Farmers are the artists of rural America

Saturday, July 6, 2024
William Northcutt is a writer for the State Gazette and former Professor of English at Dyersburg State

As an amateur photographer eager to learn, I take photos of other artists’ work: architecture and the fields of our local artists, farmers. Our farmers take a piece of land, sow seeds, and the land becomes a work of art. Seeing rows and rows of soybean, cotton, or corn often makes me stop my truck, grab the camera, and start snapping because the sight fills my lens with artfully designed beauty.

Sure our farmers are heroes for supplying the world with soybean, cotton, corn, and the resulting products. (I detest synthetic clothing materials, and I have this romantic notion that my cotton shirts and pants began in the fields of West Tennessee.) Farmers today contribute to the environment with anti-erosion methods such as no-till farming. Their contributions to our daily lives are immeasurable.

But I would also argue that just as we recognize great gardeners for the beauty of their flowers and manicured bushes and plants, we should be grateful to our farmers for what they add to the beauty of our region. Even further, I would argue that are farmers are inadvertent landscape artists whose landscapes are not only realistic: they are real.

Landscape painters have noticed that beauty inherent in the farmers’ fields. Van Gogh’s last painting is known as Wheatfield with Crows, and he used farming as a theme for many of his paintings. One of the most striking is The Sower, in which a farmer sows seeds in furrows against a brilliant sunrise and a field of corn or wheat. Renaissance Flemish painter Breughel often used farmscapes, often peopled with peasants. Even his most famous painting, Icarus Falling depicts a farmer plowing the land. And Grant Wood, known best for his painting of the old farming couple, he with a pitchfork, she in a bonnet, standing stoically together, painted farmscapes in deceptively simplistic styles.

Painters have spent endless hours painting these rustic masterpieces because farmlands spoke to them in ways that they speak to photographers these days.

I’m not saying that Farmer John or Farmer Jane wakes up, looks at a field, and says, “Ah today I shall rival Michealangelo and paint my masterpiece upon the Earth.” I’d wager that many farmers find the fields beautiful too, but I bet they’re also thinking in practical terms about how to make those fields healthy and productive. Farmers have to earn their money. And so do artists of any kind. Farmers might not think of themselves as artists, but they are.

We see art in photos of people, photos of untrammeled nature, of cityscapes, of architecture, but photos of farm-art is just as artful as those pictures of other subjects. “But,” you might say, “You’re just taking a photo of something someone else has made.” That’s essentially true, but remember, art is always a choice—you choose which angle to paint or photograph. You have, usually, a square or rectangle of space, and what you choose to fill it with is your vision of that particular thing or idea.

So is the farmer’s field their art or my art? It is both. The many among you who are believers will say, “The land is God’s art.” Well then, God’s art becomes the farmer’s art, becomes the painter/photographer’s art.

What good is it to turn a crop covered fields into art? In this case and only in particular cases (art actually has so many uses), it allows us to slow down and see the details of the world. When you slow down and look at a farmer’s rows or a photo or painting of them, you are “stopping to smell the roses” (or corn?). You are eating food for the heart and mind.

Look at a farm as art, and you will see that the farmer is feeding you with sustenance for your soul, clothing you with comforting materials of beauty. Photographers and painters are mediators who can share what farmscapes give to them.

All praises to the farmers and their lands of inspiration, for farmers are the artists of the Earth.