29 March 2024

Roots Run Deep

Kirsten Stolle harvests the intersection
of art, science, and culture


by Kate Mothes

In 1935, Roy Stryker was appointed head of the Information Division of the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA), commissioned by the Roosevelt Administration to document the impacts of the Great Depression on poor, rural families and what the government was doing to help. Early on, Stryker personally reviewed the submitted photographs mailed in by the FSA’s photographers in the field, and he would often “kill” images and remove them from the running by punching a hole directly into the negative, often right through a subject’s face or central motif. He continued with this practice for about four years despite photographers frequently expressing their dissatisfaction.

The Library of Congress has digitized nearly all of the more than 175,000 images taken for the FSA between the 1930s and mid-1940s, when the department shifted its attention to war subjects. Stryker’s punching practice was such a prevalent part of the process that one can search the archive using “hole punch” as a helpful keyword. And the method provides a compositional framework for Asheville-based artist Kirsten Stolle, whose work examines a topic chief in the minds of farmers and consumers alike: the influence of pesticide companies on our food supply.

Stolle is particularly concerned with how Bayer-Monsanto and Dow Chemical use text and visuals to shape public perception about the company’s controversial products and practices. “I combine archival research with appropriated printed and digital source materials to create artworks that resurface company history and expose persistent greenwashing,” the artist says.

Our Roots Run Deep is a collage project examining “how chemical companies curate their image and deliberately conceal their past.” The black dot characteristic of Stryker’s hole-punched negatives serves as a compositional tool that Stolle utilizes in juxtapositions of black and white photographs of chemical factories against color photographs of corn, soy, canola, wheat, and alfalfa fields. Hay bales or crop rows mimic factory architecture or the footprint of a large industrial complex is superimposed onto an aerial view of a small farm in the jarring pairings.

“Cut-outs, hole punches, collaged spheres, and ink circles are introduced and serve as viewfinders,” Stolle says, “a resting point to focus the eye. It is this back-and-forth tension between bleak chemical plants and fertile farms that underscores the industry’s false narrative.”

Find more on Stolle’s website and Instagram.

All images © Kirsten Stolle

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