SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing is a collaborative work of art and an ongoing conversation between artists Francesca Fiore and Hillary Wagner and the rural Appalachian community of Bethel, OH. A dynamic set of relationships between artists, community members, agricultural producers, local organizations, academics, and policy-makers, 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 working together with residents to ask new questions, imagine new possibilities, and create the conditions necessary to weave and maintain an intricate and expansive web of relationships.
Bethel and Appalachia
Bethel is a village with approximately 3,000 inhabitants located in rural Southwestern Ohio. The image above positions Bethel within the region of Appalachia as it was understood by the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1967. However, it is important to note that the ARC and its maps were created during the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, and according to Elizabeth Catte in What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, the ARC “still exists (if precariously, at the moment) to monitor and create economic development within the region.” Despite the clearly defined borders of the Appalachia pictured above, Appalachia remains a loosely defined cultural region. As Catte reminds us, “Appalachia is, often simultaneously, a political construction, a vast geographic region, and a spot that occupies an unparalleled place in our cultural imagination.” 
This was certainly true during the 2016 presidential election when the region was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, becoming the subject of numerous articles and think pieces about “Trump Country” and the people who inhabit it. This is the context in which Francesca and Hillary initiated conversations toward SOIL SERIES. In the fall of 2016 as tensions flared 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 a shared belief in art’s capacity to promote empathy and engender new possibilities emerged as a basis for their collaboration. Looking to the history of socially engaged art, they began to imagine the new forms socially engaged praxis might take in the context of present day rural America.
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. 
Watch the video above for a comprehensive tour of Clermont and Brown Counties by Hillary’s grandfather, Richard W. Lail (I like the way you tell it).
The issue of most concern to Bethel residents in 2016 was the emergency operating levy on the ballot for Bethel’s local school district. Finding itself in a 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 felt the urgency of the situation, knowing from her own experience growing up in Bethel the scarcity of cultural and intellectual opportunities. Although the levy ultimately passed by a narrow margin of 28 votes (the stopgap measure is only expected to sustain the district until 2022) , Francesca and Hillary were spurred to action and in June of 2017 they relocated to Bethel to initiate SOIL SERIES.
Bethel and Soil
SOIL SERIES is the title of the social drawing. It refers to soil taxonomy: a soil series is a group of similar soils and is often named for the place from which the soils are derived. For Francesca and Hillary the term indexes fundamentality, continuousness, and place.
SOIL SERIES is about a deep commitment to and love of place. Francesca and Hillary felt that in order to truly understand and engage the place, they had to begin with the soil and its relationship to the area’s agricultural history. At the same time they were taking steps to ensure a healthy and horizontal collaboration with the residents of Bethel, crafting their Code of Ethics before taking any action in the community. Out of their thinking about soil and their initial conversations with community members, emerged a driving concept of nourishment: cultural, intellectual, physical, and otherwise. What would a more nourished Bethel look like? What steps were needed to achieve holistic and sustainable community health?
Partnering with a local non-profit, Empower Youth, in the summer of 2017, Francesca and Hillary had the opportunity to intervene on the organization’s recently acquired 15-acre ranch. Together with a group of Empower Youth’s interns and volunteers they renovated a space in one of the ranch’s barns as a site for investigating this concept of community nourishment through thinking and making. The Barn Studio is now home to SOIL SERIES‘s free public art programming, Community Studio, which invites participants to reconnect with local traditions and imagine new and radical futures for Bethel. Projects carried out in Community Studio utilize materials sourced directly from the ranch: from the ranch’s soil to the clay in the creek to objects found in the scrap heap. The program not only results in artwork that reflects the place and its people, but also creates the conditions for new relationships to develop, expanding the social drawing and strengthening community networks.
As it continually responds to the community and its needs, SOIL SERIES is fluid in its forms and methodologies. Looking ahead, Francesca and Hillary hope to develop programming that intersects art with agriculture and draws from the area’s rich history to find new forms for addressing the food insecurity crisis. Stay tuned by following SOIL SERIES on Facebook and Instagram, or subscribe to our mailing list.
Catte, Elizabeth. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. Belt Publishing, 2018.
Francesca Fiore is an artist from Pennsylvania whose process-based work explores familial intimacy, history, and failed systems of memory through research, pedagogy, 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.
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.
Matthew Kosinski is our resident poet and editor. Matt is from New Jersey and 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. Read Matt’s poetic contributions to the project here.