Last month, Extreme Craft promised you an insider's look at a BRAND NEW art movement. That day has arrived, ladies and gentlemen. I had the pleasure of receiving a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the creation of the AGRIFOLK ART movement on Sunday in Cumming, Georgia. Agrifolk Art is the brainchild of conceptual artist Jonathon Keats (who is well known for such projects as copyrighting his mind and trying to create God in a test tube). While at a residency in Maine, Keats began thinking about the swaying trees outside of his windows, eventually bringing a small tree inside his studio to further study it. It turned out that bringing the tree inside wasn't very effective (or healthy for the tree), but Jonathon kept thinking about the trees, and eventually contacted Andrew Dietz, an Atlanta-based art writer and entrepreneur. Dietz' most recent book, The Last Folk Hero, delved into issues of exploitation and authenticity in the Folk Art world, which meshed nicely with the project that Keats was hatching in his (trademarked) brain.
Keats and Dietz were not farmers, but with a bit of searching on the internet, found a tree farm in Cumming, which is about 30 miles North of Atlanta. Their new artists would be uncorrupted by art world machinations: 50 Leland Cypress trees, chosen for their resilience and flexibility. Last Saturday, Keats and Dietz put the artists to work, first labeling them individually, then setting up 50 easels and pads. The artists were provided with a variety of artistic implements such as pencils, oil pastels, and vine charcoal. By the time we visited, they had been working for nearly 36 hours without a break. The trees produced their art without a single complaint, fueled by periodic waterings and doses of Miracle-Gro.
Mr. Keats is confident that the quality of this artwork will be evident to all. "This isn't just about artistic integrity," he says. "Non-sentience is often looked down upon by our culture, obsessed with SAT scores and IQ tests. Yet plants negotiate complex ecosystems that biologists struggle to comprehend. Their art is a byproduct of the intelligence, and the creativity, of their interaction with the environment."
Asked if this has made him rethink his own art, Mr. Keats grows pensive. "My projects often depend on complex processes such as radiotelescopy and genetic engineering. I'd have saved myself a lot of work had I known that the basic ingredients of artistic originality were water and sunlight."
Naturally, I had a lot of questions about Agrifolk, ranging from curiosity about their process to the vagaries of the Agrifolk art market. My hosts were accomodating, going as far as to demonstrate their scrupulous process for "culling" the finished artwork. Keats, dressed in his best gentleman farmer three-piece suit, roamed the tree farm with a clipboard, observing the progress that each artist had made. When it was determined that a piece was finished, the writing instrument was gently picked up, and the pad of paper removed from the easel. On his clipboard, Keats jotted down the artist's identification, along with other relevant information, and carried the piece back to the picnic table they were using. The piece was then stamped for authenticity, verified by Jonathon, and stored with the rest.
I asked Jonathon how he knew when the drawings were complete. He answered that an ideal completed drawing was based on the range of gesture expressed by the tree. When he felt that the tree had fully expressed the gesture that they were communicating, the drawing was finished. Endless scribbling of the same gesture was seen as overkill. Dietz and Keats were unsentimental about their charges, conscious of the degree to which they were exploiting them versus the level of reward given to them. They harbored no illusions about redemption that the trees could face through their art--particularly talented trees weren't going to be relocated to a pasture somewhere; the trees are all destined for Atlanta living rooms during the next holiday season. Keats did express the thought, however, that they were providing these trees with a death sentence hanging over them with an opportunity to express themselves before they themselves are "culled" and covered in tinsel and garlands.
I also asked about the "target market" for this artwork. Folk art is a highly stratified world, with the bottom rung occupied by work sold in hardware stores, back yards, and flea markets. Selling to this audience generally requires a homespun, folksy approach, preferably with a degree of humor. My friend Nick suggested the artworks be called "PINE-tings", which would be a great way to get the fleamarketeers on board. Keats and Dietz are firing their shot across the bow of the gallery world, aiming directly at high-end collectors. Collectors of folk art value the "story" of the artist above almost all else. If an artist is illiterate and lives at the bottom of a well, their work is pure gold. If they are handicapped and also make angels? That's a money train that's just never going to stop. Keats and Dietz are providing all of the essential components of folk art: a great story and indisputable authenticity.
All of this comes down to the artwork. Is it worth a damn? Would you hang it above your couch? I would have to answer with a qualified "yes". Dietz and Keats could have given their artists brushes and bright colors, which would make for art every bit as compelling as something a Thai elephant could produce. Instead, they provided the trees with pencils, oil pastels, and vine charcoal, allowing them to express a more subtle range of work. Most of the work is produced with a soft pencil, showing a range of gesture and markmaking. White space is highly valued, with the trees intensively working small portions of the paper. This is not work to hang above your couch--the work that I observed was very subtle, providing an opportunity for contemplation.
Your chance to get in on the ground floor of Agrifolk is coming up. Can you say that you have a matchbook or coaster from the Cabaret Voltaire? Do you have one of Warhol's first Campbell's Soup paintings? Probably not. Soho Myriad Gallery in Atlanta will exhibit the finest works October 14th and 15th. They will also be screening a documentary about the project by director Edwin Moore. Keats and Dietz will be on hand to meet the public, but unfortunately for us, the trees will be happily biding their time at their farm in Cumming. I wonder if I might be able to put my favorite tree artist in my living room this Christmas. Remember. You heard it on Extreme Craft first.
LINK to my Agrifolk Flickr set