The creation of art isn't the easiest thing to capture in a movie. What drives a person to turn a particular idea in her mind into a physical reality to be shared is difficult to explain, and the incremental, often laborious process of producing a piece of art generally isn't that interesting to watch. Maybe that's why films about artists tend to focus on people with big personalities, turbulent personal lives and unbridled passions that eventually lead to celebrated artistic breakthroughs.
Earthwork, which won the Audience Special Jury Award at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival and Best Feature Film at the Indie Spirit Film Festival, stars recent Oscar nominee John Hawkes as real-life crop artist Stan Herd and shows a reality that's probably much more familiar to people trying to make a living from their art, even if Herd's chosen medium is somewhat unusual. Herd uses soil, plants and other natural materials to create large-scale images best seen from the air, and Earthwork follows his 1994 attempt to bring his work from the farmland of Lawrence, Kansas to a vacant lot in New York. Watch the trailer for Earthwork below.
While the artists portrayed in many biopics are hampered by addiction, infidelity, a haunted past, the temptations of fame or the burden of misunderstood genius, Herd's obstacles are more mundane but infinitely more relatable to the non-famous artist -- getting your art noticed, the pressures of paying for expensive materials and equipment, and keeping vandals from messing with your stuff. Instead of tracing Herd's passion and inspiration for his work to a single childhood event, we see something more common to the artistically inclined -- the moment where a budding artist discovers the medium he most enjoys expressing himself with, which often consists of whatever happens to be around. Instead of trying to explain where Herd gets his passion to create, we're asked to accept what we probably accept about most of the artistic and talented people in our lives -- they were simply born that way.
After receiving an Oscar nomination (which I think he should have won) for his role as a scary, meth-addicted uncle in Winter's Bone, Hawkes shows that he can also play the nicer side of country folk, with Herd approaching his art with the soft-spoken, friendly, unpretentious attitude of a farmer trying to get his soil tilled and crops planted before the first rain. When some homeless men who live on the lot Herd is using become interested in his project, Herd welcomes their help and makes them his partners, more proof that the creation and appreciation of art is not the exclusive realm of pretentious, city dwelling elites.
Earthwork seems to be the kin of David Lynch's award-winning 1999 film The Straight Story, which is based on the true story of a man who spent six weeks riding a lawnmower across two states to visit his ailing brother. Both are stories about men from the country who undertake a slow, difficult task and how they affect and are affected by people they meet along the way. While neither film is an adrenaline-fueled thrill ride, the languid pace of both films is faithful to the fact that achieving something extraordinary is often a marathon, not a sprint, requiring perseverance, patience, and dedication to a vision that may seem ill-advised when viewed up close, but reveals its grandeur and beauty only when completed and seen in its entirety.
See the real Stan Herd creating an earthwork of 14th-century scholar Ibn Battuta below.
To learn more about Stan Herd, visit his website.
To find out if Earthwork is playing near you, visit the Earthwork website.
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