Abundance and Transformation

Dedicated to integrating culture and agriculture, the Wormfarm Institute is an evolving laboratory of the arts and ecology and fertile ground for creative work. Planting a seed, cultivating, reaping what you sow… both farmer and artist have these activities in common.

 

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The name came to us in 1995 shortly after moving from inner-city Chicago to a farm in Wisconsin. The work of Charles Darwin and his book The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms figured prominently, as did Bullwinkle cartoons. Newly ruralized and hyper-alert to our surroundings, we learned about the fertile places left in the wake of earthworms, the unseen activity creating pathways for rain to penetrate the soil and for roots to grow deeper. They are our collaborators—the worms—and our namesake.

The Institute evolved out of the seasoned passion and newfound enthusiasms of its cofounders Donna and Jay, shaped by this very particular rural place we have come to love. Jay coined a term for it in 1998.

CULTURESHED (kul’cher-shed) n. 1) A geographic region irrigated by streams of local talent and fed by deep pools of human and natural history. 2) An area nourished by what is cultivated locally. 3) The efforts of writers, performers, visual artists, scholars, farmers, and chefs who contribute to a vital and diverse local culture.

Wormfarm is in the fertile soil business—literally—growing organic vegetables on our farm—and metaphorically—for the creative work of artists and writers through our long-standing artist residency program and through community festivals. In each phase of our work, we integrate culture and agriculture employing what the worms (and the occasional human) have taught us about unseen pathways and connections.

Our current project, The Farm/Art D-tour provides an opportunity to make these pathways visible, the connections practical, the possibilities palpable. The D-tour is a central element of our ten-day annual community event, Fermentation Fest—A Live Culture Convergence—a collaboration with county government, the Chamber of Commerce, farmers, artists, cheese makers, and chefs.

 

In each phase of our work, we integrate culture and agriculture employing what the worms (and the occasional human) have taught us about unseen pathways and connections.

 

 

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A fifty-mile self-guided drive, the D-tour meanders through the beautiful unglaciated hills and valleys of rural Sauk County. Home to Aldo Leopold and his land ethic, a viable and diverse farming economy, an established art studio tour, an energized local food movement, and a legacy of self-taught artists, this working landscape is punctuated by farm-based art installations, Roadside Culture Stands, Field Notes, and pasture performances.

 

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Roadside Culture Stands are a lively reinvention of the much beloved rural icon—the roadside farm stand designed and built by artists. They serve as both functional public art and as entrepreneur-mobiles.

Sited in the midst of beautiful agricultural landscapes, Roadside Culture Stands reinforce the message to “Eat the View”—a concept that makes the point that if you want to preserve those views, then eat from the food chain that created them. This hybrid project broadens

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and deepens the audience for public art and builds a larger audience for both art and local farm products. Roadside Culture Stands play a significant role along the D-tour and are also the basis for another related project called Food Chain—an arts-infused caravan of mobile farm stands creating a vibrant marketplace of food, art, and ideas at existing food- and land-centered events throughout our cultureshed.

Graminy, performing outdoors
Graminy, performing outdoors

Pasture performances feature music, dance, and theater, including the world premiere of an original “Blue Grass Symphony in D” by Graminy, a five-piece “class grass” band. This D-Composition explores themes of decay and renewal. Within a remnant oak savannah, you’ll find Jess and Jess, aerial dancers dangling in a majestic old oak tree, dancing and twirling from the tree's outreaching limbs.

Fermentation Fest is about abundance and transformation—from grain to beer, from milk to yogurt, from cabbage to kimchee, and from hay field to stage. This process of controlled rot adds not only shelf life, but strong flavors, dense nutrients, and in some cases, altered state of consciousness. With this event we celebrate a process of continuous transformation, and as the basis of an annual festival, it leaves us plenty of room to keep it fresh and relevant.

Fermentation Fest builds on an ongoing project: The Re-enchantment of Agriculture, which explores the places where human imagination, experiments in sustainability, community well being, and creative excitement all converge. We find ourselves at a moment in time when rural places are being revalued, re-enchanted. The growing local food movement and revival of the “homely arts” raise the profile and the allure of agricultural regions as places where important work is done. Artists and writers are drawn to these places for the usual reasons—affordability, quiet, big barns to convert to studios, regular bonfires (and in our case the rarely chosen option to be naked in our front yard).

Isolation too, isn’t what it used to be. We give up less than previous urban transplants to come closer to the biotic community Aldo Leopold speaks of in his land ethic. We, in the middle of nowhere, are as connected as our urban sisters. I will finish this essay, click a button, and it will be in Massachusetts in seconds. As a reward to myself for meeting a deadline, I will take a walk with our dog Trouser around our neighbor’s cornfield and look for eagles.

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Thoughts from the curator

A series featuring voices from the United States' rural arts communities.

Rural Theatre

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Hi Donna! Your work was introduced to me by a colleague not more than a month ago, and I've been studiously reading everything I can find about your organization ever since. I'm an east coast theatre producer focusing on new plays, but my personal love is an environmental project we've done for 4 years here at Passage Theatre Company (www.passagetheatre.org). I'm heading into our final performance of this year's project this weekend - a collaboration with a land trust, a dance company, community experts in history, poetry, and environmental issues, a local farm, and our communities - called Dancescapes NJ. I think NJ is a fertile field for the kind of cross-industry and cross-community collaboration that you're focusing on. I'd love to find a time to talk with you about what you're doing behind the scenes, as well, if you're game!

Kacy O'BrienProducer, Passage Theatre Companykacy@passagetheatre.org