14 Place to eat Laundromat

Coin Laundry, Rome City, Indiana
Photo: Kay Westhues (14 Places to Eat)

How did a tree root come to fly over the washers in Rome City’s laundromat? This is one of the very specific mysteries ““ one among hundreds — in the photographs of Kay Westhues. Her amazing portfolio of photography from rural Indiana appears online, at a website called 14 Places to Eat.

Walkerton, Indiana

So she begets another mystery.

“One of my biggest complaints after moving here” — to a speck of a town in north central Indiana — “was ““ there are not enough places to eat out.” Westhues writes, “I was happy when news arrived that a new restaurant was opening in Walkerton. Imagine my surprise when I saw the local paper had a letter to the editor against the new restaurant. The letter stated we already had enough places to eat in this town. The writer counted a total of 14 places to eat. I imagine I’ll photograph all of them”¦.”

This passage is a good prelude to Kay’s pictures: precise, quiet, and bemused.

Now in her mid-40s, Westhues grew up near Walkerton, Indiana (pop. 2274), one of seven kids in a farming family. After high school, she studied art on the East Coast. She tailored her own academic program, combining anthropology and photography, at Indiana University, traveled to Cuba and Finland, and other countries abroad, then earned a degree in Instructional Systems Technology (also at IU).

In 2000, she circled back to St. Joseph County. Both her parents were ill. Initially, Kay had thought she’d live in a larger city not too far from her parents, but instead chose to be close, in Walkerton itself. “I moved three blocks from them,” she says. “It turned out to be the best thing that I could have done.”

Walkerton, IN resturant

Lunch at the Crockpot, Walkerton (The Young and the Restless)
Photo: Kay Westhues (14 Places to Eat)

After her father died in 2001, Westhues turned to her camera and began documenting life in and around the town as a kind of memorial to him. “My mom was house bound,” Kay says. “I could take these pictures and put them on the web, and she could check them out.” In 2004, her mother passed away. Kay has stayed on, continuing to take pictures here and throughout the surrounding counties, adding a new photograph to her online portfolio each day since April 1, 2004.

Kankakee River, Kay Westhues

Kankakee River, La Porte County, Indiana
Photo: Kay Westhues (14 Places to Eat)

Her photographs, many of them landscapes, are reminders that this region was once “a huge swamp.” There’s water standing in parking lots, in fields, and images of the Kankakee River, where most of that water will eventually finds its way. Water pools in her pictures, mirroring the buildings, trucks and trees, the Indiana sky.

girl with yellow snake, Kay Westhues

Desteny and Sunset
Animal Swap Meet
Ligonier, IN

Photo: Kay Westhues
(14 Places to Eat)

Westhues finds some of her most dynamic images at periodic “animal swap meets” in Kankakee and Ligonier. There she discovered one young family taking possession of another — a family of chickens. There’s a woman with a grown-out perm and a foreign-looking possum (actually a coatimundi) on her shoulder, its tail brushing across her eyes. A toddler, wound in a yellow snake, glows with happiness.

Westhues also shows the hollowing out of this once more prosperous region. “The disappearance of the locally owned stores has pretty much devastated communities,” Kay says. “And livestock has changed completely.” Her family had raised Angus cattle, hogs, soybeans and corn. “Hog farmers have a very hard time making it now,” she says. “Factory farms have been moving into Indiana like crazy; you can’t compete with that.”

Westhues began her documentary project right around September 11, 2001. She’s found patriotism (one of the overt themes in Fourteen Places to Eat) expressed in many ways. Some are garish, others quiet and penetrating. Like an exemplary anthropologist (or is it just like a rural Midwesterner?), Westhues has affection for this place but few illusions. There’s a sense that people here, backed into a kind of vacancy, are managing to get by on less and less. Though not without pride, many faces convey something like bitterness, too.

snooker player, Kay Westhues

Scott Werner setting up
the snooker table,
Korner Pocket, Frankfort, IN
Photo: Kay Westhues
(14 Places to Eat)

Working in relative isolation, Westhues has been able to “get out” via the web. Her Fourteen Places to Eat was awarded by fellow photobloggers in 2006, and afterward was featured by La Repubblica, the big daily newspaper in Italy.

Closer to home, she has two upcoming shows: this weekend October 20-21, 1-5 pm at Works in Progress studio, 101 E Main St., in Kewanna, IN; and October 27-December 9, in the Lexington (KY) Art League‘s juried exhibition, ” Photography What Now.”

In her studies at IU, Westhues considered how anthropologists had partaken of cultures in faraway lands, drawn to all that seemed exotic and peculiar. “I looked at how photography propped that difference up,” Westhues says. Returning to Walkerton, she has tried to capture “something very familiar to me, sort of as an outsider might see it.”

It’s this combination of the strange and the plain, an outsider’s wonder and an insider’s grounding, that comes through in her photographs, as insight. Kay acknowledges, “There’s the thought that nothing happens,” in a place like Walkerton, but “they’re all kinds of things that happen.” ASPARAGUS is for sale on the sidewalk outside the liquor store in Hamlet (its real name), Indiana. A peacock eavesdrops outside a house trailer. A doughnut eating contest, with the two saddest competitors in the world, draws the interest of tigers cubs. The everyday mysteries multiply.

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