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Plankinton man plants 66 trees in honor of SD's 125th anniversary

Altman Studeny prepares to mix 66 buckets of soil from each South Dakota county. (Photo courtesy of Gayle VanGenderen)1 / 3
Altman Studeny mixes soil from all 66 counties together in preparation for planting 66 bur oak trees -- one for each county in South Dakota -- in celebration of the state's Quasquicentennial. (Photo courtesy of Gayle VanGenderen)2 / 3
Altman Studeny, of Plankinton, mixes soil from all 66 South Dakota Counties to place in the five-gallon buckets in the background. In each of those buckets he planted on bur oak tree as a part of his project to celebrate the state's 125th anniversary. (Photo courtesy of Gayle VanGenderen) 3 / 3

PLANKINTON -- Altman Studeny wanted to dig up a reason to help people celebrate South Dakota's 125th anniversary of statehood.

Studeny, of Plankinton, an artist in residence and art teacher, dreamed up an idea early this year to fully engage people in an ongoing, long-term project. He gathered soil from each of South Dakota's 66 counties, brought the soil to Plankinton and planted 66 trees to be distributed back across the state.

"I wanted to try to come up with an art project to engage all 66 counties equally," Studeny said. "All of them have this same thing to offer."

He's called his project "Grow: 66/125," in honor of South Dakota's 125th anniversary of statehood and all of its 66 counties.

In two weeks during June, Studeny traveled to each county and gathered soil in five-gallon buckets. He coordinated mostly with soil and conservation officials from each county to get the soil, he said.

He brought those buckets of soil to Plankinton, where he mixed it evenly and placed equal amounts back into a bucket for each county. He didn't realize the diversity of the soils until he dumped them on the ground together "in a colorful patchwork quilt of colors," including deep red from Fall River County to purple-gray of Sully County to sandy soil from Shannon County.

"There wasn't a single sample that could have been mistaken for another one on sight," he said.

In those mixed buckets of soil, he planted bur oaks -- a South Dakota native tree that can live for centuries and grows in each region of South Dakota. Each tree will go to a county and be planted where the soil was dug up, Studeny said. He hopes the trees take root well and grow to full height in 75 years for South Dakota's bicentennial.

"It's a mighty oak," he said. "It's in the story of our culture. It's strong and will last long into the future."

The oldest one in the state is in Wessington Springs, Studeny said. The soil taken from Jerauld County was taken from the base of that tree, which the state has recorded to be approximately 400 years old.

"It comes back to the idea of how to make something common seem special," he said. "The idea of all that soil coming from different places brought into one bucket equally. That's kind of the story of our state anyway. Every place has something different to offer, but together we're all South Dakotans."

Studeny studied for his master's degree in art at Maine College of Art. When he first moved to Maine, it was to be nearer to a major art scene, he said.

However, the more he was away, the more he realized South Dakota offers a different perspective on art.

"I had to think about what my responsibility is as an artist," he said. "I thought engaging with communities is important. I could just say, 'I know everything there is to know about South Dakota,' or I could try to find something new about it all the time. That's something artists can offer."

Studeny is an art teacher at Aurora Plains Academy and an artist in residence with the South Dakota Arts Council. Through his affiliation with the council, he applied and received a grant to help pay for his project.

He spent his own time and money driving around the state collecting the soil and hauling the trees to Pierre for display. But the grant money will help get the trees to each county.

He said the trees will add significance to everyday life in South Dakota. He hopes they will make people stop and think about the cultural landscape and how their towns contribute to the state's history.

"Especially with a year like this, celebrating the history of South Dakota is important," he said.

Each tree will have a plaque by it explaining why it's there, he said.

All the trees have been planted in the five-gallon buckets and delivered to Hilger's Gulch by Governor's Grove near South Dakota's Capitol building in Pierre. The trees will be on display there along a walking path through Aug. 24. Studeny created a brochure to accompany the tour of the trees, telling the history of the bur oak and the significance of the project. In the brochure, he explains the bur oak is "a hardy, pioneer tree that grows well in all regions of the state."

The trees will eventually move to their permanent homes in each county, many to county soil and conservation office yards, courthouse lawns, lake shores and near native prairie land.

Studeny said a few of the counties have asked him to give artist talks regarding the project, so he will personally deliver those trees. The rest of the trees will be shipped to their counties, he added.