If emptiness has a view, it’s on the eastern Colorado prairie out near Joes, population 72.
And if that emptiness is an aesthetic, nowhere is it harnessed quite like it is on the two acres of land surrounding a house and couple of barns that Mabel and Robert Benton bought in 1926.
You can stand in the middle of the property at dawn and hear unseeable birds chittering in the golden prairie grasses. You can stay there as evening transitions to night and watch the sun turn the clouds from orange peel to molten lava. You can be moved to the core by the infinite sky showcasing the Milky Way, which seems to hum in the pitch-black darkness.
But as perfect as Bob and Mabel’s place may have been when they owned it, it’s become even better through the vision, sweat equity and passion of artist Kirsten Stoltz and community organizer Maureen Hearty since they acquired the land and started creating their dreamscape, Prairie Futures, in 2016. In the years since, they’ve transformed Prairie Futures into Prairie Sea Projects, which they call a collaborative that “aims to cultivate cross-disciplinary approaches to climate compassion through art practices in the Colorado High Plains.”
In simpler terms, this multifaceted endeavor is Hearty and Stoltz’s attempt to bridge art, community engagement and collaboration in the age of climate warming, which could threaten Colorado’s rural agricultural landscape. But that’s just one piece of Prairie Sea Projects’ overall mission, which Hearty said she hopes will create inspiration and “connection in isolation.”
An arts oasis on Colorado’s eastern high prairie
If you’re driving down U.S. 36 on the lookout for the project headquarters, you can find it without Siri barking directions out of your cellphone. It’s anchored by the gray-blue house at the end of a gravel driveway about halfway between the liquor store and the old Baptist church in Joes.
It’s where Bob and Mabel Benton lived in the 1920s. A kind, older woman now inhabits the bottom floor; the upstairs is saved for participants in the Alma Creative Residency. (The Sun partners with Prairie Sea Projects to bring writers there.) The multi-disciplinary bunch who travel from near and far to participate includes stage performers, writers, horticulturalists, gardeners and ecologists with an eye toward navigating climate change. Through an application process, they are invited to spend a week “connecting with and being inspired by the rural and vast northeast Colorado high plains,” according to the project’s website.
On a Monday evening in July, Nina Elder, an artist who creates large-scale projects focused on humanity’s dependence on and interruption of the natural world, arrived from “wherever I am … I live in my van. I travel around to different places and make art,” she said.
On her Facebook page during her weeklong residency, she posted pictures and videos of the prairie under moody, cloud-clogged skies, rainstorms streaking across the horizon and lightning bolts electrifying the air.
Accompanying these are the words “I am in a flat place overlapped by circles. I am in a green place lapping up underground waters. I am charting a new course and coursing into newness.”
When Elder rumbled off to her next destination, she left some of her artwork, a request but not a demand from Stoltz and Hearty.
The property’s physical beauty, and the place where the work of the artists who retreat there is displayed, lies behind the house in a living installation called Meadowland. The five 40-foot circular biodiverse experimental gardens are intended to encourage thinking about the regenerative nature of meadows and how they strengthen the ecological diversity of the prairie.
There’s a performance space on the site — a bright yellow, open-air building with a ceiling made of slatted wood that filters groovy geometrical shadow shapes onto the floor. On three weekends over this summer, different performers, not necessarily from the residencies, played live music. The last performance, on Sept. 16, will feature White Rose Motor Oil jamming their alt-country, cow-punk rock during a chili cook-off for the whole high plains community.
These performances and the offerings of artists who come to “lap up” and “course into newness” bring locals as well as visitors to Yuma County. Stoltz and Hearty call the garden a place to learn about regenerative agriculture, the performance space a place to showcase new ways of communicating. And a quaint little barn at the back of the site is decorated with portraits of people like Hearty’s grandmother-in-law standing on a dusty road in baggy jeans next to antique curio boxes displaying found art from the property. The Benton Homestead “is a community space to gather, celebrate and support the subsistence of rural economies and our future in the industrialized agricultural landscape.”
That’s fancy talk found on their website, which Stoltz said has some grant-speak. It makes sense, since philanthropic help from funding sources including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Gates Family Foundation keep the project running. But what does the concept-heavy language around it actually mean?
How Yuma County formed Stoltz and Hearty, and how Stoltz and Hearty formed Prairie Sea Projects
Hearty, a community organizer, and Stoltz, a conceptual artist, met by way of being Gen X, into the arts and humanities, fans of rural places and through shared roots in Yuma County.
Prior to creating Prairie Sea Projects, Stoltz, who is “fifth-generation from Yuma” and now lives in Denver, worked with Lucy Lippard, an early art feminist who argued for the “dematerialization” at work in conceptual art, on one of the first comprehensive exhibitions on the subject of climate change. She then joined M12 Studio, a group of award-winning artists, researchers and writers collectively based in Colorado and known primarily for art projects that explore public space, rural cultures and landscapes.
Stoltz said she did “a lot of reflecting” on artists making nontraditional museum work versus work that didn’t fit in the white walls of galleries. She quit her job and started thinking more about that and her upbringing in Yuma County.
For as long as she can remember, she’s been deeply connected to the town of Yuma, a result of spending summers there with her grandparents as a child. “I always felt really connected to the region and I wanted to think about what it looks like when my generation comes back and starts looking at these spaces and thinking about projects,” she said.
Hearty came to Joes “for family reasons and through curiosity,” she said. She’s a community organizer by training with deep roots in the nonprofit sector who spent years helping disenfranchised communities. Around 2008, she and Stoltz started talking about figuring out a way to create art in Joes, a town like so many on the Colorado prairie that will have to grapple with the effects of climate change.
“There’s also this Gen X generation that is interested in wide-open spaces and thinking about where you’re from and how that influences your work and what you’re inspired by,” Stoltz said. “Maureen is an amazing community activist and has so much knowledge about how to do projects that are about participation and learning and growth, so she and I started working together.”
Through countless conversations and hours of brainstorming, the women, with fellow collaborators Lynn Gottmann and Jacques Abelman, came up with an organization that matched their vision.
Stoltz said as people learned about Prairie Sea Projects, they started trickling in.
“The affinity for the rural is there, so it draws people to these places,” she added. “It’s kind of like we’re looking at a painting and saying, ‘Oh that’s beautiful. It’s pastoral.’ There’s this kind of romanticism about it. But the reality is you get out there and there are no resources, no water. The ground is dry and awful and the pesticides turn the soil into dust.
“So I wanted to say, here’s a certain amount of reality,” she added. “We need to be real in our thinking. These towns are shrinking. Their way of life is changing.”
Climate change is happening, too, even with this summer being one of the wettest on record in eastern Colorado, ending a long period of hard drought, at least for the moment.
But the women respect the people who live in Yuma and Joes, so they didn’t want to “helicopter in” with so-called answers. Most of their projects “aren’t hit you over the head, this is what we’re gonna do,” Stoltz said.
Blending art and agriculture for the greater good
What Stoltz and Hearty do try to offer are projects and workshops centered around things like sustainable agriculture and planting pollinator gardens. These they leaven with “engaging ideas that make the community feel like ‘Oh, I can jump on board. Oh, this is interesting. This isn’t art with a capital A,’” Stoltz said.
This includes encouraging people to wander through the experimental gardens, each with signs in front of them containing quotes or philosophies from environmental leaders. One sign has a quote by E.O. Wilson, the American biologist and ecologist known for developing the field of sociobiology.
“If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago,” he wrote. “If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
Another sign with a quote from Native American activist, economist and author Winona LaDuke says: “Mother Earth needs us to keep our covenant. Whether you have feet, wings, fins or roots, we are all in this together.”
And still other signs inform garden wanderers about the benefits of planting goldenrod (tolerance to drought, stabilizes soil, offers humans kidney and joint health) and meadows (they store 70% more carbon than a traditional monocrop turf lawn). They promote building bird-attracting gardens (birds facilitate seed dispersal) and practicing regenerative agriculture (minimum to zero tilling, builds a diverse biological ecosystem). And they tie prairie ecology to mental health (“getting dirt under our nails is both physiologically therapeutic and neurologically nourishing,” says science).
Hearty particularly loves when kids come to the gardens, because of “the way they engage without structured play,” she said. “To see them really GET the idea. I’m always like, ‘Oh my god, we need to learn from kids how to engage in our spaces.’”
It’s nearly as gratifying watching a woman from the community who suffers with depression come to the garden, she added. “She sighs and says you have created such a therapeutic and peaceful space. It’s those tiny little bits of feedback I treasure.”
All in for high plains film school
But on an August during the Prairie Sea Projects Switchgrass Film workshop, there’s no time for self-congratulation.
The workshop is offered to students living in Yuma and surrounding counties. All they need is an interest in learning about some aspect of film, dedication to a week of hard work and the bravery to share a part of themselves through the medium.
In exchange for their undivided attention, they get deep instruction about how to frame shots, storyboard scenes and tell a narrative story from professional filmmakers.
Hearty said last summer six kids made a documentary about businesses in the town of Yuma. They focused on a rancher growing grass-fed beef, the independently owned Yuma Pioneer newspaper and The Orphanage, an auto-themed gallery space owned by Ron Wenger and Richard Birnie.
Sixty people came to the screening, which was held at the Yuma Theatre. To get their material, the kids had to meet community leaders, follow them through their daily life and tell their stories. The culminating piece didn’t deal with agriculture or climate change directly, but Hearty said Switchgrass did the job it intended to.
“We’re just determined to try to make an impact with our community,” she said.
The kids are preparing a new film focused on the soundscapes of the high plains and ready for viewing at the Yuma Theater on Main Street this Sunday.
Correction: This story was updated on August 11, 2023, at 10:53 a.m. to fix the time period Kirsten Stoltz worked with Lucy Lippard.