2020 Artist

Cheyla Clawson Chandler

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 “Prairie Phrase.” 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 Café 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 McBride’s Casitas in  Matfield Green (it was June, and nearly 100 degrees each day). I jokingly told Julia McBride “I am a Mexican staying in your Mexican railroad casita.” 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 “sewing circle.” 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 “She Moved the Prairie.” 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 women’s importance in the establishment and ongoing prosperity of Kansas homesteads. While the dance film “She Moved the Prairie” 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.