It can be hard to believe, but once 75% of the American population lived in rural areas. Remnants of this era, when more people were physically close to the production of food, come in many sizes: from a towering grain elevator to simple, manually-run farm implements. For pastel artist Matthew Rezac, who grew up near Bennington, Nebraska, a suburbanizing town northwest of Omaha, the Stored Potential project provoked this reflection on the intimacy between tool, farmer, land, and family:
“A hand-pushed cultivator rests in a pole shed near Bennington. Dad used it to draw out the rows of a large garden, grown to feed his ten kids. He’d set straight-line guides made of string and homemade wooden stakes, align the single iron wheel and spade, and cut long, shallow grooves where sky and earth were better proportioned for planting. Farming at this scale forges together the tool, the person and the land, embedding them with grit and exposing faults between ability and aspiration. Ten children grew up, the garden grew small, my dad died, and the cultivator was balanced across the shed’s wall studs on a constellation of nails. Now Omaha’s skyglow rolls forward like oncoming headlights. Housing developments extend outward at tangents from the city, begun by nurserymen who own the land and have reapplied their skills of propagation. At the margins, we attempt to carry forward the best of our agrarian inheritance: solitude; craft; self-reliance; the ability to sustain; tell stories; have grace. Each requires an enduring presence. The cultivator and the grain elevator testify that commitment — to a people and a place, across generations — has made a difference. To the freeway travelers heading east, to those sharing a meal to celebrate its yield, the cultivator’s bold, simple form draws notice and casts its shadow.”
To the Stored Potential jury, Matthew’s drawing of a simple cultivator took on the quality and scale of infrastructure when sized equal to the elevator and juxtaposed with the adjacent freeway.
Since leaving Nebraska, Matthew has studied world religions and theology and spent several years in public policy advocacy focused on social justice issues. He now works for a private foundation in northern Minnesota, assisting rural communities in shaping their future through community engagement and cross-sector collaboration. Matthew believes that the deep social capital existing in small communities and the relational culture that generates it are assets that need to be better understood and utilized.
Matthew continues to be transformed by the people, land, and structures that create his “home place.” The risk of losing this connectedness pervades his paintings with grief, love and conviction. A few times a year, Matthew can be found wandering the acres and outbuildings of his childhood home to collect reference photographs. He describes this experience as “abstract, serene and unpredictable,” qualities that translate compositionally in his work. But this looking to the past is not an exercise in nostalgia. ”Having a place to return to, where my history physically resides, allows me to propel toward the future with greater intentionality. My art is one attempt to pass forward the best of my rural inheritance, honor extraordinary family ties, and extend the circle for my own children as we walk toward the future. If I didn’t know where I came from, I couldn’t know where I am–or how to get to where I want to go.”
More of Matthew’s work can be seen at www.matthewrezac.com.