Altman is one of our 20 Builders and is an artist in Plankinton, South Dakota.
Name: Altman Studeny
City/Town: Plankinton, South Dakota
Where else can we connect with you online?
Who is your community?
I, first and foremost, am a Plankintonite, one of seven hundred and seven: a regular at Al’s I-90 Cafe, a triumphal fist in the air at high school basketball games, a face at the city council table. I buy my groceries at Ron’s Market and get my mail at post office box 1. I never imagined living as an adult in the town where I grew from a child would have been part of my future, but far from simply tolerating it (I have have before and expected to still…), I cherish it. Life in a rural community has forever altered my views on how best to give and receive respect, how to engage others and to be engaged, and how to cooperate to achieve results larger than any one set of hands could craft for themselves.
It’s that same manner of inclusive engagement that I labor to bring to the South Dakota arts community, my other network of collaboration and support. Having had the pleasure over the past seven years of working as a traveling, teaching artist with the South Dakota Arts Council, I am driven to greater and more far-reaching inquiry into the visual history of South Dakota by the knowledge that, in places large and small and in one corner of the State to the other, there are undiscovered, heretofore unengaged content creators waiting to be part of the cultural evolution of our region.
The expansion of this community brings me as much pleasure as seeing my hometown grow and change, as both are evidence that something crucial about rural life is being preserved for future generations.
Give us a behind-the-scenes look at your average day.
Choosing art as a vocation means that one never really stops doing their job. Artists don’t have hobbies, they have research. At my full-time job as the art instructor at Aurora Plains Academy (a residential treatment facility for youth just outside of Plankinton…), I’m working with 70 students every day, each with different learning styles and challenges to overcome. The challenge of structuring projects that provide equal access and equivalent opportunity for success means thinking broadly about what an “art project” looks like: much of our work is collaborative with each student, offering a small part of what they do best to a more comprehensive project. Many of these projects find a home somewhere out in the community, which provides an important platform for my students to feel like their work has impact and relevance even when they themselves are far from their homes.
This experience adapting curriculum for a non-traditional classroom has enriched the interactions I have across the State, developing community-building projects with the Arts Council, which I use my vacation time at work to enact. Plus, there’s my own art-making and research, which I’ve gotten pretty creative when it comes to shoehorning in. This is the fourth year of my performance piece, “Hawks in November,” which is a tally of every red-tail I see from my driver’s seat. Blurring the line between art and life has, I feel, political and metaphoric power, and these limitations of time, resources, and space have driven me to some really satisfying experimentation.
What challenge in your life or work are you most interested in overcoming?
The South Dakota arts community is intimate but very geographically dispersed. It’s lovely to think that creative people are following their passions while surrounded by the communities they love most deeply and which inspire them to greater creations, but I believe we’d be a stronger State if there were greater efforts being put forth to put artists in touch with artists. I like sharing my latest work with the coffee crowd in Plankinton, but to have a truly in depth dialogue around the philosophic purpose of making Jell-O as an art practice is something only other artists can really get behind and, in fact, thrive on. Not to mention the fact that greater outreach would benefit those rural communities where people don’t even know they can BE artists, as well as those individuals who are trying their hardest to make that choice a viable one for themselves.
What is the most beneficial aspect of living in the OTA region when it comes to your career?
I truly believe that the OTA region approaches the act of making with such a delightful, honest pragmatism that it keeps me, as an artist, humble and helps me recognize that the work I do only has relevance in relation to the community that surrounds me. I wouldn’t trade that for any gallery space in the Lower East Side.
At what intersection do you live your life?
I live at the intersection of Christ and Camus.
Where do you think good ideas come from?
Good ideas come from of the ashes of the bad ones.
What’s one current trend you think will change the world?
I wish I were so hopeful, but if history is any guide, I doubt that any big idea is going to be the one that saves us all. (Probably the opposite, actually…) I like to think, though, that lots of individuals thinking in a small way and thinking very specifically about the pressing needs they are most capable of addressing adds up to lots of positive changes everywhere. Is “nto trying to change the world” a trend? If so, that’s the one I pick.
What’s the best way to put inspiration into action?
“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” – Chuck Close
Who do you hope to leave a legacy for?
The Future can take care of itself. I feel more responsibility to not allow the grand history of life in rural America die on my watch.
Who is the most connected person in your life, and what personal characteristics make him or her so well-connected?
Lance and Mary Johnson are the garbage collectors in Plankinton, and I shudder to think what life in this community would be like were they to step out of the circle.
Who is the most creative person in your life, and why?
My parents are the editors and co-publishers, as well as the two sole employees of “The South Dakota Mail” newspaper. Every Wednesday, they begin with a blank file and, every Tuesday, they have another edition of our town’s local weekly in the back of their ’95 Cutlass Supreme. Week by week, year after year this Sisyphean process goes on. They don’t see themselves as artists, but I know no one else who deserves the title more.
Who is the most community-focused person in your life, and how do they impact their communities?
The thing about living in a town of seven hundred is that, if even only ONE person were to stop doing their part, the balance we walk along the knife’s edge of survival would be thrown. So, yes: we need the Development Corporation and the Service Club and the bank and the City Council, but we need someone to stock the grocery shelves and wash dishes at the cafe, as well. We have no choice but to be community-focused, as what allows our community to persevere rests on each of our shoulders.
The OTA Builders are a group of individuals who thrive on possibility and use all opportunities they are given to grow both in their careers and in their passions. OTA seeks creatives who are tenacious and strong-willed movers and doers and are driven to make a significant impact on the people around them and the community they call home. These people recognize their talents and capabilities and find ways to continuously grow and learn from them. Why is this you?
Most of my peers from undergrad moved away to urban centers after college, and I, too, applied for opportunities in glamorous locales across the country. When I was accepted into the Arts Council’s AISC roster, I begrudgingly sent back my acceptance form while all the time hoping that someone else would call back in the two days it took for the letter to reach Pierre. That never happened, and I’m so grateful it didn’t. Not only would I not recognize the artist I would have turned into had I left, I couldn’t even identify the person I would have become. Being a part of South Dakota is THE defining characteristic of my personality; I want to be one of the living embodiments of what the arts in this State can accomplish. And, I want to share that distinction with as many others as possible.
What project will you focus on as part of the OTA Builders Program?
Extending the reach of art opportunity into rural communities, especially as-of-yet unengaged communities whose silence is primarily the result of a lack of information concerning the diversity of creative opportunities available to them.