Fallow fields near the Great Salt Lake in Layton Utah

Friend and artist Kitty Bancroft stopped in Boston on her way to Philadelphia yesterday, and we had a few moments to share where things are in our private tinkering spaces called art making. I think of conversations like these as reminiscent of ones I had as a child inside the structures I made with my sisters and brothers out of tables, chairs and large blankets. Inside those freshly constructed child-sized rooms, I felt like I was now under life rather than in it. Cocooned and safe.

Kitty described her artistic summer as a period of intentional fallowing. I hadn’t thought about the idea for a while, and her comment has been floating on the surface of my thoughts ever since.

This passage from Fallow and Fertile, published on The Ecologist, is a point of reference:

Fallow periods were traditionally used by farmers to maintain the natural productivity of their land. The benefits of leaving land fallow for extended periods include rebalancing soil nutrients, re-establishing soil biota, breaking crop pest and disease cycles, and providing a haven for wildlife.

Like many rural skills, the technique evolved along with a sustainable model of settled agriculture that supported the UK’s population for well over 3,000 years. Up until 1939 it was estimated that 800,000 ha of British countryside was voluntarily placed under fixed or rotational fallows at any time. The idea seems bizarre now, that less than a generation ago British farmers would have had the freedom, let alone the financial security, to improve their land in this way.

The fact is farmers are no longer trusted to use their own judgement in managing the British countryside. If they were, set-aside areas would still be managed as the most effective means of building soil fertility. Inevitably, however, fallow farming has been deemed ‘uneconomic’ by the same logic that has seen agricultural imports and exports increase by 74 and 55 per cent respectively since 1962.

Lots of parallels can be drawn about a productivity focused view of everything in our culture, not just art making. As a younger artist I had no interest in employing a “set-aside” approach to my work habits. Productivity and good use of precious studio time were the measures I cared about and highly valued.

But I now see deep correlations between fallow and fertile. The strategy for the health and well being of my art making life is different for me now than it was when I was 20. I don’t believe there is one way to do anything in life, and certainly I would never proscribe the way an artist chooses to work. You may be like Charles LeDray, using every waking hour for years to obsessionally sew tiny clothes, or like Tara Donovan who can repeatedly construct unearthly landscapes out of a million stacked styrofoam cups. Or you may be like me; sometimes in the zone and unstoppably fecund, sometimes in the fallowing, just sitting and looking with no doing.

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