About

SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing is a collaborative work of art and an ongoing conversation between artists Francesca Fiore and Hillary Wagner, poet Matthew Kosinski, and the rural Appalachian community of Bethel, OH. Establishing social drawing as a methodology for socially engaged artistic practice, SOIL SERIES is a dynamic set of relationships between artists, community members, agricultural producers, local organizations, academics, and policy-makers. These relational networks aim to address community crises through the generative juncture of community resources and artistic practice.

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An early map of the SOIL SERIES social drawing in process. (Hillary Wagner, September, 2017.)

Social Drawing

SOIL SERIES is a drawing in the most expansive sense. As it creates the conditions for new conversations and relationships within the community and without, each new connection becomes a dynamic line in a relational web. This relational web, or social drawing, is the generative engine for community-initiated social change.

Francesca and Hillary developed social drawing as a methodology for community-based praxis rooted in a deep understanding of place. Social drawing builds upon Joseph Beuys’s theory of social sculpture, which emerged out of lectures he performed in the 1970s. Beuysian social sculpture imagines all of society as one immense work of art similar to the Wagnerian “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “total work.” Beuys believed in art’s capacity to transform societal conditions through individual participation in the collective total work, insisting that the work of an artist is not a specialized profession but a way of conducting one’s life. Asserting the fundamentally democratic nature of creativity, Beuys famously declared (borrowing from German Romantic poet, Novalis), “everyone is an artist,” illustrating his belief that the power of universal human creativity had the potential to bring about revolutionary change.

Modifying Beuys’s theory of social sculpture to operate at the scale of a community such as Bethel, social drawing builds upon existing community networks to identify and develop new pathways toward health, knowledge, resources, and support. Where social sculpture imagines a utopian work of art to which all of humanity contributes, social drawing emerges from within a community, taking into account its specific needs and concerns and prioritizing the cultivation of trust between artist(s) and community members through horizontal partnerships. The act of drawing in this context becomes the act of connecting. Lines emerge as linkages between significant sites and actors, with each new line following the logic of pre-existing community relationships and building upon extant networks. The result is an organically cultivated web of self-sustaining community nourishment. As in Beuys’s social sculpture, contributors to the drawing need not identify as artists, nor is the path of the drawing dictated by artists. Rather, artists act as facilitators, asking new questions, imagining new possibilities, and creating the conditions necessary to weave and maintain an intricate and expansive web of relationships.

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Note from Ramp Hollow by Steven Stoll: “Appalachia as drawn by the Appalachian Regional Commission, 1967. The ARC offered the widest possible geographical definition of Appalachia, but few historians consider all of western Pennsylvania and any part of New York to be included. There are no generally accepted criteria for what constitutes Appalachia. The region is best understood historically, not geographically or geologically.” [1] (Bethel is marked in red.)

Bethel

Located in rural Southwestern Ohio, the village of Bethel has a population of around 3,000. Like many Appalachian communities, Bethel suffers from widespread disinvestment and eroding economic opportunity. Bethel was historically home to small family-operated subsistence farms, but shifting cultural values and mounting financial pressures have driven many agricultural producers to cede their lands to larger operations. Increasingly, Bethel residents find employment outside the village in low-wage retail and service occupations. While many storefronts on Bethel’s Main Street remain empty, a perimeter of fast food restaurants and dollar stores thrives. Climbing poverty and unemployment rates, coupled with a breakdown of the ecosystem of intimate relationships once necessitated by life in an agricultural community, have fueled cultural and economic disenfranchisement, rising food insecurity, and a staggering opioid epidemic. [2]

Watch the video below for a comprehensive tour of Clermont and Brown Counties by Hillary’s grandfather, Richard W. Lail (I Like the Way You Tell It).

As the presidential election in the fall of 2016 caused tensions to flare across the country, Hillary, a Bethel native, was thinking more deeply about her home and heritage while completing her MFA at Parsons School of Design. She shared her thoughts with Francesca, a colleague at Parsons, and the two began an ongoing dialogue which illuminated points of intersection and departure between their disparate lived experiences. These conversations proved especially valuable against the backdrop of national tumult, and recognizing their shared belief in art’s capacity to promote empathy and engender new possibilities, the two began discussing ways in which a community like Bethel might use thoughtful artistic practice to navigate through its mounting crises.

Of particular concern was an emergency operating levy on the ballot for Bethel’s local school district. Finding itself in an precarious financial situation, the Bethel-Tate district was forced to confront the possibility of deep budget cuts if the increase in tax funding was not passed. The proposed cuts threatened arts programming, gifted education, and student transportation, among other services. Hillary was heartsick for the Bethel-Tate students, remembering the obstacles she had faced as a curious and creative child growing up in Bethel, and together she and Francesca started brainstorming how they might be able to help. Although the levy ultimately passed by a narrow margin of 28 votes, the stopgap measure is only expected to sustain the district until 2022 [3], and in June of 2017 Francesca, Matt (her husband), and Hillary relocated to Bethel to initiate SOIL SERIES.

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Documentation of Community Studio artists collaboratively painting a map of Bethel with earth pigments sourced from the soil on the Empower Youth Ranch, Bethel, OH.

Art and Agriculture

“The state of the land – the state of soil – directly affects the health and resilience of societies,” David Montgomery writes in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (p. xi). [4]

Montgomery’s ideas about the essential bond between soil and life – “the dynamic interface between geology and biology, the bridge between the dead world of rock and the bustling realm of life” (p. x) – became vitally important to Francesca and Hillary as they prepared to engage Bethel’s agricultural history as part of SOIL SERIES‘s commitment to place. In fact, they derived the project’s name from soil classification terminology, appreciating the term for its continuousness and its fundamentality.

What Montgomery describes as the systematic devaluation and exploitation of soil brought on by modern agricultural practices mirrors the alienation and disenfranchisement of agricultural communities, which Wendell Berry attributes to the rise of agribusiness (see The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture). Berry champions traditional farming as an essentially intimate, cooperative, and artful endeavor–one that has historically relied on and even produced healthy, interconnected communities.

In The Unsettling of America, Berry writes, “There is an inescapable kinship between farming and art, for farming depends as much on character, devotion, imagination and the sense of structure, as on knowledge. It is a practical art” (p. 87). [5] Francesca and Hillary believe deeply in a kinship between art and agriculture, citing a shared intimacy with the material world, a necessary curiosity, and the pursuit of specialized knowledge. Both the artist and the grower must labor and nurture in equal measure to arrive at their intended end, which, in both cases, is nourishing and necessary.

Looking to the intersection of art and agriculture as a way toward holistic health for the community of Bethel, Francesca and Hillary have implemented programming that reconnects local residents to Bethel’s agricultural past using artistic methods. Their Community Studio Program on the Empower Youth Ranch combats cultural isolation in the community, offering participants a safe place to explore new ideas and creative possibilities while fostering a deep engagement with place through making. Looking ahead, Francesca, Hillary, and Matt are developing new partnerships and programming that both directly and indirectly address agriculture, as they work together with the community to further explore Appalachian traditions of creative ingenuity and resourcefulness in service of a more sustainable future.

[1] Stoll, Steven. Ramp Hollow the Ordeal of Appalachia. Hill and Wang, 2017.

[2] Information on Bethel trends and demographics was obtained through conversations with residents and verified at “Demographics | Clermont County.” Economic Developmentwww.clermontcountyohio.biz/site-selection/demographics/.

[3] Vilvens, Sheila. “Final Count: Bethel-Tate School Levy Wins by 28.” Cincinnati.com, 22 Nov. 2016, www.cincinnati.com/story/news/local/community-news/2016/11/22/betheltateschools/94288566/.

[4] Montgomery, David R. Dirt: the Erosion of Civilizations. University of California Press, 2012.

[5] Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. Counterpoint, 2015.

 

SOIL SERIES Artists

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Francesca Fiore is an artist from Pennsylvania whose process-based work includes research, performance, video, installation, and text. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from Parsons School of Design and received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. Her hybrid visual/poetic projects explore familial intimacies, representations of memory, history, and the unfolding of time.

https://francescafiore.net/

 

cutmypic (1)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.

http://hillarywagner.com

 

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Matthew Kosinski is a poet from New Jersey. He holds an MFA from The New School. His work deals with appropriated text, stock photography, religion and myth, the convergence of image and object, socioeconomic disenfranchisement, and manufactured desires. He is SOIL SERIES‘s editor and resident poet. Read Matt’s poetic contributions to the project here.

http://matthewkosinski.com/

 

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