The Bakken Boom! Artists Respond To The North Dakota Oil Rush

The oil rush has altered the physical and economic landscape of western North Dakota, setting changes in motion that reverberate well beyond state lines. Over twenty artists from across the country explore the consequences of that transformation in “The BAKKEN BOOM! Artists Respond to the North Dakota Oil Rush” at the Plains Art Museum in downtown Fargo.

I had a chance to talk with three of the artists in the exhibit about their work as well as their thoughts on and connections to the oil boom. Here’s a look at North Dakota oil development through their eyes.

“Bounty” by Michael Conlan

Michael Conlan, Grand Forks, ND
Michael Conlan’s hometown is changing before his eyes. The mixed media artist grew up in Williston, North Dakota and now teaches at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. He uses a wide range of materials, including wheat, photographs and 22k gold leaf to create evocative musings on time and place.

What’s your connection to the North Dakota oil boom?
Michael Conlan: “I have a interesting connection with the oil boom, I was born and raised in Williston ND, which is at the heart of the oil patch. I left ND in the late 1990’s for college and returned for Grad School at University of North Dakota. My graduate research helped me reconnect to my hometown of Williston. It also provided me with an outlet to visually express my ongoing disconnect between the pastoral notion of place versus the reality of what is currently going in the oil patch. My work is about the intimate knowledge of a place which no longer exists and probably never truly existed.”

How do you describe your work to someone who has never seen it before?
Michael Conlan: “My work focuses on the Idea of Place, a locations perceived history, myths and identity, through the use of photographic images and mixed media. The work addresses the fact that these ideas of place can prove more powerful to the viewer than the reality of the place. The subject matter of my work primarily focuses on the region’s vernacular motifs and historic depictions of agricultural bounty to explore the connection between the myths and realities of the land.

There is a deep and rich history in American Art that showcases the landscape as artistic subject matter and this has helped shape how Americans view our land and national identity. Artists have long been engaged in the cultural construction of our nation, utilizing the artistic tropes of the myth, idealization, and glorification in their depictions of the land. My work builds upon this American landscape tradition as Western North Dakota’s landscape evolves from an agricultural landscape to an industrial fossil fuel landscape.”

How do you create pieces like “Bounty” and “The Truth or Something Beautiful” series? The way you combine materials — especially your use of golf leaf — is so intriguing.
Michael Conlan: “Both projects, ‘Bounty’ and ‘The Truth series’ were experimentation in mixed media. I wanted to highlight the notion of what is precious and what we as a culture hold dear. In ‘The Truth or Something Beautiful’ series, I wanted the work to be more than a photograph of an abandoned homestead, the work is about the romantic idea of the homestead not the actual physical location itself.

We as a culture hold this notion of the homestead as a precious part of our American History, which is why I use a precious metal (22k gold leaf) to mask the abandoned building. With the gold masking and highlighting the vernacular architecture, the piece becomes about the idea of the homestead rather than a record of an actual location.

‘Bounty’ is about bringing a notion of place into the gallery and letting the viewer experience the actual material in the photographs. By gilding the ground which the wheat is ‘growing’ from, the piece is celebrating the pastoral agrarian notion and highlights the preciousness of the land.

The use of 22k gold leaf is a metaphor for the idea of preciousness, whether it is about the abandoned homestead or current land use practices. The gold represents our culture’s past, current and future relationship with Western North Dakota’s oil patch.”

“Howling Winds” by Patrick Vincent

Patrick Vincent, Moorhead, MN
Printmaker Patrick Vincent uses symbolism and large scale installations to challenge viewers’ perceptions of the world. He’s a Minneapolis native who currently teaches printmaking at Minnesota State University Moorhead. His dreamy and slightly diabolical pieces move and sway in the wind,  tempting viewers to engage.

How do you describe the work that you do?
Patrick Vincent: “I am an assistant professor of printmaking so printmaking media —- handmade multiples -— are a big part of my language as an artist. I am also fascinated by physical space and materials, so some of my work uses paper and prints as installation materials, one such work will be included in the Bakken Boom! show.

Thematically I am interested in folk stories and fables where humans and animals are merged together to create this symbolic ‘other’ creature. I am interested in what these stories and images say about us as a species defined by series of cultures. I use this imagery—often in woodcut relief print, screen-print, lithograph, or straight-up drawing—to reflect on humans’ values concerning the natural world and how we define it.”

How has the oil boom affected your life and work?
Patrick Vincent: “I arrived in Moorhead about year ago to begin teaching at MSUM. I’m a native Minnesotan but I had been out of state for the last four years or so. Returning to the northern midwest with the oil boom creating a lot of headlines and altering the landscape, it was hard not to confront it. My recent work has been exploring the sense of land and place Dakotans and Minnesotans have as the Bakken oil boom changes our social and physical environments.”

Why is Bakken Boom! an important exhibit for patrons to experience?
Patrick Vincent: “While I can’t speak in detail of the other artists featured in the exhibition, I would say we are all thinking about how this boom forces a transition in place and culture. For me, the biggest issue is that this surge in population in northwest North Dakota and the change in industry that forces us all to ask what we value in our homesteads.

What is important as we think about place? If people and place shift around us, what does that say about our identities? What do we value in our land and our culture—do those conflict in the Bakken oil boom? I don’t think these are all going to be answered by the artists in the exhibition, but in our artwork we will challenge people to think about some of these issues.”

“Nodak Portrait” by Kyle Cassidy

Philadelphia photographer Kyle Cassidy is famous for photographing outliers, people and groups on the fringes of society. So he was a natural choice to document the man camps that house oilfield workers in the Bakken. His honest, unflinching portraits of the residents were taken alongside scientists and academics who were documenting the man camp. His work skillfully illustrates the complexity — and humanity — of the people who make up this unusual community.

Why photograph the man camps?
Kyle Cassidy: “It’s interesting when you have art tied to science because they both have different sets of goals. So when I’m in the field, I’m looking at things from an entirely visual perspective and there are academics there too looking for data points and hopefully when they all come together you’ve created something which is both useful and beautiful at the same time.

There are, I think, a few things that make us ‘human’ and that make being human special. One is our ability to perform science — to make tools and solve problems — another is compassion, being able to care for people and animals in ways that don’t directly benefit us and a third is a sense of aesthetics, being pleased by certain shapes or colors or patterns. I think it’s my job to help people see this story as one that is important across all the things that make us human. So I picked images that I felt resonated aesthetically and that backed up the work that the researchers are doing.

I’m also looking at things from the perspective of someone who lives in a big city, so I think that a lot of the things that jump out at me are spacial. In photographing the Bakken I see two really interesting extremes — one is the just incredible expanse of horizon, these wide open areas, — and at the other extreme you see people living in extremely small spaces so you see the things that are most important to them. To me this is really interesting — what do you take when you can only take a suitcase? For a lot of these people ‘home’ is somewhere else, but they might not see it for months or years even. What do you bring? What’s essential? What keeps you alive and what feeds your mind?”

What’s your connection to the North Dakota oil boom?
Kyle Cassidy: “I have a house that’s heated with natural gas, I ride busses and trains, cars and airplanes — like every American my daily life is dependent on oil. Whether that’s the type of energy that’s going to be powering our world in fifty years or a hundred years remains to be seen, but it’s what’s here right now.”

Why is Bakken Boom! an important exhibit for patrons to experience?
Kyle Cassidy: “I think it’s really easy for people to not think about where their energy comes from, you know, ‘The electricity comes from the light switch’, not realizing that there are people behind every part of it. I’m from Pennsylvania where we produce a lot of coal and now natural gas and I think people see energy production in broad strokes but not think about the people who make every little part of it happen — from the engineers to the truck drivers to the people making sure they’re fed and the people building housing, every time you start your car there are people’s lives behind that ignition switch there making it happen.

Oil production is one of the underlying base layers of almost every person alive on the planet today, we’re completely dependent on it, it’s a huge part of the story of America. Also, the story of people traveling to work in places where natural resources have been discovered, uprooting their families sometimes, or leaving to send money home, is a very American story, from the land rush to the gold rush, to logging, fishing, this is one more chapter in that story.”

“The Truth or Something Beautiful” by Michael Conlan

Bakken Boom! Artists Respond to the North Dakota Oil Rush
Now through August 15
Plains Art Museum
704 1st Avenue North
Fargo, ND

All images is this post are provided by the artists and used with permission. All rights reserved.

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