Califonia Bountiful

It's a bountiful life: Seeing is believing

January/February 2017 California Bountiful magazine

Art About Agriculture brings fields to museum walls

"Heirlooms" by Susan Brown, pastel.

John Nichols

Photographer and gallery owner John Nichols and painter Gail Pidduck began collaborating artistically by visiting local farms and orchards in Ventura County. The experience led them to found the Ag Art Alliance and curate the annual Art About Agriculture exhibit at the Santa Paula Art Museum. We spoke with Nichols about the inspiration behind the show, now in its ninth year and running through Feb. 26.

Why did you and Gail Pidduck decide to begin organizing Art About Agriculture? We felt there was a natural affinity between art and agriculture. We believe that through art, we can make social change by first raising the level of awareness of the viewers, and the viewers are going to naturally want to know more and become more informed voters.

What kind of art does the show feature? This year, we have 77 pieces of art from 65 artists. They're all contemporary artists. We're not just selecting pretty landscapes, and we're not just accepting oil paintings. We're taking in abstract art, sculpture, photography—things that are maybe a little more challenging.

What has the response been from the community? It's very popular. The opening reception is a full house. It's almost like watching a tree grow, to see this exhibit develop and then blossom every year. It's becoming more vigorous and qualitatively better each year.

"Jilted Brides" by Ted Dayton, photograph, left, and "The Rush" by Chuck Kovacic, oil.

What is your own background regarding agriculture? I grew up in Southern California, Ventura County—lots of agriculture all around, my entire life. But it was a viewscape. I was driving along the freeway and I would look out and I'd see the pretty fields. A lot of people want to preserve agriculture so that their view is not disturbed. I was probably in that category, where you think that vegetables come from the supermarket, not from the ground.

How did your view of agriculture change when it became a subject for your photography? Artistically, to get right down in between the rows, just visually it is so exciting and stimulating. It just made me really warm and glowing after a few hours in the field with the people who were working so hard and smiling and bringing the food to our tables. I was introduced to the complexities of agriculture through art.

How do you hope the show impacts its audience? It really gets down to informing each generation anew about the nature of their existence and how it's dependent on agriculture and the inherent value of a healthy agriculture system.

Are the artists featured in the exhibit all local? At first, it was Ventura County. But with the internet and the way word spread, we have reached out to people in Hawaii, Northern California, Southern California, as far away as the East Coast and the Midwest. We have no geographical boundaries. We get a lot of the art shipped in. And I think it's because we're filling a gap at the museum level with an annual show about agriculture that doesn't happen as often as it should around the country.

How do artists approach art about agriculture? I would say that, for long periods of time, paintings and art about agriculture were not the hippest thing to do. And now, society has changed enough to allow freedom of expression for artists creating art about agriculture, because society is more welcoming to looking at agriculture. There's just a proliferation of food magazines and the foodie movement. That's bringing artisanal foods to a wider and wider population and then increasing their awareness about where their food comes from. Now, the museum is like a restaurant that is feeding the visitors visual, artisanal meals that are agriculture-related.

What do you enjoy about organizing this show? Gail and I are approaching this art about agriculture as an art piece in itself, so that the viewers will see our work as a collection of 77 pieces by other artists. They won't see our hand, necessarily, but we will have impacted the viewer as artists.

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