Changing Landscapes: Rural Artists in Contemporary Culture

paperpeopleFrom the series Paper People; Rosemary Markowski

Editor’s Note: Today we are excited to introduce the first of our Summer Interns. Rosemary Markowski is a Shenandoah Valley artist who travels between her rural Virginia home and Washington DC, where she is pursuing a Masters of Art in Teaching at George Washington University’s Corcoran College of Art + Design. She is the mother of three 4Hers and when not in the studio she may be found wrangling chickens or milking goats. 

By Rosemary Markowski

From our small farm you can walk through the hollow and over a piney ridge to Willa Cather’s childhood home. The old white farmhouse is in disrepair and the only evidence of curiosity is a historical marker hidden behind the locust trees. The writer spent her first ten years in rural northern Virginia before her family traveled west, to Nebraska. Cather understood the way of people rooted in place – both youthful agitation and acceptance of inextricable roots.

This duality of sentiment is part and parcel of the rural experience. Rural means different things to different people, and different things at different times in their lives. I spent years living in major cities; my first move away was to attend art school. That’s where an artist needs to be, right? After starting a family, we stayed for job opportunities. Eventually my yearning for open space and love of farm life led us back, but not without some fear of isolation and a questioning of prospects. Routes to education and opportunity often bypass the rural, leading a wealth of creativity and energy toward cities. As the creativity drain increases, the focus on urban experience strengthens. Rural rhythm and ways of being lose visibility, just as our ideas about how artists work and where they can be fulfilled become colored by the amplified urban voice. Writers, artists, and musicians help make sense of our contemporary culture, and their work is needed within rural spaces to explore myth and question assumptions. Our national identity is tied to images of rural life, but change is coming to rural America at a rate that our perceptions are having trouble keeping up with – the landscape is changing, the work people do is being replaced or disappearing all together, and that icon of America, the family farm, is in a battle to survive.

2014 mullen goats gore 1

The view from Rosemary Markowski’s farm

Rural and urban are understood as opposites, but this may be because the conventions and codes we use to understand rural places have not been fully developed. These two places share a more complicated relationship. I’m often reminded of a passage from Cather’s O Pioneers!  “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” These human stories are the nuclei artists and writers build upon and they are bridges for understanding.  By representing and documenting the rural arts we uncover the complexity and diversity of the American experience while, at the same time illuminating our commonalities.

I am excited to highlight and connect artists who have their mind on the rural. We welcome the perspectives of those who have left, those who stayed, and those who are discovering their connection.