Farm/Art DTour aims to foster art and agriculture

Jan Shepel
Three women artists – Sheila Novak, Emilie Bouvier and Crysten Nesseth, corresponded with Sauk County residents to create images and words that they transferred to banners via cyanotype, where the sun prints the fabric. Their art installation, called Fluvial was strung along Honey Creek in Sauk County during the recent Farm Art DTour.

SAUK COUNTY – It was an event tailor-made for social distancing – a 50-plus mile guided road trip through the scenic working farmland of Sauk County, marked on a map with roadside poetry, wisdom and explanations about farming and temporary art installations.

The “Farm/Art DTour” was part of the Wormfarm Institute’s “Fermentation Fest,” which ran from September 26 through October 4. Because of Covid-19, all the in-person classes that normally run as part of the event were cancelled as were other parts of the event that require close contact.

But the eighth annual “agri/cultural” excursion went on as planned. It was a free ride past beautiful farmsteads and rolling cropland of Sauk County for those who wanted to venture outside. It was an opportunity to explore large art installations on farmland, created by artists from all over the country. Organizers said this year’s art tour involved a new route, punctuated by “site-responsive” artwork.

Hundreds of cars were on the road for the final day of the Farm/Art DTour October 4 – one of the only days during its run when the weather was sunny. Sauk County officials put out traffic counters to assess the amount of traffic generated by the event. A casual survey of license plates by this reporter showed visitors came from as far away as Florida, Massachusetts, Illinois and California.

Chris Zaph and several friends did parts of the DTour on each day of the final weekend of the event, camping nearby and even though it was chilly at night, enjoyed the overall experience. “We have been to three of them in the past and wanted to experience it again. While we were camping we heard owls calling back and forth to each other. People in the country take that kind of thing for granted,” she told us.

Crystal Hoecherl, also from Milwaukee, added that they enjoyed some of the offshoot experiences along the route, like a hike at the Natural Bridge State Park, which was on the route, and an attraction like a religious shrine that was pointed out along the DTour route.

Philip Matthews is director of programs as Wormfarm Institute and notes that this was the eighth year for the DTour event. It had been held annually through 2016 and has been biennial since then -- the next opportunity for visitors to do the farm art drive will come in 2022.

Contacted a few days after the event closed, he said they were still awaiting the road count figures from Sauk County, but he and others estimated that they had had about 22,000 cars travel the route over the nine days of the event. “We got a lot of positive responses from people who felt good getting out, in the context of Covid-19. They told us there were happy and relieved to get out.

“The vendors and others where people got out of their cars to interact – listen to poetry or shop from roadside pop-ups and stands – told us that everyone was very respectful of keeping their distance and wearing masks.”

An artwork called Cloud was appropriately placed on top of a farm’s steep hilltop and was deemed “Instagram-popular” by many who attended the recent Farm Art DTour in Sauk County, including these three attendees. Virginia artist Charlie Brouwer used 100 ladders he had been given by a cherry orchard owner to create the work, which was installed on land owned by Nathan Brickl.

Feedback from performers and poets was also positive, Matthews said. “One person of color from an urban setting was nervous about coming and didn’t know what the reception would be, but ended up being moved and felt supported. This coming together of urban and rural neighbors was a lovely thing to behold.”

The tour is designed to explore connections to the land and offered roadside poetry – spaced out on successive signs along the road – educational field notes regarding agriculture and for those who wanted to mask up and get our of their cars, they could shop at roadside stands and local farm-based businesses. Cedar Grove Cheese, normally closed on Sundays, stayed open for visitors who flocked to buy locally made cheese.

The local cheese factory, roadside stands selling pumpkins and other farm produce were a draw for Jenny Abel, who also came from Milwaukee to drive through scenic Sauk County for the weekend.

Matthews said the local businesses who participated in the event “raved about the DTour.” One farmer, selling autumnal decorations sold out before the event ended and had to switch to Christmas-themed décor items.

One of the pop-up shopping spot featured ten artists, who have been hard hit by the Covid-19 crisis, selling their original work. Together they sold $16,000 in items to help them get through these hard times, he said.

The art installations also drew rave reviews from those who were asked, Matthews said. “They really began to engage with the art works.” The beginning of the process that brings these works to the event is an open call for idea submissions in late winter followed by winnowing from a jury of regional art professionals. Finalists are selected and they then refine their proposals.

Epithelium, referencing the layers of cells found in plants and animals, was one of the art installations on an organized Farm Art DTour held in Sauk County last week. The artist, Peter Krsko formerly hailed from eastern Europe, but after his first experience with the DTour, he was so taken with Sauk County that he moved there. He built his art on land owned by farmers Todd and Sue Statz. It is also the site of a former one-room school house that burned to the ground in the 1950s.

While the art jury doesn’t advise the artists on their concepts, these artists are told to consider the scale of their works when it comes to having them placed on the land.

One artist, Pete Krsko, who built a piece called Epithelium for this year’s tour, lived in eastern Europe when he had his first piece in the DTour. Matthews said that he was so smitten with the area after that experience, that he has since moved to Wonewoc, in Sauk County.

Another installation was Cloud which turned out to be very “Instagram-popular”, Matthews said. The artist, Charlie Brouwer, from Willis, Virginia, used 100 wooden ladders that had been gifted to him from the owner of a cherry orchard. Since getting those ladders, the artist has used them to create different sculptural iterations in art shows across the country. Here, he was assisted by two Sauk County house painters in setting up the artwork.

The work called Fluvial was created by three artists, Sheila Novak from Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts, Emilie Bouvier and Crysten Nesseth, both from Minneapolis. It featured 70-80 original banners that were cyano-printed, using the sun’s energy to create the images. The artists communicated with a number of Sauk County residents and layered the local stories and images into their artwork, displaying the stream of blue banners along Honey Creek. Matthews said the artists are hoping to gift or sell some of the banners to local residents so they can remain in the area.

Signs throughout the event and at every stop or art installation, offered an agricultural measurement for Covid-19 precautions -- “for social distancing keep one cow apart.”

Donna Neuwirth, executive director of Wormfarm Institute, wrote that the event is designed to “speak to the abundance that the land provides, and ask that we are first curious and then care deeply about farmers, history and land that sustains us.”

She noted that the DTour takes place “in a swing county, in a swing state” one month before the Presidential election. “Though we too often perceive ourselves divided, our futures and fortunes are inextricably (if sometimes invisibly) linked along the rural-urban continuum. The knee bone is indeed connected to the thighbone.”

The Farm Art DTour, she noted, was created as a precious opportunity for festivity and fresh air, and as another artist noted, it is an excuse or a framework to look at the sky and the landscape and take it all in.

Neuwirth said the DTour draws attention to the importance of what farmers do everyday and reminds us of the culture embedded in agri-culture. “It’s a glimpse into the land’s geologic and human history and an invitation to come closer,” she noted.

There are numerous partners who help make the project a success, including Art Works, Design Works, EFA (a family foundation), Rural Urban Flow, Grassland 2.0, Kraemer Brothers (a large construction company headquartered in Plain), Local Voices Network, McFarlanes’, Village of Plain, River Arts Inc., Sauk County, Sauk Prairie Area Chamber of Commerce, UW Extension, Wisconsin Arts Board, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Wisconsin Humanities Council and Wisconsin Public Radio.

Funding for the projects involved came from grants from: the National Endowment for the Arts, the Educational Foundation of America, the Sauk County Arts and Culture committee, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and the Wisconsin Humanities Council.