Growing the arts in South Dakota: A rural cultural center and its unlikely founder

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By Peter Carrels

Nobody imagined that a man like John Sieh could cultivate a deep interest in the fine arts. The art form he’d studied and embraced was the art of grassroots politics. And he was considered a master.

This Brown County, S.D., farmer had spent his adult lifetime advancing populist ideals, and for him that meant defending rural America against hostile corporations, adversarial elected officials and aggressive bureaucrats. Early on he’d been an organizer for the Farmers Union, spending a good deal of time in Kansas. Later, after returning to his family’s farm in northeast South Dakota, he led the rancorous, decade-long fight by farmers and environmentalists against South Dakota’s business and political establishment over the Oahe irrigation project. After he and his cohorts successfully blocked construction of that federal proposal in 1982, he embarked on another campaign; this one helped build an ambitious, history-making pipeline system that now serves people and livestock in a vast region of South Dakota with clean drinking water from the Missouri River. Both victories came against overwhelming odds, and each significantly impacted the political, environmental and social landscape of South Dakota, and to a lesser extent, the West.

Along the way John Sieh pushed hard against anyone who stood in his way. He was smart, stubborn, fearless, and was known as a tough guy who could speak convincingly. When the dust from his political battles finally settled some 15 years ago, he took stock of all he’d done. Certainly, he felt a sense of accomplishment. It was time, he figured, to take a more relaxed, less confrontational approach to his life.

About that time he began to appreciate the paintings his elderly mother was creating. She had painted as a younger woman, put away her brushes and easels while she raised her family and resumed painting years later. “What struck me right away,” recalled Sieh, “was that her interest in painting kept her mind active and alert, and even though she had arthritis in her hands, when she painted she seemed to forget about that.”

Sieh arranged for a showing of his mother’s work at a gallery in Aberdeen, S.D., and he enjoyed hearing positive feedback from the public and artists who viewed her paintings. “She painted ordinary objects that characterize what I call Dakota, and she worked so hard on each painting. But she was doubtful about her skill, in part because she was self-taught, and I wanted her to find out that her paintings had merit,” said Sieh.

After his mother’s art display, Sieh began attending exhibit openings for other artists, and he was surprised at the number of talented painters, sculptors and other artists living in North and South Dakota. He began to understand that art could not only transform an artist’s life, as it had done with his mother, but art could also teach and inspire, making people more sensitive and informed about social issues and values.

As his interest in the arts grew, Sieh gazed across his farmyard at an empty, large wooden granary built in 1928 by his father. The idea of transforming an iconic farm building situated 20 miles from the nearest city into an art gallery seemed unrealistic to just about everyone he talked to, but that was one reason the challenge of doing just that was irresistible to an energized John Sieh.

Within a year or so, thanks to encouragement from an arts professor at Northern State University and design and planning help from a Minneapolis organization named ArtSpace, Sieh had started raising money and attracting labor and material contributions from old political friends and new art friends.

The sturdy granary structure was carefully fashioned into a multiroom, multilevel gallery. The agricultural character of the building, inside and out, was retained. Adjacent to the gallery, a large gazebo was built, an existing grain bin was repaired and painted, and a landscape design for the land surrounding the gallery was proposed by landscape architecture students and faculty from South Dakota State University. To match that plan, trees, native grasses and bushes were planted, creating a park-like setting. Suddenly, there was a small campus, and in 1995 Sieh and others involved in early planning decided to name it The Granary Rural Cultural Center and incorporate it as a not-for-profit organization, using the surviving charter of a defunct South Dakota environmental group Sieh had been part of years earlier.

Benefiting from his grassroots organizing experience, Sieh recruited a talented board of directors to direct and operate the place, and that group attracted a large team of volunteers. Artists were invited to show their work, juried arts competitions with notable awards were held, and visitors began making the trek over gravel roads to discover the great art that was being displayed in this unique, out-of-the-way art gallery.

The event that really boosted the Granary’s regional visibility and reputation was called the All Dakota High School Fine Arts Exhibition. The exhibition was intended to provide high school artists with the opportunity to meet other young artists, to learn from and be mentored by professional artists and teachers, and to showcase their best work in a friendly competition pitting high schools from around North and South Dakota. Participants from up to 27 different schools attend the two-day event, held each May for the past 13 years. Many high school art programs include a trip to the exhibition as an annual tradition for five or six talented students.

“We realized that art programs were being eliminated or condensed at many high schools in both Dakotas, especially high schools in rural areas, and we wanted to help fill that void,” Sieh explained. “We also wanted to provide a competition for young artists similar to the state tournament competitions available to high school athletes.”

The students who gather each spring at the Granary bring their best work for judging, attend numerous workshops put on by leading artists in the region and cooperatively create vibrant, imaginative works, including signage that is found on the Granary grounds.

To expand the campus and provide more indoor space for class settings, meetings and exhibits, the Granary secured an abandoned town hall from a nearby village named Putney. In 1998 Putney Hall was moved to the Granary campus and completely refurbished. With its stage and balcony, the hall is now a vital part of the center.

By 2005 the Granary’s grounds had become mature and were dotted with interesting sculpture. That year Sieh and the Granary board launched their most daring and expensive project. Named “Walk with Dakota,” the plan was to add four pieces of world-class sculpture to the campus. The commissioned pieces would reflect the Granary’s theme: “Respect for the land and the people who live on it.” Two of the pieces would honor the men and women who had settled the prairie. And two of the pieces would honor Native Americans. Board members understood the gravity of their commitment, as it was estimated that each sculpture would cost $50,000 to $60,000, maybe more.

Fundraising kicked off and the Bush Foundation, a Minnesota-based philanthropy, started things rolling. The lion’s share of the monies raised for the first sculpture, however, came directly from long-time Granary donors. Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin was the keynoter for the open house announcing the Walk with Dakota project. At that event the public watched as Granary board members and other invited friends assessed proposals submitted by an array of talented sculptors.

The first piece commissioned, a life-size bronze depicting a farmer standing beside his mailbox, was unveiled last June on the Granary grounds before a large crowd. Artists Lee Leuning and Sherri Treeby created the work, titled “RFD.”

Piece number two is now underway, and concepts are being considered for sculptures three and four. All will be evocative works of art carrying a thoughtful message.

The Granary is one man’s dream that has become a place for the dreams and visions of many. On an autumn afternoon, when an exhibition fills the galleries, there are paintings and drawings of sweeping landscapes with lots of sky or portraits of weather-hardened farmers and ranchers. This is the expected fare. But there are also abstract works and irreverent themes. There are romantic and risqué images as well as political statements. It is a diverse collection of art that mirrors the expanding range of thinking and experience now found on the Northern Plains.

The sculpture and installations located on the grounds also present wide-ranging messages and inferences. There are pieces and intimate places honoring prairie grass, field stone, racial diversity, environmental respect, the railroad, covered wagons, agriculture.

“At the Granary we want people to think and feel and learn,” said John Sieh. “It is not lost on me that the Granary once was a place for crops and food, and now it is a place that feeds our hunger for knowledge, inspiration and creativity.”

 

The Granary is located 20 miles northeast of Aberdeen. To learn more, go to www.granaryfinearts.org.

 

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