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Oil and art: As artists tackle North Dakota’s boom, the results aren’t always pretty

"Rig Worker," a photo by Wayne Gudmundson1 / 3
"Rig Worker," a photo by Wayne Gudmundson2 / 3
"Rude," a screen print by Kent Kapplinger3 / 3

FARGO – As the North Dakota landscape continues to evolve with this latest oil boom, the way people see the state is changing as well.

Politicians, industrialists, environmentalists and the media all have a vision of what the state looks like and what it should look like.

More and more, artists are offering their own perspectives on the Peace Garden State. And it’s not always a pretty picture.

“There’s never been a time when so many people have gathered to make some kind of a response,” says Moorhead, Minn.-based photographer Wayne Gudmundson, adding that people have “flocked to see a phenomenon.”

“Anytime there’s change or anytime you’re on the cusp of something, record-making becomes more critical and charged. So I think this will draw a lot of (artists) out,” he says.

Coming into focus

Gudmundson speaks from experience. In the early 1980s he traveled the western counties of North Dakota shooting that generation’s oil boom.

For four decades he has framed landscapes across the state, capturing them in his signature, stately black-and-white, large-format photos.

“Western North Dakota has always been a place where I’ve taken a lot of joy being out in it,” he says. “When I went back, I was just sort of struck with the profound sense of loss and sadness for the place I knew and liked, where you could be outside at night and hear coyotes yipping and see all the stars that ever were.

“It was quiet, peaceful and open, and now it’s not. That corner of the state has certainly changed and will be for some time. It’s not the place I grew to love,” he says.

In 2011, he took a series of trips out west with a film crew from Prairie Public Television. For the trip, Gudmundson set aside the large-format camera and brought a hand-held digital camera for portraits of people in the area.

A show of his work, “Faces of the Oil Patch,” was exhibited at the North Dakota State University Memorial Union Gallery the following year.

His show, and the accompanying Prairie Public documentary, presented a cross-section of those affected by the oil boom, from small children to their grandparents and “ranchers to rig workers to Realtors with glassy-eyed grins that looked at all of the opportunities out there.”

In print

As a former farmer, Kent Kapplinger appreciates a relationship to the land. Even though western North Dakota is more ranching than farming, he’s still concerned with how the land is being treated.

“I’ve always been on the side of, ‘Let’s think a little further down the line,’ instead of ‘Let’s make a profit today,’ ” says the North Dakota State University arts professor.

Kapplinger expresses his concerns in his art.

The printmaker’s recent body of work, “Beneath the Surface,” was his reaction to reading news stories about life on the other side of the state.

The 2011 print “Blood Drive” uses the headline and text from a story, “ND tribe gets tough on oil waste disposal,” about the Three Affiliated Tribes implementing fines for oil companies that dumped on the Fort Berthold Reservation.

Kapplinger depicts a drill gushing blood above ground with the story below. Discolored dots represent an aerial view of the waste ponds.

“There doesn’t seem to be a major sense of concern. What happens after if the boom lasts 20 to 30 years?” he says, noting that the oil companies have already been working the Bakken formation for about a decade.

Another piece, “Rude,” is much more straightforward. A traffic sign reads “Caution crude oil” in three descending lines, but the “c” in crude is missing.

The piece raises the issue of how transportation has been affected in oil country as the increased traffic has taken a toll on the roads.

Despite spelling out his uneasiness, Kapplinger is not hopeful that the right people are listening.

“Lots of (these works), I feel they’re useless because I don’t think they’re making an impact on the audience I want to reach,” he says.

He recalls a trip to Minot a year ago where the prints were shown. He was dismayed no one came to give voice to an opposing point of view, leaving him feeling like he was preaching to the choir.

Proving his point was the one comment to an online article previewing the show in the Minot Daily News:

“Looks pretty onesided … (anti oil) to me. So guess I won’t be attending.”

Feeling the boom

Painter Eric Syvertson is less direct with his take on the oil issues. In fact, if you didn’t read the artist statement, you wouldn’t know they were about the subject at all.

Syvertson’s new show, “House Party,” just opened in Minneapolis, depicting images of young adults at a bash, doing keg stands and wrestling in a back yard. The images are an allegory for what he sees happening in his home state.

“The way I think about it is this abandonment of consequences and getting caught up in this over-indulgence,” he explains.

The idea came to Syvertson on his annual summer motorcycle ride across the state as he took notice of how things were changing.

“I don’t have any specific oil field imagery because I wanted it to be work that you could think more about consequence than a documentation of the boom,” he explains. He hopes some people will recognize the behavior as something they once took part in, prompting them to further consider his statement.

Consequence is even seen in paintings of discarded keg cups, something left behind when the party is over.

“Are the things that stick around from the oil boom the things that we want to have to live with?” he asks.

No easy answers

Becky Dunham moved to North Dakota in the fall and was immediately struck by people’s connection to the land here.

“It’s this deep connection to the land and seeing how it identifies you as a North Dakotan, that’s what artists are responding to,” she says.

As the new curator at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, Dunham is assembling the large group show, “The Bakken Boom: Artists respond to the North Dakota Oil Rush,” scheduled for early 2015.

The show includes Gudmundson, Kapplinger and Syvertson, as well as artists from Minot (Jessica Christy and Ryan Stander) to Minneapolis (Alec Soth, whose photos in The New York Times prompted the exhibit).

The Plains isn’t the only regional institution addressing the issue. In October, the Rourke Art Gallery Museum will exhibit photos from the Bakken by German photographer Andy Scholz.

“This new Wild West of the Bakken is inspiring artists, not only regional, but from abroad,” says Tania Blanich, the Rourke’s executive director. “It’s a gold rush in the Internet age, so it’s a romantic concept in a cynical world. I think that’s providing very rich content for the artists because they have a lot of entry points to explore. It’s economy, politics and the natural environment.”

The North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks also has plans for a show. “Fractured: North Dakota’s Oil Boom,” photos by Terry Evans and writing from journalist Elizabeth Farnsworth, will open at a later, unannounced date.

Dunham hopes the Plains’ show will tour the state and even beyond.

“Everyone in this state, one way or the other, has been affected,” she said, noting that the derailment of oil tankers near Casselton hit too close to home for many in Cass County.

“A lot of the art work is in some ways confrontational,” Dunham says. “It raises questions. It gets to the core of what the beliefs are.”

“Where else is there this kind of gold rush?” Blanich adds. “It’s a very unique situation.”