Rural Roots Run Deep: The Abandoned Rural America Project
As a child of the 1980s, this writer grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, just far enough from the city to still be surrounded by green but just close enough to miss out on the wide, pastoral landscape I would hear the old timers discuss.
I spent my days out in that green; in the creek building dams out of rocks or planning tree forts. So hearing my father talk about his adventures on his Uncle Lloyd’s farm made me wonder what it would be like to live to that pastoral life. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of early morning filled with back-breaking chores, but I romanticized the idea nevertheless.
I wanted to know more of what lay beyond on the outskirts of suburban Atlanta, of the farm life that seemed a mere remnant rather than a still-vibrant lifestyle; an abandoned barn filled with cats or an odd lonely horse where once a vibrant ranch may have been. Those remnants tell stories that I want to hear.
For Madison artist Peter Muzyka those stories must be told. Those remnants must be remembered. To do this, he and other creative collaborators from the region formed the Abandoned Rural America Project, now entering its fifth year, to capture the vanishing landscapes through a variety of mediums.
“I was raised on a sheep farm in the Pocono area of Pennsylvania,” says Muzyka. “While growing up on the farm, my greatest pleasure was drawing the rural landscape and animals. I also learned what it took to keep a farm working at a very early age.” Muzyka later joined the US Navy and continued to develop his talents, expanding his medium to painting as well as drawing and using those talents to share his memories of home with his compatriots – and to impress his future wife, Jewel, after meeting her at Camp Pendleton.
Muzyka eventually found himself in Madison, where his desire to use art to bring awareness of the changing rural farming landscape grew. Along with contributions from other artists in the area including Eugene Swain, Lisa Wheeler, and Charles St. John Dyer, Muzyka created the Abandoned Rural America project.
What started as primarily painting, drawing, and photography soon grew to encompass other mediums as Muzyka and the project artists exhibited their work and met musicians, authors, and craftspeople who also had stories to share about their lives growing up in rural Georgia and other parts of the country. Exhibitions now include the book Abandoned Rural America: The Changing Face of the Small Family Farm, and a video project in which Muzyka interviews these artists about those experiences. Today the collaboration includes fifteen visual artists, fourteen writers, and four musicians, with many more chipping in to prepare and promote exhibitions.
The theme of the art is not only to share life on these farms and ranches as it was, but also to convey how it has evolved over the years since Muzyka’s childhood in Pennsylvania. Many once proud barns and farmhouses, once vital to the productivity of a farmer’s business, now stand abandoned and in disrepair. When viewing these images, one can’t help but feel the metaphor for a life not only gone by, but left behind by the changing face of American commerce. Rural America as we knew it is, in many ways, truly becoming abandoned; or at the very least evolving to make life difficult for those who choose to carry on the legacy of past generations who grew up on the farm.
This evolution is precisely why Muzyka and other artists involved in the project feel the value in their mission to educate future generations about what has come before; what many of us may not even realize we’ve left behind. With America facing a rising generation increasingly dependent upon the smart phone rather than the mill or churn, and on Amazon rather than the local general store, this cultural reminder is more important than ever.
When asked what those of us of later generations could do to help preserve this heritage, Muzyka had this to say: “I believe that the movement to grow little gardens on rooftops and in back yards in urban and suburban areas does a lot to show the advantages of growing our own food when possible. Another way would be to take a personal or family trip and visiting a farm heritage site like the Georgia Agriculture Museum in Tifton [which can] can go a long way to forming a bond between the urban and suburban dweller and the country’s farming heritage. If someone who lives in the city has relatives or friends who have a small farm [they] could spend a little time helping on the farm, it can help them see that their hard work is respected and acknowledged.”
Abandoned Rural America has spent the past five years sharing their collective stories; growing beyond Georgia to a current exhibit in Wetumpka, Alabama, as well as an upcoming show in Colorado. Soon to celebrate the fifth anniversary since the project’s inception, an anniversary exhibit will be showcased at the Lyndon House Arts Center in Athens this summer.
Lyndon House is a location with a rich cultural heritage of its own. A contemporary arts center built aside the only surviving historic home of the Lickskillet neighborhood in Athens, Lyndon House exists not only to serve as a resource for creativity and education, but as a steward of cultural preservation. The Center has worked with projects with complimentary missions to Abandoned Rural America in the past, such as Return from Exile: Contemporary Native American Art and the India Festival. Lyndon House hopes to provide such projects with a platform to expand their audience and bring their message of cultural preservation to a national level as well as regional. As Lyndon House Program Supervisor Didi Dunphy states, “In so many ways an artist’s job is to not just to be present and current with technique and discourse, but also be a recorder of the past and a predictor of the future.”
While the future of America evolves at an unpredictable and rapid pace, our past remains a rich trove of wisdom and experience. Through art and other forms of expression, that wisdom can continue to remain relevant and accessible to future generations. While the buildings may one day crumble, their memory and the stories born from them live on.
The Abandoned Rural America Project will bring its 5th anniversary exhibit to Lyndon House Arts Center in Athens this summer, with dates to be announced.
Lyndon House Arts Center is free and open to the public Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 9 p.m. and Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.