The photographs that comprise Plain Songhave been made over the course of a decade in rural Kansas, where I was raised. The work represents the current trajectory of a long arc that, througha series of photographically-based projects,I have considered the AmericanWest as both a physical space and a terrain for the imagination. This series is the most personal of my career and depicts family, friends, and the landscape that have shaped my worldview. While describing subjects intimate to me, the images also bring to the foreground issues of pressing national concern such as the rural / urban divide in America and identity politics, as they reveal an intricate tapestry of life in “the Heartland”.
Transition and continuity are in tension in the series. This is evidenced in the landscape as well as the people who inhabit it. Two life-long friends who are gender non-conforming are central to the work. Robert is a prolific artist whom I have known since I was a teenager, before leaving my hometown of Great Bend to attend art school in 1995. Then and more increasingly today, Robert, now in his 70’s, identifies as Scarlet. Wilder, the son of a high school friend, and also a prolific artist, was born Willa, but began his gender transition in late adolescence. Wilder is now 16 and preparing to graduate early from high school to attend art school.
The photographs show the fragility of life on the Great Plains – as well as the resilience of those residing there. My mother Sylvia is key to the series. Her ingenuity, laced with frugality and informed by her childhood on a remote rural homestead, is on display around her country home and particularly in her garden, which commands the majority of her attention and where most of her food is grown.
The largely biographical images show a stark and sometimes unsettling beauty. On the farm that has been in my maternal family for five generations, Big Creek runs through the landscape, a constant reminder of the continuity of time. Here my cousin Eric, his wife Lisa, their son and seven daughters currently reside, re-inhabiting a land first homesteaded by our kin at the opening of the frontier. Most of the region surrounding the farm is still designated as “frontier” today with a population density of less than six people per square mile.
My mother’s family emigrated from Germany to this landscape. Generations later, my paternal grandparents emigrated to Kansas from Mexico. As a young person in Great Bend, I felt alienated by the conservative culture and austere agricultural landscape. Made in this land that I never felt a part of while living there, these photographs are a reconciliation of place as central to my identity.