In the second installment of his three-part blog series, Bowen Ames—our moonlighting Art Director—profiles Nolan Calisch. This artist, photographer, and founder of Wealth Underground Farm uses an unconventional approach to sustainability to live his art every day.
Nolan Calish is equal parts farmer and artist. Though seemingly exclusive, these two identities became harmonious early in his adulthood. While studying filmmaking and photography in college, Nolan grew a garden for his local community. Soon after, he found himself working on several farms and large gardens before moving to Portland to begin an apprenticeship at Sauvie Island Organics.
As he immersed himself in agriculture, his art practice evolved to be more collaborative and socially engaged. “In college I began to really think about the world around me critically and realize how much trouble we were in. I realized that in my short time on earth that I wanted to leave the place in better shape than I found it,” says Nolan. But this didn’t mean abandoning his art practice for a more traditional pursuit of social change.
As an artist, Nolan has never aspired to work from a cerebral or self-concerned place. Instead he aims at maintaining a creative practice that aspires to tell a story while actively participating in that story. It’s an approach that is evident in his artwork; his photography delivers sensitive imagery of farming and the culture that evolves from the practice of growing food.
As he perused his art, his agricultural love affair also grew. In 2007, Nolan founded Wealth Underground Farm in Portland with his friend, Chris Seigel. Their dream of running a farm manifested out of many conversations about creating a collective homestead, a place to feed themselves and their neighbors, and a place to work outdoors. For Nolan, farming is highly connected with a sustainable creative practice.
“My work as an artist is about countering the monoculture mentality. I am much more interested in a diverse poly-culture, both in my field and in society at large” says Nolan. As an artist and a farmer, Nolan has made a conscious decision to build a life that is more compassionate, more communally minded, and more ecologically sensitive than the traditional artistic practice of creating work in a studio and competing for the limited accolades our society awards to the struggling artist.
If you ask him about his artwork, you’ll find the conversation is much more about the experience of making art rather than a long list of achievements. Nolan attributes this difference to his affinity for a non-competitive model of art making. It’s a model that already exists in the small farming community and one that is based on the principal that if enough food is produced for the mouths who require it, there isn’t a need for competition.
“I love the exchange that happens in a CSA where local consumers are supporting local growers and there’s a sense of co-investment and cooperation. It’s strikingly different from the model in the art world where there’s a lot of competition and a dog-eat-dog attitude.”