Cimarron spent the week of September 10-16th, 2017 with us, immersed in Houston Co. Minnesota's human and physical geography. He traveled to our corner of Driftless Minnesota from Victoria, British Columbia and during his time collected over 80 rich field recordings and images. This is the behind-the-scenes story his aural and visual experience. (Note: we encourage to enjoy this entry with headphones. Most of the recordings were made with a binaural microphone, so there is a great spatial effect when listening through them.)
Greetings! It has been two months since the Driftless welcomed me as the fourth and final inaugural citizen artist in residence. As I write this post, I reflect back and relive my experiences while reviewing the myriad of sounds and images I collected during the week. As I describe the experience with family and friends, one question I am often asked is, “How did you find out about the residency?”
It was a blog with a particular affection for cabins that promoted the call for citizen artists inviting chefs, bloggers, philosophers, and geographers, among other creative types to apply. Geographers! That the Driftless is a glacial refugia made the residency even more intriguing. An opportunity to blend my creative practice and training as a geographer was one I could not let slip by.
The drive from MSP began close to sunset with the wide-open landscape a welcome reminder of my childhood growing up on the Canadian prairies. The full moon was spectacular as I turned off of Interstate 90 and sensed the nose of the vehicle drop into the darkness of the Driftless. I meandered along a gravel road up the side of a bluff to Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge where Erin, Taylor, and a chorus of crickets and katydids welcomed me to the reconstructed hand hewn cabin I would call home.
The following day I partially retraced my travels to meet Whitewater State Park Lead Interpretive Naturalist, Sarah Holger. The daylight revealed the bluffs, farms, and fields of corn. Oh my, plenty of corn! First stop, Baristas, for caffeine to fuel my day. I spent the afternoon hiking along the Middle Fork Whitewater River and other parts of the park making the first of many audio recordings and photographs.
I was keen to explore and experience as much of the region as I could and in doing so, I put more miles on the rental car in a week than I would in a month at home! I marveled at the patterns in the landscape and visited pretty much every town in the region. While exploring the main streets and back lanes capturing sounds and images there were many random chats with curious residents wondering why I was wearing earmuffs in the late summer heat. This was a great springboard for conversations about being a citizen artist and the practice of field recording.
While exploring the streets and back lanes, I was not only in search of images and sounds, but also making observations about rural and small town life. In discussions with local folks, I heard about some of the economic challenges and desire to revitalize Houston. This caused me to reflect on my professional work, which focuses on the built environment; mainly urban, but also rural regions. And although situated in different countries and geographic regions, there are certain parallels of the unique characteristics and challenges facing rural British Columbia. I tend to revisit the same rural areas on Vancouver Island and spending time in the the Driftless inspired me to explore new rural areas of the province on my bucket list.
It was unseasonably hot and humid and I could sense the imminent need to harvest the crops before the weather shifted. It was about the middle of the week when the morning sky draped a foggy blanket across the landscape. Relief from the heat soon followed as rain gently fell, dampening the chorus of cicadas, altering pattern of sound through the forest, and revealing the call and response of birds.
I was pleased to host a meet and greet as well as a field recording workshop, where I made several connections with folks from throughout the Driftless. And although the two events amounted to several hours of engagement, upon reflection, I wish I had more time to get to know people and to spend more time in the field.
Earlier in the week I enjoyed a one-on-one meeting with Karla Bloom of the International Owl Center discussing recording techniques. I visited Ashleigh and Cody Bartz and was inspired by the unique design of their tiny home. I was especially grateful for the invitation to explore Diane and Bets’ sheep farm and to visit with their family over dinner in the outdoor covered porch. I would also meet Sara Holger again later in the week for a tour of Forest Mystery Caves – I’m still very sorry for getting lost and arriving late! Thank you to all of the other folks I met during workshop and throughout the residency!
Depending on the application, I often prefer to not have any evidence of human activity when recording in a natural setting, which is increasingly difficult in the Anthropocene. During the workshop I observed how participants new to field recording were unfazed by the nearby sounds of cars or machinery. This caused me to question my approach and notions of authenticity when making a recording at a given locale. With this in mind, some of the recordings of natural spaces presented in this reflection include the distant drone of vehicles, airplanes, or machinery.
Meeting so many wonderful people was great, but I knew I would regret not spending at least one afternoon at the cabin. After spending a morning with Erin touring her favorite haunts of the Rooster Valley and South Fork, I returned to the cabin to soak in the sounds of Crystal Creek tricking below the back porch and the many sounds of the vibrant forest. I photographed the patina-drenched artifacts and listened to the Beatles and Talking Heads on the turntable. By nightfall, the chorus of crickets and katydids was in full force!
During part of the afternoon at the cabin, I paused collecting sounds and images and sat on the back porch with a cold beer and reflected on the mid-point of the residency. Sometimes the constraint of time forces me to work quickly, but it also does not allow time for exploration and experimentation. A week away from work to be completely immersed in my creative practice was precisely what I needed and the residency delivered.
Despite this, the classic artist’s inner dialogue questioning art and what it means to be an artist crept into my thoughts. But this niggling moment of uncertainty quickly shifted to the desire to review the volume of photos and audio clips and plan for which locales I would explore the following day. I felt I had seen a lot of the region, but knew there was more to explore and there were locales I wished to return to gather more material. I’m not at all superstitious, but the fortune from a cookie at Lotus in Minneapolis put a smile on my face and is attached to my computer monitor as a reminder to stay true to my ‘deep interest in all that is artistic’.
This reflection present but a snippet of the work collected and more will be posted to my website and Tumblr in the coming weeks. I look forward to bringing together the work of my fellow citizen artists for a collaborative capstone event in April 2018. Watch this space!
Although I was able to collect a lot of material, I feel as though my work in the region is not yet complete. Perhaps one day I will return to engage with the fine people of the Driftless and explore locales I was unable to visit this time around.
I especially want to thank Erin, Taylor, and Maple for opening their special cabin on the bluff, and the Houston Arts Resource Council for supporting the residency. Thank you all for participating!
All text, photos, and audio by Cimarron Corpé.
Todd spent the week of August 12-18th in Houston Co. as part of a week-long collaborative residency with his co-CAIR, Melissa Wray. It was an experiment to invite two like-minded applicants--one originally from Houston and the other from Minneapolis--to share this geographic and creative space together. Here is Todd's story:
A couple of weeks before my artist residency’s official beginning, I set off for Houston County, Minnesota to document a rare service at historic Portland Prairie Lutheran Church near Caledonia.
I live in Minneapolis now, but was born in western North Dakota. It rarely rains in my corner of the Great Plains. It’s also flat and possesses a rugged, windswept beauty.
So imagine my surprise — and delight — when I turned off I-90 and pointed my car south toward Houston County. The Sunday morning sun was still low in the sky as my vehicle began to dip gently with the changing topography. I saw hills with a lush countryside populated by bulbous trees. How was it I had been dropped into Grant Wood’s Young Corn?
On arriving in Houston, Wood’s painting receded as I happily encountered remnants from a roadside party. On the west side of the road, empty lawn chairs sat next to a sheet of plywood propped horizontally on top of saw horses. Several red solo cups rested on top of the makeshift table next to a sign reading, “You honk. We drink.”
Those are my kind of people.
So were the worshippers I met inside Portland Prairie. Built in 1876, this country church was built by settlers from New England. On that morning, I recorded the sounds of parishioners singing their favorite hymns. In the beginning, I did this inside, near the pipe organ and a group of first- and second-row participants. Then I moved outside and held my microphone to an open window. The sound was even better, more evocative. Later, I interviewed some of the people who had come for the rare service, including Heidi Whitehurst of suburban Kansas City, Missouri.
The resulting audio story, which aired as part of KFAI’s MinneCulture series, blends the singing of hymns and Heidi’s personal story. Her affection for the place and its people is clear. “This is what we’ll all be doing in heaven,” she says.
Once my residency started, I made my way back to Portland Prairie to take photographs. Yes, I’d snapped off a few on that Sunday morning, but nothing compares to just-before-sunset light. A photographer once told me, "Late afternoon, evening light makes everything look beautiful." As an audio documentary artist who is working to improve his visual storytelling skills, I love getting advice like that. So I returned to 19th century church an hour or so before sunset. As I hoped, the steps were bathed in gold and small bursts of sunlight appeared on its west-facing walls.
Large trees prevented the sunlight from enveloping the entire structure but light peeked through the leaves and created subtle spots of color. I stretched out on the grass for low angles, poked around trees for other views, avoiding straightforward shots. I clicked and hoped.
The graveyard behind the church also attracted sunlight, especially the markers on the northern edge of the church's tiny, secluded lot. One granite headstone had a trickle of sunlight on its corner that seemed to crawl up to the word LAPHAM.
Once inside, the floors creaked as I poked around. Light from the west facing window wasn't streaming into the chapel, but it cast a touch of light on the curved, circular edges of the dark brown pews. Surprisingly, a south facing window allowed just enough light to cast a glow on a hymnal left by a parishioner just days ago.
As the light faded, I pressed the shutter a few more times and quietly returned to the outside world. During my seven days in the area, the reverential time I had alone with a historic building was the most peaceful.
Also memorable, but not at all peaceful, was my time hanging out with bull riders at the Houston County Fair. Before the riders straddled a bull, attempting to hang on for a successful eight-second ride, many bowed their heads in prayer.
The most determined rider I met that night was Kevin Farrell of Austin, Minnesota. Although he’s been riding bulls for four years, Kevin has never hung on for eight seconds. Still, he keeps driving to rodeos and climbing on for another try.
Another person who has never given up is Bertram Boyum of Rushford, Minnesota. Now 99, Bertram grew up speaking Norwegian, attended a one-room schoolhouse, got married and became a farmer. But then he had a change of heart. After volunteering at church auctions, he decided to go to auctioneering school. Today, he’s Minnesota oldest auctioneer.
Since Bertram is a full-blooded Norwegian, I suspected he might know a good Ole and Lena joke. He did not disappoint:
I told him one of my Ole and Lena jokes. Maybe your know it? It’s the one where Ole ends up stark naked on the outskirts of town and Sven asks him why he doesn’t have clothes on. Anyway, as I was telling it to Bertram, I forgot the punchline, which is pretty embarrassing when you’re trying to impress a pro like Bertram.
All photos and audio courtesy of Todd Melby
Melissa spent the week of August 12-18th in Houston Co. as part of a week-long collaborative residency with her co-CAIR, Todd Melby. It was an experiment to invite two like-minded applicants--one originally from Houston and the other from Minneapolis--to accent each other's ideas, fieldwork and production.
Just over a month has passed since the Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge Citizen-Artist Residency, and still I find myself thinking of it on an almost daily basis.
I’m a contextual person, and often when I approach a project or situation, I move through what I like to call my “data-gathering” process. I gather insights, information, and questions from the situation and people involved. Once I spend enough intimate time with this information, I am able to internalize it to some degree. And then once I internalize, I am able to start distilling my thoughts, questions, or decisions from this internal map.
The residency was a week-long data-gathering process for me. I was completely immersed in it, spending 14 hours conducting interviews (not including prep and research) with 16 people (and a handful of pigs), drove around 300 miles in Houston County alone traveling to and from interviews and residency commitments, and visited six different towns (and even more townships) within Houston County. I talked to a wide variety of people including organic hog farmers (hence those pigs I interviewed), a dairy farmer, a pastor, historians, a volunteer firefighter, a journalist, a politician, an organic whiskey distiller, and an owl enthusiast.
Now, that’s a lot of information. But what did I really take away from this experience? Here are a few sentiments that are starting to distill within me as time moves on.
I grew up in Houston County, and visit frequently, so I know many faces, places, and businesses in the area. However, I continually found myself pleasantly surprised throughout the residency, meeting even more people and businesses doing amazing things for community. For example Sweet 16 Farm run by Sarah Joy Wexler-Mann and her partner Daniel Drazkowski. Or Dayna and Nick Burtness Nguyen and their pastured pig farm, Nettle Valley Farm. And then there’s the International Owl Center in Houston, MN. These are just a few of the many amazing people I was able to interview. I feel endlessly lucky that I got to meet and spend time with these individuals and businesses in my hometown county.
This experience was full of many firsts for me. It was my first artist residency from the side of the artist. It was my first community to gather audio from for a podcast I’m hoping to start. Audio is a relatively new art form to me, and I’m entirely self-taught with audio recording and editing. During this residency, I learned so much about the world of audio from my residency collaborator, Todd Melby. He spent time walking me through some audio editing tutorials, gave me tips on interviewing and field work, and talked through some of my podcast ideas with me. I am so grateful to him for teaching me the ways of audio journalism
I’m already pretty passionate about my rural roots in Houston County, and this residency brought that out even more in me. When I look at my hometown county, and other rural areas in Minnesota, I see so much potential. These rural areas are teeming with community builders, creatives, and entrepreneurs doing interesting things; but I’ve found that there is often a lack of support of, communication between, or opportunities for these people and their work. I was raised by parents who instilled in my siblings and I a sense of entrepreneurism and community responsibility. That said, I am now able to see more ways I can add to and support this community: through my upcoming podcast, through my work in the arts, through the experience and connections gleaned from my masters in Arts & Cultural Leadership at the U of MN. Since the residency, I’ve become even more sure that my work in the arts and as a community will greatly revolve around lifting up, highlighting, and supporting the work of rural community builders, artists and entrepreneurs.
This whole project has always been about one main thing for me: community. I am my happiest and most fulfilled when I am a part of something bigger than myself, and for me, that something has always been community. Through this artist residency, I have grown my definition of community. It exists in so many places: churches, families, city government, neighboring farms, swimming groups, school, coffee shops, art studios… we could keep going. Really, the only magic ingredient that community needs is people. People who connect over something, and then through that connection are able to grow and expand their horizons to build something together. Thank you to every single community that welcomed me in during this residency; you make me want to say all the corny, sentimental, and absolutely genuine things, such as this: you have my heart.
And finally: gratitude. I will leave you with this photo and caption that I posted on my last day of the residency, as it still sums everything up:
“Houston County: thank you. Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge Artist Residency: thank you. Mama Nature: thank you. This last week has been inspiring and overwhelming and thought provoking and all I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Harry Graff Kimball
Harry was our inaugural citizen-artist in July 2017. He traveled to Houston, MN from NYC and spent the week of July 16th-22nd with us. This is his personal story about the experience:
Looking back a month after my week in Houston, I feel close and far away. Every day now, I work on recording the songs that I wrote in the Driftless; on figuring out the songs that have since been born out of my experiences driving around southeast Minnesota and meeting people; and on waiting for more songs to arrive, with my conscious help or not. I have a list of what I think they might be, but sometimes you can’t brute force these things. I hope and expect that “Spreading That New York Money Around,” a lyrical fragment that popped into my head the day after I arrived in Houston County, driving around Winona, will come into its own as a song. But maybe it’s a clunker. We’ll see.
I am hearing songs in my head and singing to myself all the time, and in that way Houston is close. The music is the concrete reminder that I was there. The rest of it feels a little like a dream. I have what I think is a good example.
On the Wednesday afternoon into evening I spent in the area, I drove down towards La Crescent along the River. A storm was coming — a big one — and the radio crackled back and forth between the La Crosse station and the independent one in Winona. The light was moving towards spectral, and the National Weather Service thunderstorm warnings started to come through. I’m not sure folks who are used to actually getting warnings can understand how I felt — when I hear those tones, I fully expect it to be followed by, “This is a test. This is only a test.”
I expect that every time. I don’t know what sort of thunderstorm to expect when the radio is telling me to get off the road. I found out. I sat out on the porch at Crystal Creek and watched the trees sway unbelievably in the wind as the water just kept coming down. The thunder was like…I could only compare it to other things I haven’t experienced. Honestly, right now, searching for a reference, the first thing that popped into my head was “artillery.” The second was “terrible, awesome music.” And the third is the song “Tupelo” by Nick Cave, about the Mississippi thunderstorm that ushered Elvis Presley into the world.
The day before I had hit on the idea of the rain and flood as central to the Root River communities and the Mississippi experience. I’d thought I’d write about it. I still haven’t, not really. To be charitable to myself, I think I am still processing that storm. I understand its importance, its reality along with its symbolic weight, but I can’t make it into a concrete thing yet. It exists as yet in the dream of my week in the Driftless.
I am terrified of forgetting that dream. That fear and some feeling of duty is why I wrote up a storm when I was at the cabin — three songs in just a few days. It’s a lot for me. I respect and value those songs—they are eager, full of wonder, full of me.
What I am hoping will come to me, will allow me to write them, are songs that are wise, full of terror and joy, and full of the people I got to meet so briefly. I think it’s possible that I will forget some of the crisp edges of my experience, but there is depth to be gained in remembering, and so I wait for little signals.
Right now I am sitting with a song about a farmer I met on my last night in Houston. He showed me around the place, I met his family, I got a sense of the different times that had passed. The song is probably done, but I haven’t yet had that moment where I know it’s done — so it remains unfinished for now.
The first verse goes like this — for now!
When we quit pigs
We had a lot more time
We had a lot more space
We had a few more dimes
To rub together underneath the open sky
I farm the valley
Others farm the ridge
This shelterin’ valley
Helped to raise my kids
Now my daughter’s moving back across the road