Behind "Behind the Wool"

When I recall some of the fondest moments of my childhood, there’s a special place in Southwest Wisconsin that always comes to mind.  This place was my Uncle’s dairy farm, or as my family simply referred to it, “The Farm”.  I can fondly recall the creek that flowed out from its underground source next to the old farmhouse, where we cooled our watermelon on hot summer days.  I remember racing my siblings to the coop to see who could collect the most chicken eggs.  I even saw my first shooting star on a night time walk down the gravel farm road, where the only light to be seen besides the stars was the orchestrated blinking of fire flies.  It was a place where simplicity and a sense of connection to the earth and animals reigned.  I attribute my love and appreciation for rolling landscapes, open land, simple pleasures, and the freedom that being in nature provides to all the years spent visiting this farm in my youth.  

From a young age, it was a place to witness first-hand what hard work looks like.  It was my first opportunity to understand where our food comes from.  And although I saw all the beauty in this way of life, I also recognized that being a farmer isn't for the faint of heart, and so a deep respect for the farming community was instilled.  

Tractor rides with my family at "The Farm" in Richland Center, Wisc.

Many of us have seen several generations’ small family farms like this one disappear to “big ag” and factory farming and to economic imbalance between soaring expenses and declining income.  My Uncle is among those who were forced to sell off his cattle in exchange for a job in the city.  This is devastating to anyone who has lived this first hand, and deeply saddening to anyone who has seen the pride and love a farmer has for their land and for their animals like my Uncle had.  

Since childhood, there has remained a deep and inherent desire to be reconnected to this way of life, in one way or another.  So it has come as no surprise that I’ve found myself in adulthood building a connection to and visiting a local farm from which I source wool to create my fiber art.  Through my time spent with this small, local sheep farm, I quickly began to see, yet again, the challenges that this and other Montana farms are experiencing.  

I grew increasingly concerned for the future of sheep farming in Montana and wanted to know more, so I decided to go straight to the source- Montana sheep farmers themselves.  After publicly proposing a brief idea of this investigative project, I received immediate response from photographer, Lauren Lipscomb.  Lauren has been working on a photographic project of her own that looks into the lives of those who work and create with sustainable and mindful intentions.  We were a natural fit.  After months of correspondence and organizing visits to Montana sheep ranchers, we set out to visit a series of sheep farms in search of answers to how they are able to sustain amid countless ecological, economic, and political challenges. 

Photography by Lauren Lipscomb of Wayward Roots & Co. 

Through hearing each of their stories, we were both awakened to the multitude of intricacies in the methods and philosophies of farming.  We were introduced to their many challenges and setbacks.  Some of these include water shortages and changes in climate, land development, wildlife predation, shifts in economic viability and supply and demand, overgrazing, harsh winters, and more.  When asked what keeps them from giving up, it was always clear that the alternative to this way of life just isn’t an option.  Many would live with next to nothing to be able to keep their land and animals.  There is nothing else that could satisfy the deep ties to the land, to their animals, and to the farming community.   The only option they have is to look to the future to sustain.      

Using our artistic mediums, we put together a body of work that honors these farmers.  I sourced wool from each farms’ own flock and made felted wool panels that measure almost nine feet high and 4 feet wide.  There are a total of six of these panels (one for each farm).  While composing each piece, I thought of my time with the farmer, the feel of their farm and the landscape of their land.  Each piece visually reflects my personal connection to and my experience of that farm and farmer.  Lauren documented each of our visits and has printed a series for each farm that captures intimate farmers’ portraits, the landscape of the farmland, and moments of them working with the sheep.  There is no one else I can think of who could capture the sentiment and depth behind these farmers' experience better than she did.  I simply couldn’t be more proud to have my work next to hers and hope you'll have the chance to view this work in person.  

The exhibition opening reception for this work, entitled "Behind the Wool:  Honoring the Integrity of Montana's Sheep Ranchers" will be held this Friday, May 12, 5-8PM, at the Emerson Center for Art and Culture in Bozeman, MT, and will be shown through June 30, 2017.  My hope for this show is to continue the conversation of “supporting local” and to bridge the consumer to those who are creating a conscious product.  I want the viewer to see who they are or can be supporting when they use their buying power to create change and strengthen community.  I want this show to help people consider what we are to each other in a community…  to reflect on the many roles people play in making a community thrive. 

Although my association to the small family farm has evolved since the time I was a child frolicking through farm fields, being present on a farm still emits the same joy I felt as a child.  My perspective of what a farm means to me now has taken on a new narrative in its adult from.  From an awakened consciousness driven by emotion and curiosity, this project has given me much more understanding for the value that the responsible practices of our farmers provide our economy, our environment, and our health and well-being.  It is with this understanding and appreciation that I want to use my voice to advocate as an artist and community member to keep helping those that are working hard to nourish their communities while they practice farming methods that replenish the land for future generations, and provide us all with viable, healthy, and conscious resources.

I’m not certain what will continue to evolve from this project, but I have a strong feeling that this is the beginning of something bigger.  Right now, what is for certain is that I’m interested expanding the interconnectedness of how I live and create in order to improve the ecological value of where I live.  I desire a relationship and partnership with those around me who are using the land in a way that replenishes it, rather than depletes it.  I want to hear the stories of those who are seeking connections within the community to source conscious and responsible products, rather than blindly outsourcing for the sake of convenience and saving time.

I invite the opportunity to connect with you if any of this resonates with you or your work.  Until the next chapter of this journey emerges, may we all continue to find ways to connect within our communities, learn from each other, and work together to make Montana and beyond a better place.  

Photo by Lauren Lipscomb

Reviving Honest and Simple Through the Creation of Purcell Trading Post

This summer, we put the “Post” in Purcell Trading and took our antiques and handmade art to sell at the Livingston Farmer’s Market.  The only thing we needed in order to shade us from the hot and dry sun, and keep our goods out of Montana’s unannounced and shifty weather patterns, was a tent.  Now, a pop-up tent purchased from a big retailer would make sense for efficiency’s sake, but wouldn’t exactly align with our brand, aesthetic, or our ethics. 

In case you already weren't aware, one similarity Jeff and I have personally, and one of the biggest things that drives Purcell Trading, is our aesthetic for anything rustic, old and simple.  The thought of a cheap, plastic tent framing our antiques and handmade goods didn't sit right.  We decided that there was only one thing to do… go to the nearest forest and harvest lodge poles to make a canvas wall tent.

Eager for the challenge and the opportunity to spend time in the mountains with our dog, Timber, we got right to work and drove down valley to Pine Creek.  We spent the day hiking, sawing, exploring, and carrying carefully selected dead and downed pines back to the truck.     

We worked efficiently, taking turns to scout and saw.  When all the poles were gathered together, we took a break to hike up trail to the falls.  Along the way, a Two-Tailed Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly landed on Jeff’s shoulder.  The butterfly allowed Jeff to pick it up and place it on a tree branch, where it remained gently flapping it’s wings and sunning itself even on our way back down trail, several moments later.

 

With the truck loaded and a quick stop at the hardware store, we headed home and we began to build the structure.  

Once the poles were securely in place, we threw a large sheet of canvas over the top and added a hand painted sign with our name and logo.   

Our vision came through successfully (with only a small handful of initial frustrations and cuss words) and our tent was complete.  The whole process holds much more meaning, knowing that we made the tent ourselves and with responsible materials.  We not only made the tent, but took the time to create a lasting memory from a day spent adventuring in Montana's mountains.  With all of this, another opportunity was born for "A Revival of Honest and Simple". 

Strap that Wool on and Ride

 

Summer in Montana is the most beautiful time of the year.  It's a season that Montanans take full advantage of, as there are only about three months of warm weather before the snow begins to creep in again.  To us, there is no better way to take advantage of the warm weather than on our ’79 Suzuki motorcycle we call “Red Feather”. 

Wolf Ridge Icelandics  |  Pray, Mont. 

Wolf Ridge Icelandics  |  Pray, Mont. 

So this weekend, with our knees in the breeze, we cruised down the East River Road in Paradise Valley to pick up some wool for Meghan’s hand crocheted rugs and felted wall hangings.  After riding 25 Miles south alongside the craggy Absaroka Mountains, we pulled into Wolf Ridge Icelandics sheep farm.  Over a dozen baby Icelandic sheep greeted us with an overload of cuteness, as we rode up the driveway, bleating for a milk bottle that we did not possess.  The owners, Barb and her husband, Per, told us that they have some 300+ new lambs this season! 

As Meghan picked out four bags of newly processed roving with some subtle color variations of white, greys and oatmeal, I began strapping them onto the front and back of the bike with bungee cords.  Checking out our vintage bike, Per reminisced about how as a young man he would rage his Honda 750 down the valley roads at 120mph...until his mother found out.  A few pictures were taken of our ridiculous looking puffy wool clad bike and then off we rode, much to the amusement of our suppliers. 

We made a quick stop for gas, made another lunch pit stop for a burger and beers in the sun, then back up the valley towards home.  The rushing mighty Yellowstone River and sun rays that beamed down through the clouds across the green mountain sides made for an exceptionally scenic ride home to Livingston... it was the kind of summer day that makes the long winter so worth it.    

Sure, it would have been more of a convenience to have driven our truck.  But the simple pleasure and adventure of the open road down the mountain valley and ridiculousness of transporting sheeps' wool on a bike made for a much more memorable experience and a hell of a lot better story... One we can reminisce about when we're snowed in come November.