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A piece by Grand Forks artist Michael Conlin, who struggled to find the open, rolling fields of wheat he remembered from his youth. (Image: Danielle Wente/Shale Plays Media)

Bakken Boom!: Plains Art Museum brings oil field buzz to Fargo

Image: Danielle Wente/Shale Plays Media

Image: Danielle Wente/Shale Plays Media

Over the past decade, the Bakken oil boom has thrown North Dakota into the international spotlight. Its effects have rippled through the state, the region, the nation and even beyond. The new exhibit at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, Bakken Boom!, brings the oil industry to the museum’s viewers. “The show invites you to consider the new realities in western North Dakota, and the profound impact of the energy boom on lives and the land,” the exhibition’s description states. For Becky Dunham, the curator responsible for bringing the show together, the exhibition is all about creating a conversation.

“My goal is to get people thinking about it and then to start having conversations about it. I feel like a lot of people talk about this topic privately, maybe with people they know have the same opinions that they do, but I haven’t witnessed since I moved here conversations taking place between people with opposing thoughts or in a public setting or between the different entities that this affects,” Dunham told Shale Plays Media in an interview. Originally from Texas, she believes the oil industry is as essential to the Texan lifestyle as margaritas and cowboy boots. In North Dakota, though, she noticed how people tend to isolate the oil and gas industry to the western part of the state.

Throughout the exhibit, viewers are confronted with the changes in North Dakota that are difficult to grasp from the state’s eastern border. Featured on two main galleries on the second and third floors of the museum, Bakken Boom! is an expansive show featuring 22 artists from North Dakota, from the Upper Midwest, and from other areas impacted by the oil and gas industry. Participating artists were hand-selected and invited by Dunham to ensure that the exhibition was expansive enough to do justice to the weight of the subject matter.

In addition to curating a show that is comprehensive enough to tackle the issues which come with North Dakota’s oil boom, the exhibit will remain at the Plains for more than seven months. Although shows with borrowed art works typically only run for a few months, Dunham felt that a lengthier time period was important. “We wanted to make sure that we gave as wide an audience as possible a chance to see the show.”

At the gallery opening on January 29th, initial responses to the exhibition seemed to point to Dunham’s success. Peter Schultz, executive director at The Longspur Prairie Fund and former chair of the art department at Concordia College, was impressed by the show’s scope. “It’s complex and it’s nuanced. There’s a lot of different perspectives and a lot of different media, there’s something for everybody, a fantastic cross-section of different ways to look at the boom and what it means to our area and region.”

Lucinda Cobley's The Last Tree was inspired and accompanied by the Cree prophecy, "Only after the last tree has been cut down. Only after the last river has been poisoned. Only after the last fish has been caught. Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten." (Image: Danielle Wente/Shale Plays Media)

Lucinda Cobley’s The Last Tree was inspired and accompanied by the Cree prophecy, “Only after the last tree has been cut down. Only after the last river has been poisoned. Only after the last fish has been caught. Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.” (Image: Danielle Wente/Shale Plays Media)

One visitor called the exhibit “provocative, a little bit in your face.” Another museum guest noted, “It’s not what I expected. It has definitely gone beyond my expectations. I think that the pieces themselves are powerful, but the artist statements behind the work are even more powerful. They speaks volumes.”

The array of artists involved really stood out to former Miss North Dakota USA Taylor Severtson (née Kearns). “The wide breadth of opinions on the topic is really the most striking to me,” she commented. “I have such a strong opinion about oil in North Dakota, and I think it’s valuable to be able to view other people’s perspectives on that and take them into consideration when you’re having a conversation about the topic.”

For the artists, each work represented individual experiences of the boom. For Michael Conlin, it was about the landscape he’d grown up with and how it had changed. Suzanne Williams’ “Bakken Bride” explored North Dakota’s marriage to the oil and gas industry. An intimate room full of individual items in boxes shared Jessica Christie’s understanding of living in western North Dakota as a single woman as well as explored trash as a vestige of what people leave behind.

Suzanne Williams' Bakken Bride, constructed using just white plastic garbage bags and heat, explores the marriage between North Dakota and the oil industry.

Suzanne Williams’ Bakken Bride, constructed using just white plastic garbage bags and heat, explores the marriage between North Dakota and the oil industry. (Image: Danielle Wente/Shale Plays Media)

The Bakken Boom! exhibit will run through August 15th at the Plains and is accompanied by a program called Community Conversations focused on encouraging the conversations emphasized in the show. The programming was sponsored by the North Dakota Humanities Council, allowing the Plains to make these events free and open to the public. Each Community Conversations event offers the opportunity to learn, reflect and discuss the issues surrounding the Bakken.

The first installment of Community Conversations program, called Final Friday Art Break, took place on January 29th. Visitors were given a tour of the gallery spaces by Dunham, and artists who were still in the area following the gallery opening the previous night discussed their work.

The next event, “Ideaexchange: Lives, Land, & Labor,” is set for February 12th from 6:30 to 8:30. During this event, guests will be invited to participate in small group discussions. Local scholars and researchers will also be involved in the program, including faculty from North Dakota State University, Minnesota State University at Moorhead, and Concordia College. Pre-registration is required. A full list of the accompanying programs currently scheduled can be found at the Plains Art Museum’s website.

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