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Cultivating Ecological Themes in Art

By Molly Rideout - December 12, 2013

Artists and chickens at Grin City Collective in Grinnell IA

Joe Lacina and I didn’t plan for Grin City Collective to be an ecological artist residency. We were simply an artist residency on a farm. As practicing artists, our first concern had been finding a place to live that was close to friends and family. With Grin City situated on Joe’s 320-acre family farm, some of us were closer to family than others. We wanted space to work, and we wanted to be able to afford that space. It’s cheap to live in Grinnell, Iowa, a farming and college town an hour east of Des Moines on I-80. In 2010, an artist in town bought a five-bedroom house for $60,000. At our local second-hand store I can buy clothes for twenty-five cents a piece. And because we lived on a farm, we planted our own food, like Joe’s family had always done. And because there were Iowa White Peach trees and plum trees and apple and Bartlett pear trees, we ate peaches and plumbs and apples and pears. We ate them because we were broke and they were free, they were convenient and because we knew what had been sprayed on them, which was nothing. Well, nothing except the Roundup and Callisto that had probably drifted from the cornfield across the road. But that was another battle.

Grounds at Grin City Collective.

As artists returning or relocating to rural settings to live and work off the land, we aren’t alone. In August of this year, the Guardian wrote about a similar trend occurring in the U.K. Although a little patronizing in its novelty reportage, the article points to a number of rural residencies and artist groups who have relocated from London to less populated communities for many of the same reasons we had. The internet has revolutionized what we can accomplish away from the old cultural capitols. Artists can sell work online. They can keep current on gallery exhibitions and artist works and submit to shows. They can order supplies and collaborate without leaving their studio. On the farm at Grin City Collective, Joe and I were able to stay simultaneously connected to the larger art world and our supportive rural community

Left: Preservation workshop through ISLAND (MI) Right: Artists at Wormfarm Institute (WI)

What does moving to the country have to do with ecology and ecological residencies? To steal an observation from ISLAND Residency Director Brad Kik, who, I believe, stole it himself from someone else, rural artists are trending toward ecological issues, while urban artists look at social issues. This division is not new. For centuries in the cultural symbolism of art and literature Rural has been shorthand for Nature, while Urban equated to People. It’s why so many of our retreat-style artist residencies are located in the Catskills, on Western ranches, or beside the ocean: nature is a place for city dwellers to escape to. But ecology is, of course, about more than a nice view out one’s studio windows. Today the word encompasses many broad, sometimes conflicting, categories. The term ecology elicits anything from natural resources to wilderness conservation to alternate energy to agriculture, which in turn is connected to farm culture, food culture and more. It’s no wonder ecology has become such a hot topic among artists and residencies. In fact, if we take the word ecology for its dictionary definition of “The relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings,” whether urban or rural, there is very little art that doesn’t fall within this purview.

With a definition so wide, the group of arts organizations we might identify as ecological is equally broad. An artist residency could have a specific artist call for environmental projects, like A Studio in the Woods’ ongoing Ebb and Flow series. The residency property could be under a conservation easement like the Ucross Foundation. It could be connected to an active farm, like the Wormfarm Institute, ISLAND or Grin City. The residency could build programming around local food culture, like Headlands Center for the Arts. It could be a rural residency looking to connect its artists with the local agricultural community. Or the residency could simply be looking to reduce its carbon footprint.

With all of these topics, it’s no wonder that when the Arts + Ecology Affinity Group sat down at the 2013 Alliance of Artist Communities annual conference in San Jose, the room was filled. The conference had blocked an hour and a half for the facilitated discussion, yet it wasn’t until the very end that anyone felt we were getting to the real meat of any singular issue. There were simply too many items to talk about. Too many questions to be asked.

That is why at next year’s Annual Conference in Charleston, SC, the Arts + Ecology Affinity Group will hold a one-day pre-conference. There we will be able to devote real time to some of the ecological issues artist residencies work with. For the last few years where we’ve had an hour and a half, in 2014 we will have an entire day to discuss this expanding field.

We are still in the early planning stages in determining topics and format for the pre-conference and we are looking to our fellow artists and arts administrators for topics and questions to guide the day. What nitty-gritty questions do you have? What bigger dilemmas? Please share with us your ideas for panel discussions. We also hope you will attend the pre-conference and lend your voice and experiences to our discussions.

Joe Lacina and I didn’t plan to build an ecological artist residency, but when the smoke cleared from our inaugural years, we realized that with our farm-to-table projects, our artist engagement with the community, and our location in what has been called the most environmentally altered state in the nation, we realized that even without the explicit label, an ecological artist residency was what we were.


Molly Rideout is a writer and Co-Director of the artist residency Grin City Collective in Grinnell, Iowa. Her stories of the Midwest have been published in WarBing Magazine, Grinnell Magazine and Prairie Gold Anthology (forthcoming). She cochairs the Arts + Ecology Affinity Group.