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Corn and Conversation

Maryo Gard Ewell
ArtsRag, December 1006-January 1997

Larimer County, Colorado, is undergoing rapid change. Like many parts of the United States, prime agricultural land is being converted into subdivisions almost overnight. The pace of change is dizzying. Growth seems to be in control of the people rather than the other way around .. this in a county whose western end includes the breathless beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park.

As in so many other places, people in Larimer County couldn't seem to address the issue. Dan Kemmis, mayor of Missoula, Montana, may have described "public gridlock" best in his Community and the Politics of Place. As neighbors, he says, we have become increasingly unable to work things out. To talk productively, to air differing views, to come up with local solutions. Instead, we shout our increasingly polarized opinions at elected officials, implying, "We elected you, you fix it!" As a result, there is conversational gridlock and "solutions" are either imported ("it worked in Bangor, let's try it here") or so watered-down as to be ineffective.

As Kemmis implies in the book, and Michael Jones of the DIA*logos Institute says in a recent article, "The new leaders will be those who are able to create spaces and processes for skillful conversation. Through surfacing the underlying images and structures of our thinking, and making the implicit explicit, we create the possibility of re-imagining ourselves, our organizations, and the quality of our work."

A year-long project intended to address these issues - sponsored by the Loveland Museum, the Larimer County Commissioners, and the Colorado Corn Growers Association - has just ended. The intent of the project was to use the arts to begin to re-create the art of conversation, so that local public solution-crafting can be creative, interesting, productive and inclusive. The project was supported by the Colorado Council on the Arts and other local groups. Here's what took place.

The group - spearheaded by installation artist Sharon Carlisle - called for citizens who did not think of themselves as artists to step forward to participate in an experiment in which people might think about growth in Larimer County in different ways. Twenty-five people came forward - a real mix of people, including realtors and developers, ranchers and farmers, students, teachers, a baker, a hairdresser, and more. They then issued a call for twenty-five visual, performing or literary artists. They put the names of each groups in hats, and randomly paired people.

During the year, each pair was to meet three times at least, and just talk...about themselves, their families, their reason for living in Larimer County, their views on what was happening. From their conversations was to emerge a collaborative work of art. The artist wasn't to simply interpret his or her partner: no, it was to be a truly collaborative endeavor, in which each person became vulnerable to the other's viewpoint as well as to the other's creativity.

Almost every progress report, filed about halfway through, began, "At our first meeting we saw had nothing in common ... we were going to drop out..." Yet everyone, every one of the twenty-five pairs, finished their collaboration. The actress ("I will never be able to afford the down-payment on a house" and the realtor. The hairdresser and the painter. The baker and the writer.

The projects themselves were extraordinary. Eric Elshtain and Bill Wylie, whose conversations began in earnest when they recognized that they both liked to fish, began by fishing, then by historically investigating, then by even scuba-diving, the Poudre River. Their installation project was a photographic and literary "diary" of a twelve-day journey along the river from Rocky Mountain National Park through Ft. Collins through farmland through national forest through an area near a major meat-packing plant. Their piece includes a collection of objects from the water, the banks, the river's bottom; the photo-journal postcard series they made with Eric's photos and Bill's writing; and more. "We went into [the project] dealing with the river beyond the definitions that most people place upon it...we wanted to start with a blank slate and create a work that would definte it from there."

The Denver Post article on another project began: "The partnership began a bit unsteadily: he is a Republican. She's a Democrat. He enjoys a good steak now and then; she's a vegetarian. He's up at dawn; she's lucky to make an 8 a.m. class." The article continues: "'We kind of got over all that, and we just talk like real people now,' music therapist Christine Stevens said." For his part, farmer Steve Olander said: "Sometimes you get into a rut and can get tunnel vision because you can't see [another perspective.]" In their early conversations, Steve mentioned that the kids in the subdivision bordering his property were constantly hanging on the fence - they had probably never seen a food-growing operation before. And, "Cows do get out and the neighbors call me saying, 'They are making hoofprints in my brand new grass' - and they are really torqued." Steve and Christine decided to hold a neighborhood barbecue on his property, and they invited neighboring farmers as well as everyone who lived in the subdivision. The idea was to become comfortable with people whose path you'd have probably otherwise never have crossed. During a well-attended meal Christine held a drum circle (popular enough that Steve invited Christine to hold one at the next meeting of his Young Farmers chapter). And afterwards people had to "buy" their dessert with a sentence, maybe a couplet, about what this evening of conversation had meant. Steve and Christine turned the phrases and sentences into a ballad, "The Other Side of the Highway."

And then there was the "Growth" dance. Jane Slusarski-Harris, Chair of the Dance Department at Colorado State University, was paired with Jim Geist, a farmer whose family has been on the land for several generations. "I can't dance, won't dance," said Jim initially, so their idea was that Jim would write down his family's story, and Jane, with help from some of her dance students, would dance it. But as their discussions continued, the idea evolved, and the final work that they created, set to the Emperor Concerto, was so much more. It began with a poem written by Donna Geist, read by Donna and Jim - questions about land, and food production, and the farming lifestyle, and growth and change. The poem gradually gave way to the joyous dancing of the life-forces of earth, air, water and fire. The land produced, all was well - until the realtor character emerged, clearly seeing the land as merely real estate. Now the entire Geist family - Donna and Jim and their two children - joined the dance, invited to dance first by the life-forces, then by the realtor, then by the life-forces, then by the realtor. The piece ended ambiguously, returning to Donna Geist's questions, as their five-year-old son, on his miniature John Deere tractor, attempted to wrestle up the "For Sale" signs - some of which he could, others which he couldn't.. What are their choices? What will happen to their family? Will their son have any chance of being the next generation on the land? If farming disappears in the county, what will it mean for food production?

The exhibition, the readings, the performances, all shown at the County Fairgrounds in September to a large crowd, were powerful. The Mayor of sprawling Ft. Collins was there. So were County Commissioners. Everyone was moved. But, ultimately, did it make any difference?

That's the question, of course. Certainly, some things are happening. A photo-journalist and a writer have documented the entire project, and a book will result shortly, perhaps inspiring other people, other communities, to do a variant of this project. A video-documentary, likewise, is being produced, and perhaps cable channels across the country will air it to inspire others. The barbecue will become an annual event. Sharon Carlisle, the project coordinator, has been approached by the Young Farmers chapter to do an artist-in-residence project with them. She is seeking grant money to continue the project - perhaps with artist residencies with all of the groups that worked on the project, using a variety of artists from the project, so that relationships can continue. The County Commissioners have purchased one of the works for the County Courthouse. The Environmental Studies program at the State University has raised funds so that the dance can be presented again, this time in the context of their science program. The hairdresser has begun taking paper-making classes. Some of the pairs of people have become fast friends. Jane Slusarski-Harris has said that this has totally changed the way that she thinks about making dance.

Has anything really changed, though? Has public dialogue in Larimer County been affected? This we'll not know for a time, maybe not ever. Maybe the debates in the County Commissioner Hearing Room will take on a different quality. Maybe, as Commissioner Jim Disney hopes, artists will bring their way of thinking to the dialogue so that the meaning of the land can be admitted as appropriate parts of public dialogue as well as its economic viability. Maybe artists will become increasingly present the public table, regardless of the issue...the Sharon Carlisles seens as crucial people in the broad community.

We do know, though, that individual lives have been changed. That 50 people are thinking differently. And that, of course, is where change begins.

For more information, or to receive information about order the documentary book or video, contact Sharon Carlisle, 459 E. 12th St., Loveland, CO 80537; phone 970-667-3778.

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