that once covered almost all of the southeast, including the area of Alabama where I live. So, when I stepped out onto the prairie on a warm and humid day in July, these two perspectives, (1) being an Alabama-easterner and (2) having learned about the natural history of the prairie and Flint Hills region, helped inform my perceptions and my artwork.
You might wonder what similarities there are between an eastern pine forest and the prairie. More than you would expect! Except for the widely spaced longleaf pines, both ecosystems have an abundant variety of low growing, non-woody plants which are maintained by regular burns. And both ecosystems have been reduced to just scattered pockets across a historically very large range. The similarities and differences helped me understand the tallgrass prairie. For one, in the east, itâ€™s easy to think of the sky as just a backdrop behind trees. Shapes of blue coming through on a sunny day. Or bright oranges and reds between silhouettes of trees at sunset. But in the prairie, the sky is an omnipresent ethereal volume that you stand in and that extends in every direction toward the horizon. The sky on the prairie is 70% or more of the landscape.
Another spatial difference that struck me as important is how the prairie is both immensely open and minutely detailed. If you can stand the chiggers, the best place to experience this is sitting down in the prairie grass. From that position, you can look out to the horizon and simultaneously investigate an intricate micro universe full of complex relationships between plants and insects all around you. In contrast, its difficult in the forest to experience these extremes because of trees create a much more closed sense of space.
The challenge for me was developing images that address these and the many other remarkably intertwined features one encounters in the Tallgrass. My drawing â€śInland Seaâ€ť is the first serious attempt. The imagesâ€™ overall shape is an octahedron, composed of two stacked prisms, connected at their bases. One pointed up and the other downward. I imagine the whole of it as something like a terrarium thatâ€™s sampled from the flint hills landscape. The top prism encompasses the sky and grass covered hillside. The lower prism holds most of the subterranean geology.
The title â€śInland Seaâ€ť came to mind as a descriptor for the expansive and swelling hills that characterize the region, and for the currents of wind that bend the grass in running patterns across them. The title also acknowledges the regions geologic past, specifically the ancient sea that once covered almost all of middle North America and has left the hillsides filled with fossils of extinct sea life. Descending through the layers in the bottom prism, I created a space for that ancient sea floor and the exotic animals that lived there.
The residency has given me a lot to reflect on. I have several more sketches that I would like to adapt to more finished drawings when time permits and a few other lingering questions. One of the questions that stands out in my mind has to do with the harmony I perceived in the Flint Hills between human interests and natural processes. How people there coopt the natural cycle of fire, regeneration and grazing to draw a living from the land. I keep wondering how this idea might be adapted to the longleaf forests of my home state.
Where the Sky Began by John Madson
Bryce Lafferty is an artist and educator based in Jacksonville, Alabama. His watercolor drawings, that center on his interest in the natural world, are represented by Momentum Gallery in Asheville, NC. He is also an Associate Professor at Jacksonville State University where he teaches drawing and painting. Although originally from the Northeast and having received his MFA from the University of North Texas, Bryce currently lives in Alabama with his four children. He is enamored by the abundant variety of ecosystems and geologic features to be discovered in the Southeast.
Haibun style travel log of the Tallgrass Artist Residency, Matfield Green, July 2020
What a gift during this crazy year ten days out on the prairie safe, in solitude and surrounded by the unexpected beauty of grassland. As this was my very first residency, I was eager to plan out a variety of things to do, because I was unsure how I would react to the new environment and isolation. I packed up many things, so I could reach for supplies depending on which way inspiration tugged on me. One thing I was not prepared for was the relentless heat out on the prairie, as there is no escape from the sun, no shade to be found. I had to limit my wanderings, but I felt fortunate because the early morning walk was like being among glistening stars under foot, as the myriad of dewdrops sparkled in the first rays of sunlight.
Red ribbon thrown across,
greeted with frenzied choir
gleaming green carpet
I knew that I wanted to continue my recent explorations with pinhole photography. Luckily the bathroom at my residency was perfectly suited for a makeshift dark room for developing the images. I was lugging around a selection of my newly made pinhole cameras trying to capture the view of the prairie as a box sees it. I must have been a funny sight, a Twinings Earl Gray can attached to a tripod facing the view. But the hills were empty of people, only birds could give a passing judgment.
Giant blue blanket
dotted white lays over land
fragile, verdant plain
Plants are my constant inspiration and I wanted to work with the local flora. I wanted to make a printed scroll, which unrolls like the expanding landscape of the prairie. I made a felted paper scroll (joomchi) and treated it for cyanotyping prior to my trip. What I did not anticipate was the constant wind, which was blowing away my plant material as they were laid out on the scroll while making the cyanogram print out in the sun. In retrospect, this was another funny moment trying to control unruly grasses taking flight. Eventually, I made two prints using both sides of the scroll.
Dainty yellow heads
of wild lettuce dance around,
cleansing prairie wind
As I walked on the trail, giant grasshoppers led the way noisily in front of me like a fancy parade. I could not help but to focus on the ground ahead of me noticing tiny mushrooms and busy beetles between the pebbles, plants with large insects sheltering in the shade of their leaves.
Trrrrr, hopp, hopp, trrrrr, hopp
flying horses flee my step
sun parched prairie earth
Looking at the land is so different when you experience it from the car and view the large vistas as they pass by on the road. Driving off the paved highway and traveling on unknown country roads was a thrill. Not knowing where the road leads and for how many miles it goes without any sign of human habitation is a strange thing for a city person. But the beauty unfolding around me was all the more wondrous.
Thread of dirt woven
up, down hugging air and land
road leading beyond
Dora Agbas arrived to the edge of Kansas from Hungary three decades ago as a biomedical research scientist. Now she is a full time artist, still based in the Kansas City area, pursuing her MFA degree at the University of Kansas.
Her primary medium is fiber; her practice explores place through investigating its materials. Inspired by our natural surroundings she is harvesting and using overlooked and ephemeral plant waste as building element for her work, which invites a closer look at the otherwise unnoticed. She believes that this quiet observation is so needed in order to increase our respect for the environment.
I returned to Kansas after seven years. It was a little bit like entering a dream. Traversing rolling hills of grass in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, I was enveloped by wind without a single person in sight. The thought to sit occasionally entered my mind and an overwhelming restlessness would eventually nudge me along the gravel trail again.
The act of going for a walk in the Flint Hills is extraordinary. The land in this region is almost entirely privately owned. Most of the remnant tallgrass prairie is in fact rangeland that most only see from the road at highway speeds. Keeping with that, my first two visits to the area this year were check-list trips to see highway-adjacent spots I had to document for my graduate capstone project. But during the Tallgrass Artist Residency I wasnâ€™t working toward specific end goals.
I wandered by car and by foot, stopping at times to dwell on the side of the road. In much of the Flint Hills, the road between a set of fences is all the space there is to find in this seemingly wide-open place. I carried many writings in my head about the often-muddied distinction between pasture and â€śuntouchedâ€ť grassland, the dreamtime of William Least Heat-Moonâ€™s Prairyerth, and even aesthetics in Zen gardens. To sort all these things stirring around in my head, the only thing I could think to do was get out of my car and walk.
For me, the Residency was an act of unlearning in order to initiate a new process of understanding the Flint Hills. How you investigate and represent a place matters. In fact, crafting a question is a creative act. In design, a question will inform perceptions and priorities, ultimately guiding what is ultimately projected into and onto a landscape. Questioning â€śrequires engagement and experience.â€ť In this case, the resulting understanding is an act of projection rather than acquisition.
It can be said that the act of walking is a simple, open-ended question. As a form of research, a walk and its documentation ideally have no set destination. But my free-flowing investigation always ran up against barbed wire. The act of walking here surrendered me to the physicality of the fence and spontaneously renewed my interest in engaging further with fencing as a subject of landscape research and art. But what my time in residence here made me realize what made my capstone work as a design student so challenging and frustrating.
The Flint Hills is a place that, like many unique landscapes, cannot be singularly solved or fixed. The vision for the future Flint Hills is collective and varied. It is being collectively built from thousands of fragments as the people here offer up ideas through the medium of their small prairie remnants. I am happy to be a part of that conversation, and I feel myself dreaming again.
Will Metcalf is a landscape designer and geographer based in St. Paul, MN. Though a native Kansan, he has lived between Minnesota and Kansas for the last 9 years. His work combines field sketches, notes, historical imagery, and digital mappings to produce small- and medium-scale drawings. Reflecting on environmental history and relational ecologies, his landscape practice investigates the ways we perceive nature and produce space.
He now works as a researcher and designer with Travis van Liere Studio in Minneapolis and is affiliated with DRAW Architecture in Kansas City. His academic work has taken him through the Midwest, British Columbia, Spain, and the Netherlands. He holds a BA in Geography from Gustavus Adolphus College and a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Minnesota.
About five years ago I began to really focus in on how I felt about being an artist and my need to create about the environment I was in. I love Kansas. I have lived in rural Kansas in the past and my husband and I are building a homestead on 80 acres in the southern Flint Hills in Butler County. As I walk anywhere on my land or the Kansas prairie, I am always thinking about the women who were on the land before me. My grandmother used to tell me stories about growing up in rural Butler County. Her stories planted the seed for my quest to understand who I am as an embodiment of history of the land I grew up on. So began my journey to understand the pioneers and first generation of women born in Kansas.
My journey to the Tallgrass Artist Residency and creating a dance film focused on farm labor practices of Kansas women in the early 20th century began in April. As a dance artist with a degree in sociology, my need for deep and thorough research runs deep. I felt it essential to thoroughly study written resources and photographs in order to create abstracted labor practices through dance. I scoured libraries and online resources to begin to understand how these 1st generation Kansas women lived, endured, and labored in everyday life. After finding over 100 sources, I narrowed down to a working bibliography of 50 by the end of May.
In early June, with a truck full of books and articles and personal items necessary for 10 days in Matfield Green, I left my home in Wichita, Kansas. As a Kansan, I have made the journey to the Flint Hills many times. I am not sure if it was the isolation of the pandemic or perhaps trying to effectively teach dance online, but when I drove past the cattle pens on the turnpike, I found myself in tears. The landscape and beauty of the Flint Hills is difficult to put into words. As I came into Matfield Green I had a sense of peace and focus.
This was my first residency of this kind. I have never had the opportunity to truly isolate and focus on creating dance for an extended period of time. Even more, when I typically choreograph a dance work, I collaborate with a group of dancers over several months. My goal was to balance my time between physically experiencing the Flint Hills, reading supportive resources, and creating movement phrases for a dance film on my body. I had not created dance, as the dancer, for over a decade.
Approaching the creation of an abstract dance film focused on women in the early 20th century of Kansas required more than written scholarship. I am immensely grateful to all the women I had an opportunity to interview and learn from throughout the residency. The first evening in Matfield Green, I had pleasure of conducting a phone interview with Annie Wilson. The knowledge she shared about women ranchers in the area really laid the foundation for my approach to the choreography. Ms. Wilson, named Kansas’ “Flint Hills Balladeer” by the Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism, also shared her music with me. Throughout the entire residency the music of the Tallgrass Express String Band was my constant companion. In addition to Ms. Wilson, I also had an incredible opportunity to talk with and learn from Executive Director Lynn Smith at Pioneer Bluffs. Lynn shared vital historical documents, specifically focused on the Rogler family, and also provided a space for the dancers to warm-up and rehearse. Toward the end of the residency I had the opportunity to visit the historical Sauble Ranch in Cedar Point at the invitation of Amanda Hague. The two most important resources and mentors I met with during my residency were Dr. Ann Birney and Dr. Joyce Thierer of Admire, Kansas. I am infinitely indebted to them and awed by their expertise of the history of women in Kansas and humbled by their willingness to continue our conversations during filming and post-production.
For the first few days of the residency, I would leave in the morning and spend time at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Strong City. During my first visit I began to create what eventually was deemed the â€śPrairie Phrase.â€ť This phrase focused on the physical female body in the landscape. Movements were influenced by the sheer expansiveness of the prairie and the resistance of the body to elements such as the wind. The corporeal strength necessary to perform daily tasks such as hauling water over sometimes great distances, helping with harvests, and performing these tasks in harsh winters and dry summers greatly influenced movement qualities in the phrase.
I took the opportunity to visit several different local restaurants for lunch each day. I often frequented the Chuck Wagon CafĂ© and Ad Astra Food & Drink in Strong City after mornings at the Preserve. During lunches I would take sources to read for continued inspiration. All the folks I encountered were graciously hospital and kind. I spent the afternoons creating dance inside in the McBrideâ€™s Casitas in Matfield Green (it was June, and nearly 100 degrees each day). I jokingly told Julia McBride â€śI am a Mexican staying in your Mexican railroad casita.â€ť I was quite cognizant of the history of the casitas as well. My grandfather Cabrales immigrated to Kansas in the early 1900s to work for the railroad.
I eventually created long dance phrases for the film focused on a variety of historical female farm labor practices including household work, gardening, tending poultry and laundry. I also focused some choreography on the social aspect of quilting or what I titled â€śsewing circle.â€ť Toward the end of the residency I invited to dancers to come learn some of the movement for documentation and to help me see and reflect on what I created. By the end of the residency, I had created over 45 minutes of choreography for the film I titled â€śShe Moved the Prairie.â€ť The film was shot on locations in Butler County Kansas in September and is now in post-production.
I simply cannot express my gratitude for the opportunity to dive deeply into an important historical time when women and their contributions were largely overlooked. It is rare to find a book on early 20th century farming that includes images of women or womenâ€™s importance in the establishment and ongoing prosperity of Kansas homesteads. While the dance film â€śShe Moved the Prairieâ€ť covers many abstracted aspects of the labor women did on farms and ranches, the main goal was to physically put the female body in the prairie landscape and recognize the beauty, sacrifice and strength of these women.
A few of the sources from my research:
Cherney, R. (2018). A Longitudinal Study of Three Homesteader Families in Marshall County, Kansas. Great Plains Quarterly,38(4), 335-355.
Coburn, C. K. (2003). Women and Gender in Kansas History. Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, (26), 124-149.
Flora, C. B., & Flora, J. L. (1988). Structure of Agriculture and Women’s Culture in the Great Plains. Great Plains Quarterly,8(4), 195-205.
Holt, M. I. (1995). Linoleum, better babies, and the modern farm woman, 1890-1930 (1st ed.). New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press.
Hubalek, L. K. (1998). Cultivating hope: Homesteading on the Great Plains. Lindsborg, Kansas: Butterfield Books.
Jellison, K. (2000). Entitled to power: Farm women and technology, 1913-1963. United States: The University of North Carolina Press.
Jensen, J. M. (1981). With these hands: women working on the land. Old Westbury, New York: Feminist Press.
Montrie, C. (2005). “Men Alone Cannot Settle a Country” Domesticating Nature in the Kansas-Nebraska Grasslands. Great Plains Quarterly, 25, 245-258.
Pendergrass, L. F., Cram, O. R., Isernhagen, G., & Wieck, N. M. (1980). Memoirs of pioneers of Cheyenne County, Kansas: Ole Robert Cram, Georg Isernhagen, Nancy Moore Wieck (Ethnic Heritage Studies). Fort Hays, KS: Fort Hays State University.
Riley, G. (1989). The female frontier: A comparative view of women on the Prairie and the Plains. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Rosenfeld, R. A. (1987). Farm women: Work, farm, and family in the United States. Chapel Hill, NC, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press.
Sachs, C. E. (1983). The Invisible Farmers: Women in Agricultural Production. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld
Stratton, J. L., & Schlesinger, A. M. (1982). Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier (1st ed., Touchstone). New York City, NY: Simon and Schuster
Springer, M. & Springer, H. (1986). Plains Woman: The Diary of Martha Farnsworth 1882-1922. Indiana University Press.
I am a choreographer, interdisciplinary collaborator, dancer and sociologist. I explore what it means to be human, often from visceral experiences that reside in the memory of my cells and spirit. My personal history, which includes being adopted and losing someone to suicide, fuels the essence of my raw and often intimate dance works. These deeply personal experiences only serve as inspiration for exploring broader community and social issues.
I use movement as a tool to excavate emotions and thoughts to transcend boundaries. These lines can become blurred through immersive movement experiences. Social and cultural explorations ask the audience to be present and active contributors to the art work. These performance collaborations, between community and artist, are often followed by facilitated dialogue that sparks important conversation about topics such as vulnerability, gender, race, technology and communication and how we see our bodies in everyday spaces.