I’m a shepherd. Before this season of my life I was an artist. I’m a hand spinner, knitter, felter, have dabbled in sketching and painting, and since childhood have been a musician studying both piano and saxophone at length. After so many years in the arts, it has seemed to be an interesting change of direction to find myself as a farmer, shepherd, and steward of the land.
One might wonder how these two worlds intersect and support each other. Perhaps the greatest way the creative and agrarian worlds run parallel is in the critical skills of observation, study, and structure.
“We have neglected the truth that a good farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, a kind of artist.” Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural
When caring for any animal, few of us will leave the well-being of the animal to chance. Farmers don’t simply jump in to find it works or it doesn’t. Rather in the case of livestock, we walk hay fields and paddocks taking note of the combination of feed, its maturity, and quantity. Decisions are made as to where to have the animals graze and in what order, and which fields will be hay with the possibility of grazing later in the year. It’s a plotting of ideas sketched out, modified, reconsidered, and even reimagined as we ebb and flow with nature, weather and needs of the animals.
In much the same way, composers draft compositions, change instrumentation, listen to the written piece and alter notation until it sounds as they imagined it would. Even after being put to print, those pieces are reimagined by new performers years, if not centuries later. Each performer will interpret dynamics and the drive of a phrase in their own unique way yet still within the structure of the piece.
Artists are thought by many to simply stand in front of their canvas, make strokes of their brushes and bring a master piece about as if they possess a magic wand. In fact, many artists will draft an elaborate study of their subject. There may be many sketches which involve grid lines, notes about how many bricks a building may contain, testing of media to achieve the tone they wish to project to their observer. Many artists will view their work in a mirror to see their work anew and decide where it needs to be altered.
Spend every day in front of your canvas. This was a concept the famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth shared with his children. His son, Andrew Wyeth, spoke of painting what you know. He was well known for painting from sketches completed after long observation of the places and people he painted rather than from photographs. Andrew Wyeth believed if he spent long enough observing what he intended to paint, his painting would exude the personality and emotion of its subject.
Spend time every day with your livestock. This is advice offered by Temple Grandin, an expert in the field of livestock handling. Her advice to those working with animals is to observe your animals every day. Spend time learning how they move and behave throughout their days. This simple act allows you to know immediately when something is wrong with a single animal or within the flock.
For those who work the land and tend to the health and happiness of it and the animals, may you see your work as a form of well-orchestrated artistry. Attuned often as needed to the tenor of the soil, sky, and sun.
For those who are observers of the art of agriculture, may you be frequent patrons of these labors purchasing rare masterpieces of nourishment and cloth and speaking enthusiastically to others of the struggling artist; the small farmer.