“The scariest thing I can think of is staying in Bethel” — the thought crossed my mind in a moment of uncanny clarity. And then immediately after: “Now that I have consciously recognized this fear, will I have to confront it?”
A depressed, misunderstood high schooler in tiny Bethel, Ohio, I saw everything around me as a dead end. What could I ever achieve while trapped in such a small dot on the map? People change the world in other places.
I graduated (finally) from high school, and I did escape three hours north to central Ohio to go to college. After that, I left for Parsons School of Design in New York City to earn my graduate degree. It felt like the art world, and the world at large, were opening up to me. Possibility!
But, oddly, the only thing I could think of was my great-grandparents’ dairy farm. I couldn’t rattle the image from my brain — that tiny farm of no more than 50 Holstein cows nestled right in between the tiny towns of Bethel, Hamersville, and Felicity. My great grandparents’ lives, only a few generations ago, were in such stark contrast to what my life was becoming. Could they have even pointed out New York on a map?
New York City, 2015-2017–
Experiencing the culture of New York and having distance between myself and the place I had known my entire life caused me to see things differently. I had always deeply valued my heritage, but I also never thought it was anything especially interesting. I also used to see any presence of the overtly personal in my art as being at odds with the universality for which I strove. This all changed.
Always driven by material investigation, I started experimenting with organic materials such as dirt, salt, sand, and plants, seeking to understand something elemental about the earth and my life. Although some of this new work made myself and others uncomfortable, I was encouraged by my good friend and studio partner, Francesca Fiore, whose family’s history as Italian immigrants in the New Jersey area starkly contrasted with my family’s generational relationship to their farmland. Through our conversations, I began to realize the significance of my family’s long history in the Midwest, dating back to the early 1700’s.
A feeling of great responsibility to my home and my family’s farming past grew in me. Making my work became an effort to heal the alienation I felt from my family’s agrarian past, a way of life that seemed lost to me. In my work, I was trying to uncover the system of ethics that informed that way of life. To think more deeply about this and what I consider to be the artfulness of agriculture, I looked to poet, essayist, novelist, environmental activist, and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry.
In Unsettling America, Berry speaks of a “model nurturer” as an “old-fashioned idea or ideal of a farmer” in that the nurturer is motivated by love – a love for and a desire to serve “land, household, community, and place.” Berry says “the nurturer’s goal is health — his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s.” The nurturer is characterized by a wish “to work as well as possible” and defined further by a concern for “a human order … that accommodates itself to other order and to mystery.”
The values that Berry describes in his writing are the values I believe defined my family’s daily lives in the past on the farm. I also believe that these values continue to define the artfulness of my family’s everyday lives, which stem from our agricultural past. Consequentially, these values define my aspirations in artmaking. I believe in an ethic of nurture and in kindness, thoughtfulness, stewardship, hard work, mystery, and love in life and art.
For my thesis project, I shifted to working with milk. I considered this piece, titled For Clyde and Anna Lee, as a kind of elegy or a letter from myself to my great-grandparents, full of longing. I feel a responsibility to the past, but more than that responsibility, I am motivated by a sincere desire to navigate the ethical concerns of my life through a process of artmaking that is aligned with the values I inherited from my family. The act of making this thesis work helped to build in me a greater respect for myself and a greater pride in my home.
However, as my home became more a part of my work, my loyalty to and respect for the people in Bethel conflicted with my new life in the metropolitan northeast. I felt strung up and suspended between worlds, both of which I understood and loved. The day of the election itself left me reeling. I sobbed a puddle on Francesca’s studio floor, feeling unmoored and disconnected, while simultaneously worried about my hometown. The national divide was painful enough, but I was also was broken-hearted over the possibility that the school levy in Bethel might not pass, ripping away any limited access to the arts that children in my hometown had. Francesca picked me up, and we found ourselves, as usual, at a diner. We felt desperate to do something. It was during that meal that Francesca first said to me, “We need to go to Bethel.”
Bethel has changed since I was last here in 2010. In this past decade, industry has waned and poverty, hopelessness, boredom, and opioids have set in. This shift has ignited in the community a fear for both the youth and the future of the town, which in turn has caused some community members to begin moving with urgency. Organizations like Empower Youth have sprung up in the last few years to, as their website says, “partner with children and youth in hopes of instilling in them the confidence and resources needed to break through the chains of generational poverty.” Nothing like this organization existed when I was still living in Bethel. When I called my parents to tell them I was coming home, I was surprised that they immediately told me to contact Empower Youth. That is how we — Francesca, her husband Matt, and myself — came to work alongside Scott and Lori Conley. (Learn more about our project here.)
Late afternoon on June 4th, 2017–
We arrived at my childhood home in Bethel during the afternoon and set straight to work. Despite my convictions about coming to Bethel, I was still apprehensive, not knowing what to expect. However, in the short time we have been here, I have had even more deeply impressed upon me the importance of having pride in who I am and where I am from. I’ve stopped running from Bethel. For the first time, I have begun to truly believe in this place and its prosperity. There is no reason to be ashamed or insecure about being from Bethel. It is beautiful here. I need to believe this, and the people we are working with here need to believe this, too. In some cases, it is life or death.
Hillary Wagner is an artist from Bethel, Ohio, a village in Clermont County where her family farmed for generations. She received her MFA in Fine Arts from Parsons School of Design and a BA in Fine Arts from Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She primarily works in sculpture and installation, but also in video, sound, photography, text, and drawing. Driven by a strong relationship to materiality, her work deals with questions of origin and place, memory and labor, stewardship and nurture; and how these concerns intersect with her feelings of alienation and displacement.