Country Living


Samek Art Museum Director, Richard Rinehart’s paper, presented at the Re-imagining Rural Mythologies panel of the Nordic Geographers Conference in Estonia this summer.


When I  arrived   in   Lewisburg,   the   home   of   Bucknell   University,  in  rural  central   Pennsylvania   to   take   up   my   new   position   as   director   of   the   Samek   Art  Museum,  I  spent   time   getting   to   know   my  new  community.  I walked down small  side  streets   in   the   town’s   Victorian   center   and   drove   through   mid-century  housing  developments   at   its   edges.   I   saw   certain   things   that I had   no   reference   for;   for  instance,   in  the  evening,   some   houses   would   light   one   (electric)  candle  in  every  window  of  the  house.   I   wondered   if   these   houses   had   lost   family   members   to   recent military   campaigns,   but   there   were   too   many   such   houses   like   this   and   no   base  nearby.   I   began   to   notice   other   details   like   large   rusted   metal   stars   hung   on Edwardian porches  or  sides  of  double-wide   trailer   homes.   I   wondered   what   I was  seeing  here  and  it  dawned  on  me  that  I  was  looking  at  country.

Barn Star

Barn Star

I’m   familiar   with   a different  regional   variation   of   country,  having   grown   up  in   a  small  farming   town  in  Oregon.  McMinnville   had   no   art   museum  and   I   spent   many   afternoons   in  the   public  library  pouring  over  the   sixties-era   Time-Life   art  books   (from   El   Greco   to   the   Pre-Raphaelites!)  absorbing  the  images   into   my   skin.   It   was   not  lost   on   me  that  those   books   bore  Barn   Star  few   references   to   my   small   town  in   the   American   west   and,  conversely,   that   my   town   did   not   see   the   need   to   reflect   the   world   of   art   contained   in  those   books   (outside   the   books   themselves.)   Long   after   I   had   moved   to   the   city   for  art  school  and   a  career   in   museums,   I   held   on   to   the   idea   that   there   was   still   room   in  the   country;   open  spaces   in   the   discourse   between   the   world   of   contemporary   fine  art   and   rural   America   waiting   to   be   explored   through   new  research  and   cultural  projects.   So,   when   the   opportunity   arose   for   me   to   work   in   Lewisburg,   I   came   to   the  country  and  found  that  my  first  puzzle  was  country  itself.

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Imagining wetlands: geography between wet and dry

Artist and UCLan Fine Art MA student, Tracy Hill reflects on her experience of the Nordic Geographers Conference in Estonia.

Imagining wetlands: geography between wet and dry bought together 11 individuals from 6 countries all presenting personal interpretations of wetland research. The session organiser Franz Krause invited papers discussing how people imagine, represent, use and try to change wetlands. The suggestion was that in order for wetlands to support, defy or comply with rapidly expanding communities it is necessary to examine how particular imaginations of wetlands affect these places.

Having begun the session with my interpretations and re-imagining of Chat Moss, a historic lowland peat bog in the UK, I tentatively entered the world of physical and human geography. My observations as both artist and walker offered reflections of the haptic and aesthetic, which invited questions about relationships between scientific data and an artistic outcome.

Through my art I presented the idea that by offering a visual re-interpretation of such liminal spaces we could reconsider perceptions and views beyond our own capabilities. Listening to other presentations it struck me that although speaking from very different disciplines about extremely specific locations we were all connected by the need to reimagine and protect these transient and delicate spaces. The co-existence of the imagined and the real, and the notion that wetlands are challenging uses of space both socially and ecologically dominated many conversations.

Within all the papers presented during this session there was a strong sense of narrative and history. Connections to place through walking and living on the land seemed of paramount importance in order to fully understand the very complex nature of wetlands. Les Roberts portrayed this beautifully during his presentation exploring the spatial anthropology of wetlands: landscape, liminality and cultural memory.

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Re-imagining Rural Mythologies

Between the 15th and 19th June, I attended the Nordic Geographers conference in Estonia, along with two students from the UCLan Fine Art Masters Site & Archive Interventions pathwayTracy Hill and Abi Townsend, as well as my colleagues Joanne Lee and Rosemary Shirley from Sheffield Hallam and Manchester Metropolitan University respectively. Over the course of the week, we recorded our thoughts and observations about the conference (as well as about food, drink and the weather – particularly as I was shocked to discover that Tallinn was wetter than Wigan whilst we were away!), and I will be adding some of these to this blog over the next month.

The theme of the conference was ‘Geographical Imagination: Interpretations of Nature, Art and Politics’, and on the final day, I co-chaired a day-long session entitled ‘Re-imagining Rural Mythologies’, which explored how rural environments are perceived and represented within different cultures. The session was convened with Rosemary Shirley, Joanne Lee and Rebecca Chesney as a development of conversations, which began with this Practising Place event in 2013, and subsequently informed this short essay by Rosemary, and the ‘Re-thinking the Rural’ seminar which we ran in April 2015. The conference also preceded our contribution to the current show at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery in Preston, ‘A Green and Pleasant Land? Rural Life in Art‘, which is open until the end of September and includes new artworks by Rebecca Chesney and Joanne Lee, as well as Abi Townsend’s video installation, ‘Ruskin’s View’.

The conversations and ideas initiated at the conference will help to inform plans that Professor Charles Quick and I are currently developing for the next few years of In Certain Places. For the last decade we have been working with artists to interrogate and intervene within the physical and social fabric of Preston City Centre, and have brought people together from different disciplines and professions to creatively explore urban issues (you can read about the last 10 years of the project in the illustrated book ‘Subplots to a City‘, which was launched in February 2015, and view videos of our talks here). However, while we feel that there is still much work to be done within the asphalt heart of the city (not least in terms of examining the relationship between the University of Central Lancashire’s campus and the wider civic environment – something which we will explore with the People’s Canopy project next month), we also feel that it’s time to expand our horizons and intrepidly head out to Preston’s rural fringes (which, given its diminutive size and market town heritage are remarkably close to the centre).

As I’m currently reading notes which I made during the plane journey back from Tallinn, it seems fitting to sign off with an aerial view. I’ll post again over the next few weeks with some rural reflections from the conference, and upload some of the contributor’s papers. In the meantime, however, I’m going to revisit Andrzej Zieleniec‘s contribution to our panel, ‘Tartan, shortbread, whiskey and the stag: continuing myths of the Scottish Highlands’ with something peaty and strong that evokes the Scottish Highlands.

Elaine Speight

Photo by Tonis Lepp