After discovering a startling, hundred and fifty foot or so long, grazing buffalo painting on the side of a new flea market we returned the next Sunday to pursue photographing these symbols of Buffalo, Missouri. Actually it wasn’t until we had gotten home and looked at Crystal’s digital shots of the eye-catching mural on a computer screen that we decided to return. The hunting was good.
Renditions of bison are scattered all over town. A variety of styles were evident from sketchy, minimalist drawings to every-little-shaggy-hair kind of realism. There were naïve versions; others looked to be borrowed from the clip art now readily available on the Internet. Downtown there was another mural, a more conventional rendition than the flea market art by Susan Owensby. This work on a brick wall was signed Ron and Laura Allison.
In the late 1970s we often drove through Buffalo on our way to some place else. It was still pretty much a farming trade center then. The largest employer was a poultry processing center that has since closed. An improved highway has facilitated commuting to Springfield. New businesses are out on 65 highway, but the old downtown isn’t burdened by buildings about to collapse as is the case in many small towns.
The abundance of buffalo imagery we take to indicate a resurgence of civic pride. Nothing says Buffalo like a buffalo. Perhaps civic boosters have learned from progressive municipalities like Springfield that a “vibrant” art community is good for business. Buffalo had its third annual art fair this year. But there seems to be no top-down imposition of standards on the depictions of bison. Even if it’s an idea introduced from the outside, it is undeniably popular.
Rural Ruins Junkies was the working title for a book project we started a few years ago. Then we were visiting more isolated villages that were fast crumbling into photogenic ruins. This was not a particularly original idea, and it brought back how we had once traveled the rural Midwest picking antiques from such environments. Under Confessions we’ll post a fragment of writing we did that contrasts with our more upbeat coverage of Buffalo.
At any rate that Sunday Buffalo shoot revealed a less melancholy small town than we had imaged when working on Rural Ruins Junkies. Seeing this excess of civic symbolism did not erase our recollection of fading small towns, but it did mitigate the fatalism. Our experience in Buffalo dovetails with some observations made revisiting Branson – i.e. the Hypercommon hypothesis. Nostalgia can be overly pessimistic. The Buffalos of Buffalo, an exercise in iconography that was only incidentally esthetic, exuded a small bit of hopeful energy in their variety and abundance.
Such unschooled graphics may not be conventionally acceptable as folk, naïve, or primitive art, but its assertion of naïve confidence in commonality is arresting.
We will, by the way, stop again in Buffalo and document the abundance and variety of the many Bail Bonds businesses.
Click any image to view a gallery of Buffalo photographs by Crystal Payton