Altman Studeny: When it comes to art, ‘our materials are people and ideas’


How do we make the most out of the places we call home?

We offer more respect — to everything.

It’s easy to take advantage of our surroundings. The postmaster does his job, and we expect the garbage man and the banks and the firetrucks to do the same, but what if they didn’t?

Every single facet of a community matters, so much so that there is real beauty in that — art, actually — and Altman Studeny has made that realization his life work.

South Dakota is more beautiful to Altman than it is to many of us, because he is paying more attention than we are.

So maybe we should, too.


Altman grew up in Plankinton, South Dakota, a city of 707 snuggled into Aurora County. Today, it’s Altman’s reason to get up in the morning, but it wasn’t always.

After college at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, he even left the state, searching for more. He spent time on both the West and East coasts to help him figure out that “next step,” seeking culture and a bustling scene that could help him bring to life a specific vision — a vision away from home.

But as it turns out, home was the vision. Home was the next step — and perhaps the most important one.

“I found that what I was looking for was actually, probably back in South Dakota.”

And he hasn’t left Plankinton since.

“My family has been in Plankinton since the start of it,” Altman says. “It’s like a haunted place. You walk around, and you feel like you’re walking the foot steps of people who took big risks when there was nothing to see there.”

But Altman sees what they saw. And now it’s his turn — to take risks, to follow through and to see Plankinton, South Dakota, for all it’s worth.

Not only because he wants to, but because to him, it’s essential.

“It’s a funny thing to love a lot. To drive into a small town this time of year, it’s really gray and really grungy, and it could all just blow away so easily, but there is this idea behind it that’s keeping it from doing that, and that’s just so fascinating to me.

“That’s what is so nice about small places is that you can feel an idea so strongly.”

You can, if you’re paying attention.

And so Altman urges us to consider the “easily, overlooked things” in life, in hopes that we can share those perspectives and learn from one another.

“I want to be able to have a conversation with people who are thinking similarly about their own communities. What’s working in their places that we can grab a little bit from to implement in our community?”

And he hopes to engage communities of all sizes, working together to ensure that we are doing our best to appreciate rural living for all that it is — not for all that it isn’t.

“I want to help communities understand that it’s really looking at what you do have and building that up,” Altman says. “Art has helped me so much to regain some flexibility in my life, to be able to say, I didn’t expect this with my initial hypotheses — I set out to discover ‘this,’ but what I discovered was something else. Well, don’t make the project about what you didn’t discover. Make it about the new, exciting thing.

“That’s success alone — in reminding people to, essentially, go with the flow.”


Changing our perspective on art

Altman has been with the South Dakota Arts Council for almost a decade now, traveling to different communities as a resident artist. The positive interactions he’s gained through this work only solidify how vital it is to recognize that art is part of everything we do.

“I’ve gotten to see all over the state fascinating people and ideas that no one would know about — that I would never have known about had I not spent a week in Kimball or a week in Gettysburg. So to act as a liaison between arts and organizations — between people in different communities — that’s a great art project. To be able to design social interactions among people.

“What are our materials? Our materials are people and ideas.”

While in school, Altman’s theses was on art making in rural spaces, “changing what rural spaces can expect from an artist. What is an artist — somebody who wears a beret, steps away from a canvas, etc.? And what can artists expect from rural places? They don’t think there is anything really to be gleaned from small, culturally isolated places.

“But with a little bit of opening arms more widely to what an influence can be changes that dynamic a lot.”

Talking about art is especially important in smaller communities, because the exposure isn’t there yet. It can be, it should be — but talk about it anyway.

“How do you teach people to interact with art and teach them that what they are doing already is artistic and can be framed in a way that allows it to be part of art?” Altman says. “Art is what makes life more interesting than art — helping people to understand that it’s a means for greater exploration into their day-to-day lives.”

And that’s all he wants — for us to explore the possibility of art as a significant role in our lives, actually, and in the simplest things, too.

Offering more respect to all of life around him “has helped me to be an artist that I’m happier with. An artist that I’m happier being.”

And soon enough, if you let him, Altman will open your mind to the beautiful world he sees — a place where art matters, especially wherever you call home.


Angela Tewalt, OTA

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