Before coming to Matfield Green I had been to Kansas only once, during a childhood visit to my Oklahoma family â€“ and, on further reflection, this early trip may have been limited to the Missouri side of Kansas City, where my mother and my grandmother and my aunt Tequila and I had gone to see a Royals game. Still, spending time in the Flint Hills now as an adult, walking out alone into the quiet rolling green stark prairie, did somehow feel like a homecoming.
My residency took place at the end of September. The daytimes were very warm and the nights were very cool, and for a few days straight it rained and greyed and I barely left the bunkhouse â€“ this was a privilege, one that allowed me time and space to be still, to listen, to find new rhythms in my fiction and nonfiction projects.
The prairie is dizzyingly vast. I was visiting Kansas from New Jersey, and the immensity of the landscape overwhelmed me. Its reputation precedes it; the prairie of our collective imagination clouds your ability to actually experience what is here.
One day in the bunkhouse I read Denise Lowâ€™s â€śTouching the Sky,â€ť a blue-covered volume of essays whose oblong rectangular shape called out to me from the bookshelves. I read, in thrall, her account of this regionâ€™s glacial formation over thousands of years, and I thought about the endless evolutions of the landscape, the changes in the people, in the shifting unstable self.
I am a writer who learns by walking, by the feeling of movement in a particular place. Heading out into the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, sharing Windmill Pasture with actual herds of wild bison, I spent a lot of time thinking about my Indigenous ancestors â€“ and how could I not? My writing grapples with their stories, the pull of history and colonial shapings up to the present moment. Although my ancestors are not from Kansas â€“ they are from the Great Lakes region and the Midwest â€“ my connections to Kansas ran deeper than I had known. En route to Oklahoma my tribal ancestors walked through Kansas; some remained. My grandmother â€“ though born and raised in Oklahoma â€“ had a Kansan interlude of her own, during which she met my grandfather. Homecoming.
Elsewhere Denise Low writes of â€śPrairie Alchemy,â€ť a curiously enchanting phrase. I like to think I touched a little of that prairie alchemy during my residency. The swaying dappled tallgrass of a prairie sunset. The wind! The sky, unlike any other I have seen â€“ touchably close and full of mutable blues, with morphing hues from day into night. The mysterious and deep root system of seeds planted, nourished, and sustained by this ecosystem. In a prairie kind of way Iâ€™m trusting in how I was nurtured during my stay in Matfield Green, and in the seeds that were planted for my work. I donâ€™t believe anywhere in America is without its complicated histories, that any terrain is without its secrets and its spirits â€“ this is what I came to feel viscerally during my time in the prairie. I hope to come back soon.
About halfway through my residency, Iâ€™m convinced I have connected with some spirits. Not a specific one, not even a specific energy, simply the sense of not being alone, though I am walking in the prairie and have not encountered a single person. Iâ€™m inside the bunkhouse and I hear coyotes howling, as if surrounding. I go outside and see Jupiter, set inside the same sky my ancestors, and not long ago, would have seen while living in Kansas before another forced relocation to Oklahoma. To share this meadow with bison is a gift. To see grasshoppers and snakes and several types of tall grass. Someone asked me lately where Iâ€™m growing roots. If you think the prairie is flat, you have never been here. If you think the prairie is empty, you have not been paying attention.
Daniel Kessel is a fiction writer and essayist who grew up in New Jersey and New York. A graduate of the MFA program at Rutgers University-Camden, he was the recipient of an Interdisciplinary Fellowship for his research on the contemporary queer novel. His writing has appeared in PRISM International, Bending Genres, The Huffington Post, and other publications.
Envisioning Everreddening: Ensuring Native Environmental, Political, and Artistic Futures
There is something about the long gaze, uninterrupted, and the deeper dwelling, up close, how the eye is pulled near and far, a continual alternation, narration, of big and small. So is a vision braided.
Indigenous women’s and Two-Spirit voices continue to weave back and forth across the colonial divide of the U.S./Canadian border, in synergy with women of colour and queer/trans people of colour artistic activisms, that seek to build solidarities across settler nation-states.
As a child conceived in Niagara Falls, born in the Bronx, with loved ones across both sides of the border, I am deeply grateful for the twined legacies of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in New York and Sister Vision: Black Women and Women of Colour Press in Ontario, and all the other diverse presses and publications from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, before and after, which envision and manifest transnational womanist maps for our movements and communities.
Anthologies such asÂ A Gathering of Spirit: A Collection by North American Indian Women, which first appeared as an issue ofÂ Sinister Wisdom, edited by queer Kanien’kehĂˇ:ka writer, Beth Brant, andÂ The Colour of Resistance: A Contemporary Collection of Writing by Aboriginal Women, edited by queer Cree writer, Connie Fife, and solo texts by queer Menominee writer, Chrystos, and queer Esselen/Chumash writer, Deborah A. Miranda, remain genealogically important as community-affirming, -envisioning, and -organizing tools. They create and retrace pathways into knowing larger circles of Indigenous womanist and Two-Spirit pasts, presences, and futures. They make our lives more possible, our paths more purposeful and passionate, plentiful and plural.
I know a place through its peoples. I know a people through their places. I am prepared to enter and exist within territory by the relations I make with its, their relations.
Driving north from Tulsa, where I have lived at the intersection of Mvskoke, Cherokee, and Osage Nations, I know whose territory I am traveling through because I know these Nations, north and south of the imposed Oklahoma/Kansas border, because they have blessed me with the opportunity to know them and live in relation to them.
The longer I am in Oklahoma, Kansas, this region, the clearer it is to me how I must reaffirm and deepen my commitment to prairie tribal Nations, to the peoples of this place, these places, and all the places and peoples they were and remain, prior to and after removal, relocation. A commitment to sovereign futures, and continued continuance as peoples, Nations.
Sometimes one is pulled joyfully in multiple directions, each seeking our attention. Sometimes it is okay to delight in the dizziness, before choosing where to land and fix one’s gaze.
Biodiversity is strengthened by Native presence, leadership, sovereignty, White Earth Anishinaabe writer and environmental organizer, Winona LaDuke, has argued in her life/work. One of the things non-Native people can do is support that (returned) presence, leadership, sovereignty. One of the thing artist residencies across Turtle Island can do is commit to Native peoples, Native Nations, Native creativity and resiliency.There are four federally recognized tribal Nations existing within the boundaries of Kansas, the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, and Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska, to which artistic, environmental, and all other organizations in Kansas can make stronger commitments. By centering and supporting the citizens of these Nations, as well as the forty-nine federally recognized Native Nations existing within the boundaries of Oklahoma, and the tribal Nations existing through the prairie region, artist residencies can further Native, ecological, and artistic futures.
Some of our most profound experiences were not on land, but in water. Swimming most days, having swum since I was one month old, each return to the water reminded of the vastness we experienced everywhere. How to sit with that, rock, be swayed.
We all respond to geographies imprinted upon us. I most relate to woodlands, mountains, lakes, valleys, rivers, streams, brooks, the ocean. Four distinct seasons. When I see elements of home, I breathe easier.
I grew up urban and rural, a child of both city and country. I knew watersâ€”fresh, salt, chlorineâ€”and swam in them from earliest memory, prememory. Mother wanted this, guided this, anticipated and insisted upon it. There was knowledge, survival and joy, in the water. One needed to form a relationship with it. Wherever it pooled, coursed, whenever it gathered from sky. Swimming with her, some of my fondest memories. As did we watch the night skies, day, whenever thunder and lightning gathered. We would count the seconds in between, calculate distance, nearness. Gather candles, puzzles, kerosene, cards. We would anticipate the power outtages. Rejoice in them. Revel in quiet time. I grew up with a love for the rain, snow, darkness, each time a water blessed us. I knew it was not a givenâ€”extreme droughtâ€”gave thanks.
Here I traveled with friend, and from the Northeast and archipelagoes across the Atlantic, we sought water, found it, rejoiced in it. Talked story as we reimmersed, submerged. The prairie and its dew, mist, rivers and creeks, lakes, mirrors to remind us of the territories we called home, that shaped us, shape us still, and to which we live in responsibility.
We find ourselves in times of intense ecological and political upheaveal. We can learn from each other across ecosystems, across organizing paradigms, sharing traditional knowledge of how to live in relation to our lands and waters, how to shape our social movements. Prepare for what is coming, shape who we become and what we summon. Interdependent, we must learn together to ensure futures that creatively resist and insist upon Nativity, biodiversity, sovereignty, equality, democracy.
I think of who my leaders are, across movements, inside, outside, structures, dwellings. It is important to name those who prepare the paths we walk upon, which we seek to further.
Queer Ho-Chunk U.S. House Representative in Kansas, Sharice Davids; Yup’ik U.S. House Representative in Alaska, Mary Peltola; White Earth Anishinaabe Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota, Peggy Flanagan; and Laguna Pueblo U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland give me hope. Perhaps they will become the first Native women U.S. Senators. First Native woman U.S. President. We can dream, work towards those dreams. How necessary they are, like water fed to us by our beforemothers.
As I work to support their campaigns, I reflect on how autumn is a time of renewal. We plant and harvest. We gather what we sow, sew. We prepare for winter so that next year’s spring is a joyful, hopeful one. One we can pass on to future generations. So we continue weaving.
Sometimes you get to see strands of a spider web dance in the breeze at sunset. Something you might have walked through, by, if you didn’t stop to notice. Sometimes that sunset is endless. May it sovereignly be so, cyclical, renewing, eternally Native. An everreddening renewal, wrapped in darkest night.
Leslie VonHolten writes about the connections between land and culture. Her work includes environmental science, art history, community history, literature, and undertold stories. Her art writing has been published in Pitch, Lawrence.com, and Ceramics Art + Perception, with new work forthcoming in The New Territory and Literary Landscapes. Sometimes she also curates a show or makes a zine. She lives in Kansas, where she mostly grew up.
Jeremiah Ariaz was raised in Kansas and is a Professor of Art at Louisiana State University. He received his BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and MFA from the State University of New York at Buffalo. His research-based practice is focused on examining the constructs of American identity within personal, community, media, and political contexts. For his most recently completed project Louisiana Trail Riders, he was the recipient of a 2018 ATLAS grant, the Michael P. Smith Award for Documentary Photography from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, the 2018 South Arts Finalist Prize and named the Louisiana State Fellow. The photographs have been exhibited nationally, and a monograph of the work is available from UL Press (2018). His current project, The Fourth Estate, is focused on small town newspaper offices and the critical role they play in our shared democracy.
Thomas Agran was born in rural Kentucky, grew up in Ohio, and moved to Iowa to attend Grinnell College. Three years spent in the fields of a large organic vegetable farm in Grinnell helped forge a deep interest in the Midwestern landscape, its total transformation through agriculture, and the political, social, and environmental consequences of that change. Some of his paintings also explore the complicated nexus of food, agriculture, nostalgia, and marketing. Thomas studied at Indiana University for an MFA in painting, and has taught painting and drawing since 2011, currently at the University of Iowa. In addition to his studio work, Thomas has executed, managed, and mentored dozens of public mural projects â€“ from private commissions to large municipal scale work in historically sensitive areas to community engaged and participatory mural and public art projects. Thomas currently resides in Iowa City, Iowa, with his daughter Nina.
Cory McKague is an American realist whoâ€™s interests lie in the intersection of technology and points of extraction amidst the rural landscape. They are a MFA candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder in sculpture + post studio practice where they are researching untold stories of the west and the digital divide. They are an educator, technologist and fabricator.
I arrived in this country when I was 5 and my brother was 7 â€” the same ages of my children during my residency. The first place we visited was Disneyland. I thought we had hit the jackpot. America was even better than I had expected. Soon after, we settled in Warrensburg, Missouri and a new reality sank in. I was transported from the cityscape of Seoul to the American midwest. I have clear memories of walking through the vast prairie and the mazes of cornfields as a child.
My mom had a studio photo taken in preparation to come to the US â€” for the passport and visa applications. My dad was going to graduate school at what was then Central Missouri State University and we had come to visit. We didnâ€™t know that we were never going back to Korea. He didnâ€™t want us to leave. In photography there are so many variables. What kind of light will there be today? What kind of accidents and interventions will occur as I make work? When I took this photo, it was drizzling. A tiny fortuitous raindrop fell right under my eye. I didnâ€™t realize until I was editing that this had happened. I asked my child self, â€śWhy are you crying?â€ť
Through a collaborative process with my children, we immersed ourselves in the natural landscape and explored not only our relationships to our surroundings, but also to each other and to my memories and their histories. I noticed the kids interacting with nature, playing together and seeing how they created their own worlds and made their own memories. It is when I give in to seeing the world through their eyes that I find it easiest to parent. And then sometimes, their magic seeps into my world, when I let go of trying to be in control. I project my past onto them but I know parts of them remember it too.
As I looked to the past, I saw into the future. One day as we were walking Mila asked me, â€śMom, are we in a dream? Are we?â€ť I wanted to share this time of creative exploration with my children. They made art on paper, on each other and sometimes onto the landscape. Art became more accessible to them when they were able to touch and interact with it, thanks to Bill McBrideâ€™s sculptures. It wasnâ€™t just a precious thing to look at but something to experience and feel. Sometimes they even took the pictures, like this one of me and Mila in our hanboks â€” our traditional Korean dresses.
My mom is a tailor so fabrics and textiles are meaningful to her, to us. I used to help hang clothes at her drycleaning store and with each garment, I could feel a sense of the person who wore it. I included Korean fabrics into my pictures so that our histories were incorporated into the memories of this landscape.
What does this land represent? I thought about the house we were in during the residency â€” a casita built for Mexican rail workers a century ago, one of the last ones to survive. There are three units in the bunkhouse. From the drawing in the room, it looked like there could have been up to 10 units at one point. I had packed a Mexican dress that was gifted to Mila without knowing the history of the bunkhouse. I felt like it was an homage to those workers. The kids were obsessed with the wild garlic here, possibly brought here by the Mexican laborers. A part of their history continues to grow and nourish.
During my residency, I talked with my friend Haruka. She is doing a project called Campu about the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. She showed me a photo of a jail cell at the camp where someone had scratched into the wall, â€śShow me the way to go home.â€ť It is a heartbreaking image. I thought about what it meant to be taken away from your home and forced onto a land that tried to devour you.
I also thought about the Chinese rail workers who built the transcontinental railway â€” how they were omitted from the1869 photo commemorating the completion of the railroad. Everyone is celebrating, opening champagne as the final golden spike is hammered into the track. How easily have our experiences, as immigrants, been erased from American history? Corky Lee recreated that photograph in 2014 with the descendants of those Chinese laborers, 145 years after the original photo was made. We can take back some of our histories in commemorating the forgotten, lost and erased. Remembering.
The more trains I watched pass behind the casitas, the more details I noticed. I realized the ones carrying the oil moved more slowly than the ones carrying coal. My children recognized the logos on the trains moving consumer goods across the US after just a few clicks on someoneâ€™s phone or computer. There was a whole system of labor and movement I didnâ€™t always consider. Through this work, I re-examined my connection to this land, reconsidering overlooked histories, as I tapped into my own forgotten memories, conjuring the past, creating new memories all while exploring my connection to the natural landscape, to my children, and to our past and future selves.
Arin Yoon (she/her) is a Korean American documentary photographer and visual artist based in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Her work focuses on war and diaspora, families, women and issues of representation and identity. Arin is a National Geographic Explorer, an International Women’s Media Foundation Fellow, and a We, Women Photo Artist. She is a member of Women Photograph, Diversify Photo and the Asian American Journalists Association. Her work has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Reuters, ProPublica, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Arin has exhibited at venues internationally, such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul, South Korea and Photoville in New York. She has an MFA in Photography, Video and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts and a BA in Political Science and a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago.