Sarah Hultin

Plains of Memory

<em>Cloaked Canopy</em>, oil on canvas, 60 x 40 inches
Cloaked Canopy, oil on canvas, 60 x 40 inches

North Dakotan Sarah Hultin paints abandoned structures around her hometown of Hoople. What began as a project to document her grandparents’ old farmhouse has since grown into a larger commentary on historical memory and preservation. Here, she discusses the landscape of North Dakota, her grandparents’ home, and why it’s important to keep the past alive.

“I grew up in a town with a population of approximately 300 people. Art classes were not available, so it wasn’t until college that I began diving into art. I fell in love with painting, and ended up pursuing an MFA at the University of Minnesota Moorhead. After college, I left the area for a while—I traveled, lived in a few different locations, and then about a year and a half ago, I returned to my hometown. Returning home has reunited me with my art, because I’ve always been passionate about depicting rural areas in my work.

I wanted to capture my grandparents’ farmhouse before it disappeared. My grandparents passed away a long time ago, but the house looks like they never left. The house isn’t lived in anymore, but my family has still decided to hold on to it—it’s very dear to us. My grandmother kept track of everything and did a great job of documenting the past. When I go back to the farm, it’s like falling back in time. Through the house, I’ve gotten to know my family better. It serves as a connection between my family and me. Even though I really didn’t know my grandmother, I feel like I’ve gotten to know her through the house.

I love painting abandoned buildings because they represent the hardship people went through when settling this land, and I think of them as monuments scattered across the prairie. North Dakota is where my roots are. I make landscapes to reference the roots that make me feel at home. Other abandoned houses—I pull a lot of inspiration from them. The chipping away of paint, the layers of memory, and the fading away of the structures—I use their physical appearances as an inspiration for the formal technique behind my artwork.

I’m always exploring the countryside of North Dakota for abandoned houses. Crawling Shadows and Cloaked Canopy have been torn down since I painted them. I knew they were coming down soon because a farmer had just bought the land. I wanted to make sure that I captured those two houses before they were demolished. I love how groves of trees almost take over the house itself, and pull it into the ground. Typically, the trees and the house are torn down and turned into a field. It’s happening more frequently because the price of land is going up, and it’s being turned into farmland. But it’s sad to see both the houses and the trees taken away. They are a strong part of our history, and serve as a great reminder of where people came from and the history of this land.”

  • Crawling Shadows, oil and fabric on canvas, 45 x 34 inches
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Noelani Kirschner is a former assistant editor for the Scholar.


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