Hello all, Jed here.
If you're on instagram, and follow Abraham's Table Farm you may have seen a recent photo project we started in which we pose as various Millet paintings. It's possible you're wondering why we started it, or maybe you aren't. As it is an ongoing artistic project, however, it makes sense for me to introduce it here.
This project is not completely original to me. Before coming up with the first image, I had already seen other people imitate classic paintings from art history. My art history professor did a brilliant series with her family for her intro class. But the visual elements of the project are only half of the story. The other half is concept.
While we were harvesting garlic, gathering the stalks into bundles and putting them into crates, I couldn't help but think of Millet's painting of three figures harvesting grain. Besides the obvious visual comparisons, I had to also think of the deeper similarities and differences. Jean Francois Millet was born in 19th century France, in a time and place where there was a significant portion of the working class that lived a mostly poor, agrarian life. As a painter, Millet chose this demographic as his focus of interest. Millet was painting images of people who led simple, yet very hard lives, filled with loss, heartache, poverty, but also a strong connection to the earth and other people. When we look at Millet's paintings, they're marvelous. Rich in color, visual texture, pleasing compositions. He elevates, or idealizes the 18th century French peasant. Like when a cultural hero has a monument made of them, suddenly the real-life hard parts are easy to gloss over, or glamorize.
Having a background in art, I had these ideas in the back of my head while we were harvesting. I was not born into a farmer's family in rural France. I was born into a middle-class family in suburban America. But for this season I'm working as a farmer in north Minnesota, a lifestyle which is by no means rich. And I'm living and working alongside people who have chosen this lifestyle of hard work and low pay because of the satisfaction of working with the land in an environment which is meant to heal and bring life to the earth and the people who eat its bounty. Unlike me, the gleaners Millet painted probably did not have a choice to work anywhere else. It's impossible to tell if they liked being people of the earth. Maybe they longed for an easier life, one that was comfortable. But like the gleaners, I was engaging in an activity as old as the hills – gathering food from the earth.
I'm only scratching the surface of the comparison between Millet's version of the French peasant and the life we live here at the farm. A farm like this is built on ideals about the value of the earth, humanity's place here, and the role of the farmer in the modern world. But it's not really glamorous. It's sweaty, I get poop on my shoes everyday, and there's enough stress to go around. I still get to eat fresh vegetables everyday, experience nature consistently in varied forms, and be satisfied with doing a good job well. In that sense, Millet's peasants aren't so far off from us.
There are other directions this project may take in the future. And it's bigger than my ideas about it. Joel and Daniel will most likely give some of their thoughts on it in the future. Perhaps the project is thought-provoking for you, or at least enjoyable.