Encircling Vastness

The Volland Store, Alma, KS, 2018

Materials: Clear filament, four crow specimen, cornmeal

History is a social expression of geography, and western geography is violent. Bernard DeVoto

For nearly three decades, I have been exploring through my art what Wendell Berry calls the "unsettling of America:" the effects, the marks, and the changes that European Americans have made on a specific locale. In preparation for this installation, I became enthralled by the history of this area, and how it has become for me - an axis for the whole of the United States, rippling out through time and space.

Approximately 130 miles from here, by the way the crow flies, is the point of the geographical center of the contiguous United States. Kansas takes its name from the Kaw nation and is made up of counties whose Native American names are sprinkled across it. It is not only ironic, but also symbolic that the geographical center of the United States - Kansas - played a pivotal role in the western expansion of this nation through policies and acts known as Manifest Destiny.

Even before statehood, Kansas was the axis of the United States both socially and politically. Beginning in 1825, the Kansa was a frontier land on which Indian tribes were forcibly reloctated. Through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed into law by Andrew Jackson, the Kansa officially became Indian Territory.

The Oregon and the Santa Fe Trails began just across the western border of the United States in Independence, Missouri, and then cut across the Kansa deep into the newly acquired lands of the Oregon Country and the Mexican Cession. In 1854, the Kansas - Nebraska Act became law, allowing white settlers to migrate into the Territory. This act precipitated the start of the American Civil War through the border war known as Bloody Kansas.

On Jan. 29, 1861, Kansas was admitted into the Union as a free state, and in 1862 the Homestead Act became law. This act encouraged people to immigrate to and become citizens of the United States by moving onto native Kaw lands and other newly formed tribal reservations. Indigenous cultures were once again forced from their land and treaties became non-existent. The destiny of the western United States was being made manifest.

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In preparing for this exhibition, I came upon the poetry of William Cullen Bryant. His poem, "The Prairies," inspired the name of this installation:

These are the gardens of the desert, these

The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,

For which the speech of England has no name -

The Prairies. I behold them for the first,

And my heart swells, while the dilated sight

Takes in the encircling vastness ....                                                                                                               

Bryant (1794-1878) was a journalist from Massachusetts, and historically one of America's greatest poets. (He actually never visited the Kansa region.) He was an outspoken advocate for human rights, whether it was the rights of laborers to form unions or the abolition of slavery. He even was a proponent of same-sex marriage and advocated for the acceptance of religious minorities and immigrants. Bryant was an artist in the truest sense. His life is a story of example, of inclusion for all - a poet seeking truth.

Conceptually, Encircling Vastness has two meanings that play off of each other. The vortex form rises from a base of ground corn, a plant that symbolizes life and fertility. As it gains height, the form spreads outward, forever, infinitively. Life and truth become vast, the more we create a space and open ourselves to new understanding, the more we expand our horizon.

The vastness of this prairie state extends outward from the deep geologic time of the sedimentary rock layers of the Flint Hills to the arid west and the Rockies to the rich glacial soils of the mid-west and the Appalachia. It makes up what we call the heartland of the United States. And seen from above, dark birds soar, circling as silent witnesses of the history of what has happened and is happening, before and after human habitation of this vast land. 

It is only fitting that Kansas, the axis of the U.S. geographically, socially and politically, should be a place that reflects and radiates outward, as an example of hope, of compassion and of openness, to all and for all, especially today.

As Bryant penned, truth crushed to earth will rise again.