M12 Collective brings experiential art to the American High Plains

M12 is an artists’ collective based in Byers, Colorado, a rural town in the American High Plains. The work of the collective inhabits rural places, and explores the aesthetics of those rural cultures and landscapes.

“For us it’s [about] places that have been overlooked by [our] culture,” says Kirsten Stoltz, Director of Programs for the M12 Collective. “They have a very strong presence, but are always overlooked as being not worthy of investment, a ‘fly-over zone.’ People don’t want to think about them.”

The American Plains region is M12’s primary area of focus, examining those rural communities that are overlooked and “bring attention to the really rich culture that’s in rural America today.”

“As creative professionals it’s really something that the concept of the rural runs deep [so] we can really investigate these areas that hold a lot of significance in our lives, [and in others’] lives too,” Stoltz says. “‘What is the continuum between rural and urban how are these communities diversifying? How is the landscape changing in the twenty first century?’ All of these topics are really important, and I feel like art and creative practice needs to be a part of that conversation.”

The M12 Collective started in 2007, growing out of a group that M12 founder Richard Saxton established as part of a project he was involved with at the Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin. He decided restructure the collective into a nonprofit and moved to Colorado, where he met Stoltz through the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.

“We started talking about growing up in the Plains region and how that really inspired our practices and what we were interested in,” Stoltz says. “So I decided to leave the museum and run the nonprofit side of M12.”

The M12 Collective is so named because at any given point in time there are about 12 regular members/collaborators/participants/organizers/what-have-yous, but that number “ebbs and flows” based on the needs of their projects and how those projects might evolve with new collaborators. Collaborators include everyone from a professor of architecture at UCLA to a writer that focuses on the American High Plains.

“We’re a group that has a lot of specialized folks involved,” Stoltz says. “We all really tend to look at this region in the Western United States for inspiration in our work, and of course looking at [aspects of the rural life] has always been a strong thread throughout our practice.”

One project that M12 oversees is Action on the Plains (AOTP), an annual collaborative program developed by M12 to support experiential art-making activities on the Eastern Colorado High Plains. M12 invites guest artists to work with them on conceptualizing and creating new work with students, community groups, area business professionals, and local citizens in and around Byers and Last Chance, Colorado.

“We started [Action on the Plains] to support experiential art making,” Stoltz says. “In essence it’s very much [artists] coming to the High Plains of Colorado to engage with the landscape and communities, creating new work that is really based off of these places. We invite people – not just artists but creative practitioners, sociologists, folklorists, documentarians…all of these people who can add to the team approach to expanding the new rural narrative that is going to be happening in the next 10 years.”

M12 selects collaborators whose work is on the cutting edge of an ever-expanding international dialogue surrounding art practices in rural environments. During the 2011-2012 AOTP cycle, M12 worked with photographer and physician Chip Thomas, known in the public art domain by his moniker Jetsonorama.

Thomas moved to the Navaho Nation 25 years ago to work as a family practitioner, and it was there that he developed his skills and passion as a portrait photographer, inspired by the people of the Navaho community who were the subjects of his photos. After a trip to Brazil in 2009, where he was further inspired by the street murals of Diego Rivera and Keith Haring, Thomas decided that he wanted his work to be accessible to the very people who were his subjects, not locked away in a gallery they would never see. And so Thomas, still a doctor by day, began working on large-scale public art pieces based on his photography.

“Our interests are pretty similar – the idea of rural vernacular [and] what does it look like in terms of an art practice. He’s been investigating reactivating rural communities,” Stoltz explains. Thomas photographs community members and paints wheat paste paintings of these photographs on abandoned, dilapidated structures. “It engages a conversation on community responsibility. How are we going to tell the stories of the community?”

Thomas was one of the first artists M12 engaged in the AOTP project. M12 had wanted to do a large-scale investigation in the Byers region, and a farmer they had been collaborating with over the years, Joe Turecek of Turecek Family Farms, was interested in having Thomas do a wheat paste painting on his grain silo. The farm can be seen from the interstate; now people drive by every day and see Thomas’s really bright wheat paste paintings (he ended up painting several of the farm’s structures), and the people pictured in the paintings are Turecek’s family members who were involved in forming the town of Byers. “There is a rich history there, not in an advertising way but a real investigation of what this place was and how it was set up.”

A more recent collaborative project shepherded by M12 is a documentary called Farmers and Ranchers by myvillages.org founder Wapke Feenstra with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Gates Family Foundation. This documentary, which will be completed later this month, is an international knowledge exchange project between young Dutch farmers and Future Farmers of America students in Deer Trail, Colorado (a small town next to Byers). This project is based on the importance of youth experiences in agriculture and how by sharing “local” knowledge these young farmers and ranchers can evolve farming traditions for the twenty first century.

“She has a real deep interest, similar to ours, in rural culture and the importance of celebrating it instead of seeing it in demise,” Stoltz says. “We ultimately wanted the conversation to [ask], ‘What is the future of farming in a regional context?'” The students in Colorado and Holland began exchanging photos online, and the FFA students even traveled to Holland for a cultural exchange. “What came out of the process is the relationships that were built between the young kids here and the young kids in Friesland and how they spoke about their family farms and the future of their family farms and the future of agriculture.”

The 20-minute documentary explores the topic of rural engagement as a feature of agriculture and how creative practitioners can drive community support and community engagement “without it being forced or without it being an outsider looking in.”

M12 is ultimately a project-driven organization, with no mandated style or medium, which means a project might consist of a massive wheat paste mural like with Jetsonorama, or it might be an international documentary like Feenstra’s, or it might have something to do with folklorists – an art form that has become of increasing interest and focus for M12. “These projects are really built with the intention of honoring these communities,” says Stoltz. “A lot of artists spent up to three months on these projects. It took us two years to do the whole project Farmers and Ranchers.”

When Saxton set out to turn M12 into a nonprofit, it was done with the intention of dissolving the very rigid, linear nonprofit structure that is hierarchical in nature and makes it difficult for individual artists to get funding for projects, while also paying homage and bringing attention to artists working within underrecognized rural communities. Now, ironically perhaps, major arts and philanthropic foundations like National Endowment for the Arts and the Gates Family Foundation are providing support to M12 projects, and it is this kind of support that will really push the work they do forward over the next decade. “[These organizations] are really looking at [our work] as this new rural narrative, how current creative practitioners can really invest their efforts in creating projects out here.”