In a time of political upheaval around the world, in a time of economic downturn in this country, in a time of major social change, America sits at a precipice. In many ways the heritage of our country is under attack and in some ways it is being revived. Let’s consider for a moment one area that is seeing change for the better.
I think of the movement toward consumption of locally grown foods that is sweeping the nation as an example of one of the positive cultural movements. Some of you may have seen the recent program on NET Television, “Home Fields: Digging into Local Foods,” which presented the trend’s positive and negative outcomes. It is estimated that in 2012, local food commodities will be a $7 billion industry, up $3 billion since 2002. Organic foods, farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture are all hot trends that point to the larger themes of the sustainability of society and sustainability of the land.
Where our food comes from is an important component of a much larger movement toward agrarianism. The word agrarian is a broad term, pertaining to lands, fields and their tenure. America has a long history of hard-working citizens carving out a life for themselves and their families, relying on and thriving from the fruits of the land. Fresh, healthy food is at the surface of a much deeper value system staked in the free market and honest hard work.
In 1976 President Gerald Ford said, “I think we all recognize that America’s future depends on American farmers. Our national heritage was created by farmers… Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act which embodied our fundamental belief in the importance of the family farm. Lincoln was so right … a man with a stake in his own land is a free man. His family is a free family and together the family farm is the basis of our free society.”
Nebraska has its origins in the Homestead Act of 1862. As seekers of the American Dream traveled through the state, reactions of travelers to the Great Plains were mixed. Some saw the unending prairie as a treeless wasteland that they could not travel through fast enough on their way to the treasures of the mountains and beyond. Others stayed in the Plains, perceiving a land of plenty with endless opportunity. Nebraska had the fourth largest number of homesteaders. However, only 40 percent stayed long enough—five years—to gain the title of their land. The land was not so easily tamed. The familiar line of propaganda, “rain follows the plow,” played an influential role on steadfast pioneers who built a dream amidst great hardship.
The settlement of the Plains provides a testimony to the enduring spirit of the American people. But their stories have been fading. Farmsteads that once dotted the landscape are fewer and farther between. As a result, there are fewer people who feel a sense of ownership and stewardship of the land. The values of protecting and caring for the land are shared by smaller numbers of people. What can remind us of our heritage? Art. Art is a reflection of the individual and society.
Agrarian art provides inspiration to those who seek to preserve a way of life built on the land. Artist Mark L. Moseman has committed much of his life to the preservation of this past and cultivation of agrarian values in contemporary society. Moseman is also the chief curator of the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art. An exhibition of his paintings, on view through Oct. 2, 2011 at Homestead National Monument, speak deeply to themes of a culture and value for the land that many people hope is being revived today.
The 20 paintings that make up a stunning tribute to the values of homesteaders are in keeping with the mission of the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Neb. There are portraits of the workingman. “Plowman I” and “Plowman IV” have bodies that portray age and experience. Their eyes are hidden from view, but you get the sense that if you were to look in their faces, you would see eyes of wisdom. Just as the pigments of color are layered onto the canvas, “Prairie Gold” has layers of symbolism, not only of the monetary value of the wheat they harvest but of the gathering of a richness of character that perhaps is most valuable of all. The theme of these images is strongly rooted in relationships; with one another, with animals, with land. In “Meadowlark,” the woman and the bird both sing a song in their souls as they confidently survey a day’s job well done. Themes of conservation, endangered species, cultivating and harvesting all illustrate the importance of the choices each of us make. There is great value in the encounters we all have with the land.
Painted in vivid color, these large pastels do not simply remind viewers of days gone by but rather speak to the universal man and woman; of values that we all share, whether that be from your acreage, your community garden or simply time outdoors with family. “M. L. Moseman: Homestead Legacy,” speaks to the spirit of America. One such painting, entitled “Spirit of America,” is a deeply emotional portrait of the artist’s father. He embodies consciousness of care for the land and all living things; of life renewed and remade in the image of the spade in one hand firmly planted in the ground and his other arm outstretched to anchor his position at the fencepost as the clouds move briskly overhead. The spirit of America is one of resilience and hope.
The response to the efforts of artists such as Moseman, organizations like Homestead Monument and Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art and groups of environmentally minded individuals together shed light on the values of families raised on the land, familiar with nature, ultimately to inspire us all to the noble life of our forefathers, “the good life” of Nebraska.
There is a danger in forgetting where we have been as a country if it causes us to lose sight of where we are going. An immigrant to America pointedly sets life into perspective when she said, “In Sweden, we walked. In America, we ride.” The optimism of “M. L Moseman: Homestead Legacy” reminds us how truly blessed this country is and the responsibility each of us have to do our part in preserving the culture of the land we hold so dear.
To see the exhibit, visit Homestead National Monument, 8523 West State Highway 4, Beatrice, Neb. For more information, visit www.nps.gov or email mosemanstudio[at]windstream[dot]net.