“There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land…” Willa Cather, My Antonia
Willa Cather’s novel, My Antonia reaches back to a Nebraska my great grandparents could have known and concludes just before my father and mother were born in the early 1920’s. The novel begins with the stories of some of the first European immigrant farmers who came to a wild unfenced and unbroken Nebraska prairie. Nearly forty years later, at the end of the novel, fences, ploughed fields, roads, and even a Ford car have made their appearance.
The novel builds on the intertwining stories of Antonia, her acquaintances, and her friends as they come to maturity in this remote, harsh, exquisite, and rapidly developing prairie paradise. It is a deeply human story, moving and powerful, yet a story always subservient to the story of the natural world that surrounds it. Cather writes, “On the farm the weather was the great fact, and men’s affairs went on underneath it, as the streams creep under the ice.”
Here in Illinois if we look at the Fox River creeping under the ice we see how the affairs of men are not as innocuous or subordinate as Cather could imagine in 1918 when My Antonia was published. Today we are aware that “men’s affairs” can alter even Cather’s presumed “great fact,” the weather itself. There is a sense in which the Fox River is a herald of human affairs, a carrier of news about how our affairs are changing the environment.
As a painter of this “herald” I feel an obligation to make it clear that the world it runs through is indeed a country, and no longer just the “material out of which countries are made.” But I am also aware that men’s affairs are not the final say on the outcome of any country. The earth already contains within itself ample records, the residue of lost civilizations, “countries” that failed to accommodate their affairs to the realities of the land and the “great fact” of the weather.
Art is a civilizing response to nature. It is a cultural construction through which we imagine the cooperative possibilities that link nature and culture. Art brings cultural substance before the presence of nature and invites us to discern the implications of one for the other.
Written by Joel Sheesley, Artist-In-Residence, Fox River Initiative