Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The 100 Year War

With apologies to John Steinbeck, this has been the winter of our discontent.  The winter of 2017-18 has been an enormous challenge for all of us who live in upper Montana, and it continues to be winter as of the time of this writing, April 4th.  It's not just the cold and the record snowfall, it's the flooding and mud that comes and goes with the fluctuations in temperature.  Last fall, we saw mountain lions here on the farm, and last week, wolf tracks in the yard.  It struck me that we are slowly but surely receding into the wilderness, but in truth, this has been happening since 1918.


When my grandfather came here to Lonesome Prairie in 1911, the area was booming, and before long the prairie was dotted with homesteads, no further than a mile apart.  The above photo shows the isolation of my farmstead now.  The migration from area farms began in 1918, when crops failed and the winter killed most of the livestock.  Farmers left in droves, often in the middle of the night to avoid creditors.

My home town of Big Sandy, located 18 miles away, has lost half of it's population since I was a teenager in the 1970's.  Part of the reason for this exodus is the fact that the wheat price today, in 2018, is the same as it was in 1973.  While prices for everything else have ballooned in the last 45 years, the price of wheat is literally the same.  Larger farms with fewer laborers are the inevitable result.  But that is not the only reason people leave.  

Snow Load

The other reason is that the struggle against the elements takes its toll on people.  Last October, two poets from Seattle came to stay with me for a week.  Their visit  coincided with an early heavy snowstorm.  Since their little car could not navigate the roads to town, I drove them to and from Big Sandy most days.  On one trip the subject of the arts came up...specifically the relationship between the area's farmer populace to poetry and how we are not a people who generally read poetry.  The reason is simple--we spend a lot of our time and energy in survival mode.  It's hard to describe what that means...but examples are: making sure snow is cleared enough to get a generator placed in case of a power outage, making sure tractors will start, having enough food, knowing what to do if a furnace quits.  Like an old barn under a heavy snow load, we strain to withstand the constant pressure.  It's a full time job figuring out how to outwit an environment that seems intent on crushing us.  Thinking about artistic endeavors is a luxury we cannot usually afford.

The Bite of Winter

Winter will end soon, and with the emergence of spring, a new season of hope will begin as well.  Farmers will emerge from their repair shops and lender offices and will face a new season of challenges.  The long war against the wilderness will continue.  There will be rain and mud, relentless heat, a lot of wind, and probably some hail.  And possibly some sort of pestilence to be named later.  Growing crops in this semi arid region known as Lonesome Prairie is an exhausting endeavor.  My father once quipped that this land lost the best and the brightest to the cities, leaving only the dumbest and the dimmest.  Those who remain here won't dispute the characterization.  But they must also be characterized as persistent, resilient, and creative.

Golden Grain

I been involved in the arts and the creative community for most of my life and I have to say that my neighbors--my fellow farmers--are the most creative people I know.  What they do is not poetry or painting.  They will not be featured at an art show or celebrated as creative geniuses.  And yet, creativity is essential for their survival as farmers.  Whether it be manufacturing a repair part for an obsolete piece of machinery, figuring out how to design a septic system drain field, or surviving a long hard winter in a remote location, creativity is a tool forged from necessity.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Trip to the City

 Last month my wife and I traveled to Seattle with the primary purpose of attending the book launch of Steve Sibra's latest book, The Hillbilly virus.  It was held at the Revival Shop in Capital Hill, and the house was packed.  

Steve reading at a local cafe.  Below are photos of random readers enjoying Steve's book.

My wife Roberta did the illustrations for Steve's book.  Here she is, soaking up the local culture.

I had the opportunity to photograph writer Kate Berwanger.   She is awesome!

One of the Zines that Kate has produced.  See more of her work and learn more about her at:

It was a short trip, but a good one.  It was cold in Seattle, but still about 60 degrees warmer than upper Montana.  And a lot more crowded!


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Evolution of Ignorance

STEVEN RAY SIBRA was born in Havre, Montana, seven years before the death of John F. Kennedy.  From early on, he took to making up stories and writing them down; creating his own set of encyclopedias in fourth grade and winning the praise of his teacher, Helen Hashley, for a comic book he created in art class that same year.  As a senior in high school Steve was co-editor of the school newspaper and also the school literary magazine, Sidelights '74.

After graduating from the University of Montana with a B.A. in History, Steve attended law school for one year before deciding that it did not suit his temperament.   He eventually started a business buying and selling old comic books, a career which he has pursued successfully for over 30 years.  Steve's short stories and poetry have appeared in numerous literary journals including Hollow Magazine, Near to the Knuckle, Matador Review, Shattered Wig, Trigger Warnings, Blue Mountain Review, and others.  Through 3 Frogs Swimming Press, he has created a poetry chapbook (The Turtle is Not a Metaphor, 2016) and a booklet of short stories (The Hillbilly Virus, 2017), both featuring paintings and illustrations by Roberta Hahn Edwards of Big Sandy.  

Steve lives in Seattle with his wife Stacey.  He met Christian Downes in 2015 when both were readers at the "Works In Progress" program at Hugo House on Capitol Hill, downtown Seattle.

CHRISTIAN MICHAEL DOWNES was born in  Florida,  one month after the death of Elvis Presley and one year  before the death of John Lennon , and coincidentally moved to Amish country within that year .  This dramatically influenced his opinions on bananas, tinted glasses, and horse-drawn carriages.   He has traveled extensively here and abroad, teaching and writing as he goes. 

Christian holds an MFA in Poetry from Seattle Pacific University. He received Allegheny College's poem of the year in 2013, and a Reynolds Award from Nota Bene in 2011. His work appears in various print journals and online media. His stageplay "Loving Fire" was featured at Lee University's Fringe Fest.  

But mostly he just works on his cabin in the woods. He is often found followed by a little red dog and a murder of crows. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Zen and the Art of Art

Zen and the Art of Art

Forty years ago I, like many photographers of my generation, read a book called “Zen and the Art of Photography.”  I didn’t care for it much, partly because it’s title was derivative of the wonderful, and, for me and countless others, influential book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”  Somewhere in a box sitting somewhere on my farm, probably an old out of service grain bin, is my copy of “Zen and the Art of Photography.”  I looked it up on Amazon, and the 2011 revision sells for $80 used.  My copy from the 70’s is listed at $400.  If you want to buy it, and I can find it, I’ll sell it to you for half price.  The only line I recall from the book is this:  “The internal + the external = the eternal.”  That’s as close to profound the book got, in my opinion, and it’s likely I feel that way because that thought relates to “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”


The image above is my favorite image from my last year of work, and is inspired by the ideas in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”  In the book,  Robert Pirsig, the author, examines the relationship between rational and romantic views.   The technical process of keeping his motorcycle operating on a long road trip versus the joy of riding and experiencing the world.  He begins the trip with a rational, technical view, and his riding companions represent an exclusively romantic attitude.  By the end of the book, Pirsig realizes the value of a middle ground and aims for a perception that embraces both sides.  The author proposes that rationality and Zen-like “being in the moment” can coexist.  

I referenced this concept in the creation “R9”.  Also known as “Artifacts of the Prairie”, this piece consists of “artifacts” from the history of farming and ranching in Montana and removes them from the junk piles and old sheds where they rested and arranges them together to make “Art.” 

“Art” is a tricky thing, as it is hard to define.  Fine Art photography is even more difficult, as it is usually considered as being less “Art” than painting, drawing, or sculpture.  As a photographer who considers himself to be an artist, I define visual art as “a personal creation that stirs our aesthetic emotions.”  There are three basic types of visual art: Representational Art, Abstract Art, and Non-Objective Art.    Representational Art represents actual objects or subjects from reality (or an alternate reality, but that’s a different story).  Abstract Art takes subjects from reality and presents them in a way that’s different from the way we see them in real life.  Picasso’s Cubist paintings are a great example of this. 

Non-Objective Art takes nothing from reality and is created purely for aesthetic reasons.  Examples of Non-Objective Art are the work of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
 “R9” might be considered Abstract, but all photographs (with some exceptions, of course) are Representational Art, due to the nature of the medium.   Photographs like “R9” are more properly categorized as “Conceptual Art,” a subcategory of  Representational Art that turns a concept or idea into art. 

My mission as a photographer has been to represent the culture and artifacts of the Northcentral Montana prairie.  In R9 (and it’s larger version R16) I took items from the past and represented them in a conceptual way.  A Model T radiator cap, a pinion gear from an old International Harvest crawler tractor, a rusted-out oil bucket—common items that exist as artifacts of farming history.  The resulting work meets my goal in Art—to represent the culture and history from my area of world in an aesthetically pleasing and meaningful way.

Every year in March, several hundred artists converge in Great Falls Montana to participate in “Western Art Week.”  The event began many years ago as an auction to support the Charles M. Russell museum in Great Falls, and has grown into a huge event.  I have been an exhibitor for a few years as a member of the Western Heritage Artists show, which is held at the Holiday Inn.  A unique feature of our show is the lobby exhibit, which shows one piece of work from each artist.  The exhibit is also a competition, and a judge scores the artwork, and awards are given for the highest scoring work in various categories.

Lobby Show

This year I decided to enter “R9” as my lobby piece, knowing full well that it would not fit in and would likely score poorly with the judge.  I was right, and furthermore, some of my peers also received it un-enthusiastically.  A painter wondered how it could be considered “western” art.  A photographer friend of mine, who does beautiful and technically impeccable scenics, said R9 had no “focal point.”  Focal point is another term for a specific area in the image that draws the viewer’s attention.  Having a focal point is basic in Representational Art, but usually non-existent in Non-Objective Art.  Conceptual art, like R9, can go either way, but the most important quality of any work of Art is whether or not it elicits a positive emotional response in the viewer.  Fortunately for my business, the image was well received by those who buy art.  I don’t know if those who loved “R9” ride motorcycles, but if they do, I’ll bet that they spend more time riding than they do maintaining the machine.

By the way, the judge did not have a positive emotional response—her comment was that the image “wasn’t about anything.”  I wonder if the judge would have felt differently if I had titled it “Artifacts of the Prairie” rather than “R9.”  I’d love to know what you think!  If you have an opinion to share, leave a comment here or send me a Facebook message.

R9 #2 at Homestead 89 Gallery, Bozeman, MT
If you're in the Bozeman area and would like to see it in person, stop by Homestead 89.  Just a few blocks south of the intersection in Four Corners.

This 48" R16, printed on metal, found a new home in Great Falls, MT.