A Prairie Art Story

Life as a Sojourner

Stan Herd

An artist, it is said, should not get too comfortable.

To the extent that life’s journey is most truly fulfilled by a return to a “homeland”, Americans are only recently discovering that which tribal people have embraced as a sacred pact. The two-century American experiment in colonizing and settling a rugged frontier left an indigenous population in despair visited by detachment from a historical and spiritual “home”.

As an artist reared on the semi-arid plains of southwest Kansas, I put forth considerable effort and energy to escape to a more culturally lucrative experience. In the interim I have sat at the feet of Leon Shenendoah, Chief of Chiefs of the Iroquois Nation, watched the sunset over the aqua-tinted coast of southwest Australia near Adelaide, sipped merlot and snacked on caviar with ad executives in London’s art district, and shared cheap port and canned beans with homeless men helping to create an earthwork along the Hudson River on Manhattan’s West Side. Most recently my artistic pursuits culminated in the creation of a permanent earthwork in Havana, Cuba.

New York Countryside
New York Countryside was an attempt to do many things and came perilously close to undoing everything. With a wife and young son at home I embarked on a most ambitious and arduous artistic journey. After close to thirty trips to Manhattan Island’s Upper West Side to etch and claw my Kansas landscape “Countryside” out of the grime and debris of the old Penn Square Railroad yard, my energy, family life and financial stability ended in a tumult. The thirteen-month-long earthwork project, created with the help of friends, family and students along with Ryan, John and Lonewolf, three homeless men who befriended me on the sojourn, found favor with residents in surrounding high-rises with a bird’s eye view from living room windows overlooking the Hudson river. The costs were steep, ending in near bankruptcy, but the experience gave me a renewed confidence to overcome great adversity in the cultivation of my artform, and ultimately to pursue life as if it were a great adventure.

Countryside, created in the organic, undulating style of regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, who sixty years earlier had taken the New York art world to task as too ‘elitist’, was a simple landscape with a path leading the viewer into the image. Benton was dubbed a failure by leading critics in his later years for turning his back on modernism, a movement led, in part, by a former student, Jackson Pollack. The choice of Benton’s work as a point of departure for the New York earthwork effort was, in part, recognition of my ‘outsider’ status. As stated in my earlier book, ‘Crop Art and Other Earthworks’ we benefit greatly, when a healthy balance exists between the polemics of the populist and the elitist in the arts.

The one-acre earthwork consisted of more than a dozen separate components of stone, gravel, planted grasses, grains, flowers, kale, and vegetables planted at the request of the homeless volunteers. A high-rise art gathering and helicopter ride overlooking the site at the end of the project included New York art dealers, media, Trump vice presidents and street people.

Iowa Countryside 
Commissioned to create an earthwork design in 1992 for Iowa’s Sesquicentennial, my crew and friends crafted the four acre “Iowa Countryside” out of a corn field just off the runway at Cedar Rapids Airport in the style of Iowa’s own regionalist painter Grant Wood. Planted originally to wheat and clover, subsequent plantings of pumpkins, squash, sorghum, and soybeans complemented the hand-layered sand for the ribbon of road and lime for the graphic farmhouse at center. The farm tractor used for mowing can be seen in the lower right corner next to the emerging planted rows of field corn planted to lend depth to the design.

Aldo Leopold – The Land
A call from Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, in 1998 asking for my help in promoting the upcoming summer Prairie Festival was an opportunity for realizing what I considered to be the true potential for my earthworks. By association and collaboration with a research effort, which I believed to be visionary and humanitarian, I was finally creating ‘art with purpose’. Blending the practical and physical application of the art to the research of the farm and to Jackson’s philosophy, ensuing discussions became manifest in a one-acre portrait of America’s great conservationist Aldo Leopold, chosen by the Land Institute as the central theme for that year’s festival. Leopold was an environmentalist whose early insight led to the concept of using “nature as measure’— of letting the prairie set the standard for an effort to make agriculture mimic the native prairie, a concept carried on by practitioners Jackson, Wendell Berry and others and now making great inroads into the whole agrarian pantheon — a natural systems agriculture. The portrait was created in a meek and drought-ridden stand of alfalfa near an overlook on the edge of the farmstead. Eugene Friesen, cellist with the Paul Winter Consort, serenaded the gathered crowd with a “grasslands’ musical offering in accompaniment of readings by Leopold’s children of their father’s writings. A mockingbird lent an exhilarating footnote to our simple celebration of prairie as the sun descended over the smoky hill watershed.

For over 20 years the artist Stan Herd has worked the earth using indigenous materials to produce evocative and mystical works. From 160-acre plowed portraits to one-quarter-acre intimate stone designs, his work has become a platform for discussion of mankind's contemporary relationship to the land. Currently he has six projects in process including a large stone work for Bill Kurtis’s Red Buffalo Ranch in SW Kansas where he resides as part time “artist in Residence”.

This article was originally published in Landscape & Art, Summer 2003.

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