SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing
2017 - 2019
SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing was a process of serial socially engaged research facilitated by artists Francesca Fiore and Hillary Wagner in collaboration with the rural community of Bethel in Appalachian Ohio. From 2017 to 2019, SOIL SERIES took many forms including conversations, public programs, projects, and collective imagining. A drawing in the most expansive sense, SOIL SERIES was an exercise in relational mark-making. By creating the conditions for new conversations and possibilities around artmaking, the public, and social imagination, SOIL SERIES proposed social drawing as the generative engine for community-initiated action.
An early map of the SOIL SERIES social drawing in process. (Hillary Wagner, September, 2017.)
Social drawing builds upon Joseph Beuys’s theory of social sculpture, which emerged out of lectures he performed in the 1970s. Beuys’s social sculpture imagines all of society as one immense work of art similar to the Wagnerian “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “total work.” Believing in the transformative potential of human creativity through participation in the collective total work, Beuys asserted the fundamentally democratic nature of creativity and insisted that the work of an artist is not a specialized profession but a way of conducting one’s life. He famously declared (borrowing from German Romantic poet, Novalis), “every human being is an artist.”
Modifying social sculpture to respond to the specific scale, needs, and pace of a community such as Bethel while emphasizing the intimacy and immediacy that characterizes drawing, Francesca and Hillary framed their role as facilitators of and participants in a collective work in which conversations and connections would become marks in a relational drawing. They posited that by marrying drawing methodology to socially engaged practice, social drawing could access drawing’s raw potentiality and trigger the creation of new images, forms, and possibilities emerging from within the community. They titled the social drawing SOIL SERIES, referencing a term in soil taxonomy that indexes fundamentality, continuousness, and place. Following a code of ethics that prioritized horizontality and collaboration, Francesca and Hillary hoped their authorship would someday devolve upon the wider community of Bethel, and the social drawing would become a self-sustaining engine for change.
Appalachia as drawn by the Appalachian Regional Commission, 1967. (Bethel is marked in red.)
A village of approximately 3,000 residents located in the foothills of the often mythologized region of Appalachia, Bethel is Hillary’s hometown. Like many communities in the region, Bethel is experiencing widespread disinvestment, rising poverty and food insecurity, and a staggering opioid epidemic. While the village was once home to small, family-operated farms like those that existed in Hillary’s family, mounting financial pressures have driven most agricultural producers to cede their lands to larger operations. Increasingly, Bethel residents find employment outside the village in low-wage retail and service occupations. Meanwhile, the village’s storefronts and grocery stores blink in and out of business, and a perimeter of fast food restaurants and dollar stores thrives.
Elizabeth Catte writes in What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt Publishing, 2018), “Appalachia is, often simultaneously, a political construction, a vast geographic region, and a spot that occupies an unparalleled place in our cultural imagination” (p. 10). As the region took on symbolic significance during the 2016 presidential election and an emergency operating levy on the local ballot for Bethel’s schools threatened to end all arts and special programs had it not narrowly passed, Hillary and Francesca, who is from Philadelphia, began a long-term dialogue about place, lived experience, and art’s capacity to engender possibility. Believing that lasting, sustainable change must originate with bottom-up collective action, Francesca and Hillary developed social drawing as a methodology for community-based praxis rooted in a deep understanding of place.
Documentation of Community Studio artists collaboratively painting a map of Bethel with earth pigments sourced from the soil on the Empower Youth Ranch, Bethel, OH.
To learn more about SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing, please see soilseriesbethel.com
In 2019, SOIL SERIES organically evolved into the art collective, Bird Closet.