The geographer Robert Sack has a diagram of a loom, as his image of the means by which people weave an understanding of place through the threaded realms of nature, social relations, and cultural-spiritual meaning. Cultural geographers and people interested in the realms of place meaning have occasionally turned to landscape painting to develop their texts, such as in Yi-Fu Tuan’s book, Art, Place and Self, or Felix Driver and Felicity Callard’s Landings. For me, the most important scholar whose loom wove together art and geography was Denis Cosgrove, who died on March 21, 2008, almost the exact day when this website went live. Denis was responsible for opening my eyes to the cultural geography we inhabit and the contested ways in which we create meaning, social relations, and, indeed, much of what we call nature. Denis produced a brilliant keynote address for the first “Imagination and Place” conference at the Lawrence Arts Center in October 2001. I remember picking him up at the airport, the first time he had flown (and the first time I had picked anyone up at an airport) in the post-9/11 world. Much of the last decade of Denis’s life produced some mighty powerful analyses of the ways humans looked at the earth from above. That day, instead, we talked about the reverse, from the ground up – what befuddlement the emptiness of the skies during the days after the September 11 events had foisted upon us. Denis was very glad to have been flying again. Having never flown in a plane with him, I have often imagined that he might have been able to regale the person seated next to him on any flight with a detailed analysis of what they were flying over, with the artistry of wordplay for which he had such a subtle gift.
From the Ground Up is meant to be a human’s eye view of this place those of us creating the site inhabit presently, eastern Kansas. Denis Cosgrove had a healthy dose of cultural Marxism infused into his earlier writings, but he seemed to want to use this to take us back to humanism, through the empirical assessment of Renaissance art and science, a human’s eye view. His work is, for me, a crucial touchstone for a critical humanist way of thinking about meaning in nature and social relations, what I like to think of as the “smoke-in-the-clothing-after-the-fire” kind of ground-level humanism, even when he was writing about what earth looked like from the moon. When you come to visit From the Ground Up, you are likely to start from a different site every time, but the best way to start is with a painting. Stare at it like the fire on a campout. This is when you get the feeling I am talking about, when you know you’ve been on a campout, and the wood kept you warm, so why deny burning it. I often think of the nature and social relations that come together for me in Paul Hotvedt landscape paintings – look at the elements people made, even the weeds, but also elements of what make them who they are. This is the point I learned from Henri Lefebvre – the space of these landscapes is socially produced, but it reacts back upon society.
I learned this exact point early and hard in life. I grew up on the northern-side mountain of the Wyoming Valley in northeastern Pennsylvania. There used to be a television advertisement campaign for our state parks, where the spokesperson implored us to “enjoy, enjoy – the great outdoors of northeastern Pennsylvania!” As a teenager, if I looked to the left of the TV set while the ad played, out the window and down the mountain into the great outdoors of my town, Larksville, I saw, in descending order:
I was raised staring across a transect of trauma, the trauma of what people do to nature under the social relations of industrial capitalism, or what a beer company in the city of my birth, Wilkes-Barre, cleverly recast as “bucolic industrial splendor.” There is plenty to enjoy in the great outdoors of northeastern Pennsylvania, to be sure – rich forests, riveting streams, mountains that haven’t had their slopes stripped off (ah, but only in Pennsylvania would dreaming tourist marketers create the place-name, Endless Mountains, for a modest collection of decent hills). But the most common activity my townsfolk enjoyed, and enjoyed, in the great outdoors, seemed to be drinking themselves silly while on a deer hunt in what always seemed like my back yard, from the sound of the guns. I was only transfixed the first time I saw how someone bled a deer, hanging it by its haunches from a tree in the back yard right next to my elementary school playground. After that it seemed about as normal as the culm dump. I say all this because I have never been able to look down on the earth without people on it. When I have looked across it, I have seen the fields and factories and farms people have made in it, or the parks that they put fences around and call nature. When I look up from the ground, especially the ground of eastern Kansas, I see trails of jet vapors. When I look at Paul’s paintings, I sometimes feel like he is using his colors to imagine what the rocks and the dirt and the bushes and the clouds might be saying back to us. I am only relieved it is not the crab-apples of Larksville reaching out for me from his canvas. So here is From the Ground Up: weave your loom. Thank Denis for the vision.
- The crab-apple thicket of secondary growth on a strip mine
- The open sore on the land from said strip mine
- The smoke from the mine fire in the hole where said strip mine had been used as a garbage dump
- The culm dump from the deep anthracite mine that the strip mine had replaced
- The city full of coal company houses that the Susquehanna River had destroyed in the floods that followed Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 (including my childhood home and the ripped-up graves of my ancestors dating back to 1756) and the deep-mine floods of the Knox Mine Disaster of 1959
- The distant hint of the homes on the mountain opposite that my mother always said had belonged to the robber barons that ran the deep mines and the strip mines
Prof. Garth Andrew Myers Lawrence, Kansas, April 2008
Wisconsin native Paul Hotvedt moved to Kansas in 1994. Painting the landscape of eastern Kansas became a starting point for organizing two interdisciplinary groups: The Kansas Committee on Imagination & Place and From the Ground Up.
He enjoys combining the precision and regular practice of musical communication with the power of object making!
Hotvedt is the owner and operator of Blue Heron Typesetting, a company specializing in scholarly book and journal production.
He is married to Chris Hotvedt. Their two children are Nels and Maisie.