He started simply enough. The Illinois countryside, with its fertile fields and open sky, makes for pretty drawings in pastels. But then George Atkinson had what he calls his "epiphany," when he began to see what is mostly invisible from the Interstate, and fast disappearing from the landscape. He realized his art could express something beyond rural beauty: It could document, in a sense preserve, a way of life he saw reflected in the Midwest's dwindling number of family-owned dairy farms. So Atkinson, who also works in the state's Art-in-Architecture Program, began spending free time at county fairs, state fairs and dairy expos, and knocking on farmhouse doors.
The project took him from the central Illinois community of Greenville, in an area where some Swiss families settled with their brown cows, to Elizabeth in northwestern Illinois, one of the strongest dairy regions in the state, to Wisconsin and to the University of Illinois' South Farms. Thus far, Atkinson has witnessed life on a dozen farms. The only thing the farmers asked, he says, was that he close any gate he opened. Atkinson begins by photographing elements of a farm. Line drawings then form a frame-work for his pastels. The portraits of livestock, rural architecture and implements are meant to depict family values, stewardship of animals and land, investments of finances and time, and hard work. "The more I learned, the more respect I had. And the more aware I became of their plight." For starters, dairy farmers have to milk their herds at least twice every day in a 12-hour sequence. They must plant and harvest feed. And milk must get to a distributor at the right temperature. All of this leaves little time for getaways. Even at that, it's hard to make ends meet, and getting harder for families as they increasingly compete with investor-owned operations. Those operations, often in California, raise between 3,000 and 8,000 head, while the average size of a family-owned herd is 110 cows. In short, the economics of large-scale production are driving the smaller farms out. In Illinois, the number of dairy farms has declined by 5.3 percent in the past year. And that decline is unlikely to end. These drawings, which will tour the state next fall, could offer a last look at the smaller farms, some run by several generations.