Words from art critic/writer Jeff Huebner

In Chicago, Cathi Schwalbe is known as the Corn Lady. It’s not hard to see why. Much of her artwork is about corn and explores corn culture. Then again, it is hard to see why. Chicago is not known for growing corn—if there is corn here, there’s a good chance that Schwalbe and her cohorts have planted it. Chicago was known, historically, as a market for wheat—“Stacker of Wheat,” poet Carl Sandburg called it—yet it is still a corn futures market, too. After all, corn (more than wheat) literally surrounds the city, “Nature’s Metropolis,” on all sides, except the east. (If it weren’t for the lake, corn’d be there, too.)

“I’d like people to be more mindful of the things they do every day—and that’s eat,” she remarks. What she does is more than just “agricultural art.” Schwalbe’s work reminds us of the relationship between land and food, between where we live and how we eat, between what we make and what we grow. At the same time, it also reminds us how disconnected we are from our food and creative—our agri/cultural–sources. She aims to cultivate us.

Schwalbe is restlessly inventive—and warmly engaging, too. Her multifaceted objects and performances–whether she’s making ceramic or bronze maize kernels; planting corn mazes; organizing celebrations and processions; completing farm-and-art residencies (Fields Project, Worm Farm Institute); wrapping corn storage bins (shades of Christo!); doing crib installations; and generally, creating with non-GMO corn, found objects, fabrics, photographs, beads, concrete, glass, and clay, as well as collaborating with artists Danny Mansmith, Bill Friedman, and many others—also seek to restore the pastoral agrarian (or fertility) rituals that lurk beneath modern rural and urban life.

Demeter in the parlor! Ceres in the pantry! Chicomecoatl in the patio!

Many Chicagoans came from somewhere else; and where many have come from is the surrounding Corn Belt, i.e., the sticks, the boonies. We come to the city, bringing those corn roots with us. Some of those city folk don’t want to be reminded of their past. “People in the city don’t understand my work,” says Schwalbe. “It’s the people who move back to the country who do.”

Although a native of semi-rural Wisconsin (Cedarburg), a committed city dweller (West Lakeview), and a longtime recreational therapist, Schwalbe was initially drawn to art and food through forays out into the Illinois countryside and what she calls the “beauty in agricultural buildings—I liked barns and bins and cribs—and the sculptural landscape.”    What, after all, is her and fabric artist Danny Mansmith’s Wrapped Pfeiffer Centennial Bin (Ashton, Illinois, 2008) but an artwork that expresses the extraordinariness, the inherent artfulness, of an ordinary vernacular structure always there but not always seen in the Midwestern farmscape? I will never see a bin, or a crib, the same way again.

“In a sense, I do Pop art—the stuff we see every day and it’s elevated to something else because I’ve paid attention to it,” observes Schwalbe. If anything, it is somewhat in the spirit of “The Store,” Claes Oldenburg’s plaster-wire-and-paint sculptures of cheap food and other merchandise shown for a couple months in a Lower East Side space in 1961. They become critiques of consumer capitalism, metaphors of abundance—and want.

The more Schwalbe has explored corn and food systems, the more her aesthetic appreciation has evolved into ethical concern. Eating is not just an agricultural act, as writer and farmer Wendell Berry has said; it is a profoundly political one as well, as she soon discovered. (Yet, her annual Corn Celebrations at the Lillstreet Art Center are fun and festive and ceremonial). Schwalbe’s work is about nature and science, waste and reuse, sowing and reaping–the cycles of life. She and her corn take us back to the land, back to the earth, in some ways back to the origins of humanity, of civilization, itself.

Cathi Schwalbe-Bouzide has made—and continues to make—art that addresses what may the most critical issue of our time: Our sustainable future, our survival as a species.

What’s more, we can have as much of a blast consuming it as she does creating it.

–Jeff Huebner

Chicago art writer/critic

August 2009