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