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Stories of Wisconsin farmers told in unique traveling art gallery

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
A sneak peek of the 'a life. from dirt.' traveling art gallery.

The experiences of Wisconsin farming families are now being told through photography in a traveling exhibit called 'a life. from dirt.'

Bill Mitchell, president of the Rountree Gallery in Platteville, said the exhibit is open now through September 2 and will travel to different galleries throughout the state. He said the project started as a collaboration between photographer Pete Curran and former president of the gallery Nancy Collins during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, which has had drastic effects on Wisconsin's agriculture industry.

"COVID-19 affected the country and disrupted our food supply chain," Mitchell said. "Drastic changes in buying behavior resulted in most people finding empty store shelves. Yet, farmers were still working every day, where production of our food supply remained consistent."

Curran has done photography work highlighting Wisconsin farmers on his Facebook page, "When I listened to a farmer," which chronicles the stories of farmers and celebrates the work they do. Curran said he was approached in March this year to work on a project with the gallery that would bring farming work to life. The show features photos of 10 families and other art installations covering every aspect of farming life, focusing on themes of family, tradition and hard work. 

"Visitors of the show will see a pictorial message and a physical Wisconsin ag career resource guide that can be shared with young students as a celebration of the resilient history of Wisconsin agriculture and a rewarding career possibility," Curran said.

Jessi and Nate Twardokus' wedding bench sit just outside the exhibit.

Jessi and Nate Twardokus, a dairy farmer couple from Mayville, also star in the art exhibit. The recently married farmers have a bench, a wedding gift from their parents, sitting outside the exhibit where people are encouraged sit on it, take a photo and offer some marriage advice. Jessi said the exhibit makes makes it clear that dairy farmers like her are a daily part of American lives.

"For our story to be told through pictures and not just words gives us a great feeling of being an essential part of everyone’s daily life," Jessi said. "Not only are people able to read about the journeys and work we put into the agriculture industry, but they are also able to have a visual of the people working to put food on the table."

Collins, who was also gallery director before leaving the gallery, had grown up on a farm and wanted to showcase the farming life, especially in how it was affected by the coronavirus pandemic. She said after experiencing the 1980s farm crisis and this current crisis, she wants to inspire the next farming generation.

"It was awful to endure those bankruptcy auctions choosing between increasing your own odds of survival or taking a chance on the work ethic and survival instinct of another fellow farmer," Collins said. "I am very excited that this exhibit will travel the area and hopefully inspire a new generation of farmers."

Mitchell said the exhibition follows the gallery's mission of creating, appreciating and educating. He said the hope is to give the public a chance to learn more about agriculture and "connect to the farm life," especially because there is a diverse array of types of farms included in the project.

"It's using visual language to communicate the story of these farmers," Mitchell said. "These prints are really big and almost life-size, so in some of these cases you're looking at these pictures of these farmers right in the face."

Steve Soldner, a grain farmer from Waterloo who is featured in the exhibit, said he hopes the gallery will help connect urban and rural people. The gallery helps emphasize the importance of family, accomplishments and patriotism in his life, he said, and hopes Curran can continue to spread stories like his.

"Agriculture is the foundation for America," Soldner said. "What's done in cities and stuff wouldn't be possible without us providing the raw materials from agriculture. ... It's amazing how agriculture does touch so much of the economy."

Mitchell said the gallery in Platteville will be open until September 2, and the Rountree Gallery's hours are Thursday and Friday 4-8 pm and Saturday 10 am to 2 pm. The traveling exhibit is also looking for temporary homes across Wisconsin, so if your gallery is interested in hosting, please contact them on their website.