Prairie Art

by Stormy Wylie
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   At the end of a long hike in the Montana mountains one summer evening in 1985, photographer Bruce Selyem snapped a picture of what he called “an incredibly beautiful stormy sky.” In the foreground of his photo was a tall structure, which at the time he labeled simply “building.”

   Mr. Selyem later learned that the building was a country grain elevator. Soon, the wooden elevators became the main focus of his camera and of his life. Over the years, Mr. Selyem has photographed more than 1,200 country grain elevators in 19 states and provinces in the central and northern plains of North America, from Kansas to Manitoba and Washington to Illinois.

   Mr. Selyem's artist eye finds the simple architecture of the elevators pleasing in relation to the flat prairie. “I have lived much of my adult life in western Montana and Alaska,” he explains. “Often, the tallest thing out on a prairie is a grain elevator.”

   The photographs evoke a bygone era. Wood crib elevators today are nearly obsolete, the equipment too slow and storage capacity inadequate to fill a standard 100-car train. Most of the elevators have been abandoned, Mr. Selyem said, although a number are being purchased by farmers to store their own grain.

   As the old country grain elevators are torn down, with them go “some of the local history, stories and a sense of prosperity,” Mr. Selyem said. In 1996, he founded the Country Grain Elevator Historical Society in his home of Bozeman, Montana, U.S., “to make people aware of this heritage and keep some of the history alive for generations to come,” he said. The historical society has its own quarterly newsletter and website (www.gomontana.com/grainelevator.html). The long-range plan is to acquire a country grain elevator and turn it into a museum and archive, library and gallery, Mr. Selyem said.

   His dedication to preserving a slice of Americana has earned him the nickname “the elevator evangelist.” His wife, Barbara, has joined the crusade. A former worker at a company that makes grain elevator buckets, she met Mr. Selyem in 1997 while arranging for him to speak at the 1998 convention of the Grain Elevator and Processing Society. The two were married last July, fittingly, in front of the first country grain elevator that Mr. Selyem ever photographed.

   Mr. Selyem recently began selling his photographs, which range in price from U.S.$110 to $145, to corporate and private collectors.

   “People tell me, ‘We never noticed them (the grain elevators) before but, boy, we sure notice them now.'

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