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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.

Two Boston museum recommendations:

At the ICA

Charles LeDray, Mens Suits (Photo: ICA, Boston)

I have looked at examples of Charles LeDray’s work online for several years, but seeing his work in person is a whole different kettle of fish. As an idea his approach seemed almost too precious—his curious obsession (and I mean that literally) with the fabrication of thousands of miniatures, done with a decidedly fine art flair. But that originating concept disappears when you are actually in conversation, face to face, with these artifacts. His Art Angel sponsored exhibit, Mens Suits, is best experienced in silence. The absence of the living forms for whom these items were fashioned is so palpable I found myself tearing up. This is work that must be seen in person, whether you catch it here or at the Whitney Museum in October.

The description from the ICA website:

For over 20 years, New York-based artist Charles LeDray has created handmade sculptures in stitched fabric, carved bone, and wheel-thrown clay. LeDray painstakingly fashions smaller-than-life formal suits, embroidered patches, ties, and hats, as well as scaled-down chests of drawers, doors, thousands of unique, thimble-sized vessels, and even complex models of the solar system.

The exhibition gathers approximately 50 sculptures and installations, from seminal early works to the first U.S. presentation of MENS SUITS (2006-2009), his highly acclaimed project presenting three complex, small-scale vignettes of second-hand clothing shops. The ICA will also premiere Throwing Shadows (2008-2010), an extraordinary new ceramic work including more than 3,000 vessels made of black porcelain, each less than two inches tall.

At the MFA

From Nicholas Nixon, Family Album (Photo: MFA, Boston)

Nicholas Nixon’s new exhibit, Family Album, is a loving family portrait by a consummate photographer. Seeing the Brown Sisters hanging together on a wall is always a show stopper. But I loved the chance to view new images of Nick’s children Sam and Clemmie (who grew up with my own in Brookline.) One photograph is of a note scrawled by a very young Clemmie apologizing for her bad behavior. In another, Sam’s hands are grubbily holding a stack of bills. These fit right in alongside the flesh of these babies next to Bebe’s breast or an array arms and legs indecipherably intertwined.

Certainly other families have been portrayed in an artistic setting. The most notorious is probably still Sally Mann’s photographs of her children 20 years ago. But without being showy or self-aggrandizing, Nixon has captured a wholeness and healthiness in his family that is hard to fake. And the photos are, as always, masterfully toned and exquisitely composed.

From the MFA website:

Among the most compelling of Nicholas Nixon’s series of photographs are the portraits that he has made of his close-knit family. These photographs, taken over time, explore the nature of long-committed relationships. The exhibition features the entire sequence of the celebrated portraits of the artist’s wife, Bebe, and her three sisters. Taken annually, the Brown Sisters pictures reveal gradual changes in their physiques and shifts in their relationships. The exhibition also includes photographs of the artist’s daily life with Bebe and their children Samuel and Clementine (born in the early 1980s), which enable viewers to share in the daily interactions and joys of parenthood. Also included in the show are recent portraits of Bebe and self-portraits that stand for the steadiness of long marriage. Nicholas Nixon, who teaches at Massachusetts College of Art, is one of the most celebrated American photographers of our generation. The Brown Sisters photographs are a promised gift of James and Margie Krebs. Many of the other works in the exhibition are loans from the photographer.