Essentially, Nonessential: a bit of perspective on what's important
Updated: Feb 10
As one who grew up in a hard working ranching community, a strong work ethic was a cornerstone of life. There was no easy street, and had there been one, there weren’t enough streeters to populate it. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that work was the easiest street.
Being a loafer would be a lonely and dead end affair. A rebel without a cause, and almost certainly without company. Adults worked, kids worked by the age of ten or eleven, if not younger, or things didn’t work. It wasn’t a bad thing. The difference between work and play is pretty amorphous for kids. Our days were full, our lives seemed full, we laughed, we played, we ran and wrestled. We fished the streams after work. But between 7:00 AM and 6:30 PM when there was hay to put up, which was every day, from the last day of school in spring, until the first day of school in fall, we worked.
School was a mixed blessing. For social life, it was a grand thing. But ranch work is active. Kids like to be active. Desk work was more of a challenge to my sense of freedom than was field work. Along with the sense of incarceration I felt at my desk, came a loss of my sense of usefulness, a loss of a sense of pride in getting a day’s work done. It is strange now, to think back on that dynamic. I felt forced to go to school, while I felt like I chose to go to work. I think it would be fair to say that I felt like school was getting in the way of my education.
I knew well enough that I would never be a rancher. While that was the goal of the average kid in my school, we didn’t all start at the same place. Kids born to land owners had a practical path to that goal, if not a trench from which it would be very hard to ever crawl free. I didn’t understand the complex nature of that reality when I was young. I sort of saw kids being born to land owners as having been born with silver spoons in their mouths. Or perhaps just a silver-plated spoon. In all probability, they would inherit their life’s work, along with the land from which their livelihoods would be wrought. I would be nearly thirty years old before I would come to see that some of those kids felt as trapped as I felt unmoored. To some, those silver spoons in their mouths felt more like silver knives in their backs! Where I was free to ply any trade that I might want to pursue, and thrive or fail as I may, they felt harnessed to the plow of the family farm.
That same dynamic continues to play out every day in rural communities. Some will inherit land, or the local grocery or feed store, or maybe a tractor dealership, and with that inheritance, they will inherit a lifestyle that they may or may not have chosen. Those who are not born to business or land ownership will find themselves both freer to make their own way, and less well provisioned to do so. And because of the scant work opportunities available in rural communities, most will have to leave the only place they know as home, or become a part of the local working poor. A truly diverse opportunity will most likely be found in a diverse population center, both socially and financially strange and challenging for the displaced rural-reared person.
Furthering one’s education is the logical first step out of that likely rural poverty, and in the process, we have the making of what has come to be known as the rural-urban divide. Nothing is more mind-opening than going on a search for opportunity. Options have to be considered, left and right, and a different lifestyle will not only be in the offing, it will be all but inevitable. Our urban centers tend to be liberal, because with more people, more kinds of people, anything and everything has a market. Those rural people who make their ways to urban centers have had to open their minds to a broader spectrum of being. They are already self-selected for being open to change, as that is what they seek by leaving home. A chance, a change of opportunity from farm laborer or grocery clerk, to something else.
Not only do the rural communities lose most of their liberal leaning personalities to urban centers, but they end up largely peopled by those who stayed because it was their clearest path forward, and they had an inheritance, of the silver spoon, or the silver knife, and those who stayed because they didn’t see a way forward anywhere else, that appealed to their sense of adventure. They know what they want, and they know it is not what is being offered in the city. If that means a lower standard of living, so be it. The appetite for opportunity is superceeded by the appetite for continuity of friendships and familiarity. To be poor, but at home, or to perhaps prosper, but be uprooted, is often the choice to be made when you grow up in the sticks, but you don't own the land.
I went to an urban center, after graduating from Eastern Oregon University, where I made a few inroads toward my idea of becoming an artist. I made business contacts for the materials I needed to do my work, and I made market contacts that would lead to income from my products. Only after establishing these things, did I feel like I could make a little place for myself back on the rural side of Oregon, where I knew how to live. It all worked out fine, but it sets up a dilemma. Most of what I have anything to do with, as far as my living is concerned, is a day’s drive away, if not several.
So I am an anomaly in my rural community, one of a very few whose livelihood is not based on a local source, or a local demand, and yet I’m not retired, or independently wealthy from another life I’ve lived. I moved here to work, but the idea of developing a local following, as a local artist, is a thing of a very limited scope. That support exists, and for that, I am very grateful, but had I been more willing to live in an urban setting, I would have had a very different career. This point has been made clear to me, over and again, by my various gallery people. While it is usually possible to blossom wherever you are sown, the climate makes a difference in the potential abundance of that bloom.
I’ve not regretted living remote from my market. It means I can live where I want, and as I know how. When I need to interact with the market, I can do that. It’s a bit of a drive,
but it’s all made up in the commute, or lack thereof. But in the end, being an artist in a rural ranching community seems like a somewhat silly endeavor. Among the important things that need to be done, unlike in an urban setting, where an arts culture is often a main draw, creating a piece of art seems a little frivolous out here in the sticks. Nonessential. And so I suppose it is. And that is why I likely sound a bit irreverent when talking about my art. I have to take it seriously to do good work. And I know that art, in one form or another, is the spice of life, but the work I do, however “blue collar” bronze work happens to be, is not an essential ingredient in the daily life of the rural west. And that is fine.
But on the other hand, (and I’ve had time to think about this), there is a whole lot of frivolity in virtually every livelihood, rural and urban alike. If one works their days in the timber industry, falling logs, or sawing up trees for making homes or furniture, or if one toils away planting and harvesting wheat, or raising cattle or hogs, chickens or sheep, is it fair to ask that the consumption of those products be limited to the feeding and housing of a hungry family? Is it okay for some, or all of those steaks carved from the back-strap of feeder steers to be served up in 24 ounce servings to overweight diners, or prettied into a two hundred dollar meal at the Ritz? Is it okay that some of that wheat harvested is turned into donuts or pie crusts for people who would be healthier if they cut those things from their diet? Is it okay that quite a share of that timber that has been harvested and cut into boards goes into the building of 3500 or even 10,000 sq. ft. “houses” for families of two?
A huge part of our economy, rural and urban alike, is dedicated to something more than survival. It has more to do with quality of life. Finding comfort and pleasure in how one lives. And here we are at art. The culinary arts, the performing arts, the industrial arts, the fine arts. As a friend, and former gallery owner once said to me, in a moment of candor, “If art is not at all important to a person, then why aren’t they wearing army-green sweat pants. They do the job of clothing. Why aren’t they driving a Yugo? It goes. Your ‘sweet ride’ is about art. Your clothes are about art. Everyone who can afford to, discriminates in what they bring home, or what they drive to work in. What you spend your art budget on, and what that budget can afford, is the question."
So while I know that my livelihood as an artist is of a somewhat frivolous nature, I know as well that the products that come from the guy on the tractor will find their way to a share of the nonessential, as well. 40% of the food produced in this country is wasted. Much of that which is not wasted is waisted. The same sort of thing is true with timber, electricity, auto manufacturing, and virtually everything else. We could make do with less. But we humans like things to be more than the least that they can be.