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GLT Datebook: Poet And Photographer Explores Decay In The Heartland

Sagging barns and rusted out cars in the rural landscape offer inspiration to artist Justin Hamm, who needs more than just words—and more than just images—to express his feelings about what he encounters out and about in the Midwest.

Hamm ventured out to find the right words for his poetry and found a language in the images he discovered in the landscape. The former Bloomigton-Normal resident now lives in Missouri where he explores the rural aspects of the Midwest. Hamm’s photos and poems are currently on view at the Normal Public Library. “Midwestern” explores loss and decay in the landscape, finding life along with inspiration. 

old building
Credit Justin Hamm
Decay in the Midwest landscape drives Justin Hamm's creative work.

“It’s mournful and sad because there’s a lot of decay around us,” said Hamm. “But if you also look at those things, you see the sturdiness of the past, as well. Many of those things could be totally gone, but they are stubborn, kind of like people in the Midwest sometimes, and they don’t totally disappear.” 

It’s not just the loss of material things that propels Hamm’s work. The loss of spirit, as well, factors into his photos and poems.  

“When I’m out there taking photographs, especially, I’m kind of taken with the spirit of loss,” revealed Hamm. “I can see that there’s something of the spirit of what it means to be American that’s eroded over time, and I do definitely want to capture that.” 

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword with the past being out there, people having old rusted things on their lawns—America carries its past with us and it’s always on our lawn, metaphorically. And that can be a good thing by reminding us of how well-built some things are from the past. And they can inspire us, but they can also be a hindrance as well, if we’re always looking to the past, thinking that’s the only place where positive things exist. That’s not necessarily such a good thing, either.” 

Hamm’s photos and poems hang side-by-side on the library wall, complimenting each other. Hamm revealed that he originally took the photos of the landscape just as something to have close at hand for inspiration as he wrote about what he saw.

But then the photos became something more. 

“After a while, people had positive responses to the photos. And so, it became an artistic endeavor in its own right. The poems and the photographs are not explicitly paired. I like to think of it as the landscape of the photographs is the setting that my poems take place in. What I hope for is that a viewer, in looking at it, can do what I do with it which is to place themselves or place characters in the scene, and have that be an impetus towards some sort of creation for themselves.” 

At the heart of Hamm’s work is a celebration of the everyday.

“I’m kind of obsessed with it. I think poets and photographers tend to be watchers, people watchers. The everyday has a lot of drama in it. Something as simple as an old thing sitting in a field has a drama to it or a story. I hope that photographing or describing everyday things in a poem, I can pass that love on to somebody else.”

Hamm's photos and poems are on display at the Normal Public Library into July. They are also collected in the book, "Midwestern," available on Spartan Press.

Hear two poems from Justin Hamm.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.