Artists have always been fascinated by farms and farmworkers. From famous paintings to humble thrift-store prints, images of American agriculture delight artists and art-lovers.
But how many artists were actually farmers? Or vice-versa? And what if instead of painted farm fields hanging in a gallery, the gallery could be somehow plopped down in the middle of a farm field?
Questions like these were what inspired Donna Neuwirth and Jay Salinas to found Fermentation Fest—a project to repurpose sites in rural Wisconsin for exhibit, performance, and workshop spaces. The annual event includes food-related demonstrations and workshops as well as a 50-mile tour of art installations and performances in farm fields and barns surrounding Reedsburg.
The temporary art installations include fanciful sculptures, information, and also serious commentary. Examples include Taste Lab, an immersive, hands-on laboratory that lets participants learn all about the biology of fermentation; Invasive Species, which features kudzu leaves, crocheted from plastic shopping bags, invading an abandoned farmhouse; and Bubble Pub: Several large corn cribs filled with carbonated local brews.
Meanwhile, the workshops cover topics like how to make yogurt or bread and guest speakers discuss topics like sustainable energy and rural arts.
“Our ambitions are no less than to totally transform this community into one that can see its own possibilities through a shift in perception triggered by the work of artists with a love of the land,” the couple writes.
Neuwirth and Salinas first moved to Wisconsin not as artists, but as farmers. They left Chicago, where they were seasoned artists and performers, to settle in the Driftless region of Wisconsin in 1995. There, they founded a community supported vegetable farm. Five years later, they started the nonprofit Wormfarm Institute to explore the connection between “culture and agriculture.” Just one year later, they were awarded the highly coveted ArtPlace America Creative Placemaking grant, which allowed them to launch Fermentation Fest and other programs.
If some of the artwork commissioned for Fermentation Fest is whimsical, the motives and ambitions of Neuwirth and Salinas are anything but. The couple sees their work as doing for culture what the community supported agriculture (CSA) movement has done for agriculture. CSAs connect food consumers with the farmers who grow their food. Personal relationships are formed, and those relationships deepen the understanding of both farmers and their customers.
And food is deeply connected to culture. If you want proof, just consider the family celebrations that punctuate your year—and the role food plays in them. Just as CSA foods serve as a two-way conduit for knowledge and connection, so too does Wormfarm’s art-in-the-fields programs and events.
The upshot? Benefits—including connection to the land, economic revitalization, and imaginative transformation—for both urban and rural regions. “Farming communities are reinventing themselves whether they recognize it or not and rural isolation is not what it used to be,” writes Neuwirth. “Through engagement with the work of artists, art does what it alone can do—inspire, open doors to new ways of seeing.”
Fermentation Fest occurs every year during the first half of October in and around Reedsburg, Wisconsin. Learn more at fermentationfest.com.
Organic Valley is committed to supporting its local communities and is happy to sponsor Fermentation Fest for its impact on the lives of community members and preservation of rural culture.