DOPT UPDATE: The Rural Midwest to the Rocky Mountains

My dear friends, supporters, and travel companions!

I am so happy to say Public Transformation successfully made our fundraising campaign goal thanks to SO MANY of you who contributed, some of you multiple times, to this effort. Thank you for helping this project reach its fullest potential and for making sure that we didn’t freeze, starve, or run out of gas!!

This past week we gained a new artist in residence, Hannah Holman, a theater artist from Minneapolis. Ellie, Hannah, Bodie and I took off in Dan the Van to explore the rural Midwest! First, I went on a solo mission to visit the staff of The Festival Theatre in Saint Croix Falls, WI – we hadn’t met with another theater group since our visit to Higher Ground in Kentucky and it was so awesome to hear how they view their role in their community to tell stories, connect across differences, and my favorite, to be welcoming to all people. I like their use of the term welcoming instead of the commonly used term of accessible, because it included a sense of hospitality and openness that I am realizing has been something that each of my hosts have shown in their own geographically / culturally specific way.

From here, I picked up my crew and we headed to Granite Falls in Southwestern Minnesota. This stop had specific importance to me because it is the very first town and group of people that invited PlaceBase Productions to create our very first show in 2011. Since then, we have spent a lot of time with this community and many of my old friends showed up for the presentation / storytelling performance highlighting our travels and findings so far – if you are interested, you can view the presentation on Facebook here. In addition, we also had a great conversation about how art has enhanced their region and also how they feel a bit like they have reached a plateau and are actively looking for the next generation of art leaders to come on out and shake things up! If you are interested, let me know and I will connect you! J

On our way to Rapid City, SD we received an email from a gentleman named Hugh Weber who saw our route was passing through Sioux Falls and he offered to donate the cost of a hotel room in exchange for a coffee date to talk about the project the next day. So, we gratefully took him up on the offer and had a great night’s sleep and one of the most inspiring conversations over coffee the next morning. Although Hugh is based in a more urban area, he does a lot of work in the surrounding region and talked about the importance of folks in our role to be a “cultural translator” between urban and rural spaces and liberal and conservative viewpoints.

From here we made our way to Rapid City to visit with Peter Strong and Mary Bordeaux from the incredible artist space and gallery, Racing Magpie. After a tour of the space, we prepared for another storytelling presentation in which about a dozen artists attended. We shared stories from the road and opened the space up for general conversation – and talked about the importance of vulnerability when we are in a place of learning and growing… a state we have been in constantly since we took off from the Bay Area on January 4th.  This presentation also coincided with a visit from our Saint Paul / Fergus Falls-based partners Laura Zabel and Michele Anderson from Springboard for the Arts!

They invited to dinner with folks from Racing Magpie, Springboard, Bush Foundation and First People’s Fund, where we indulged in the local buffalo burgers and talked in depth about the Rolling Rez project created by First People’s Fund, the complicated relationships with Crazy Horse and the tourist industry in that region, among many other things. It was great primer for our trip to Pine Ridge Reservation the next morning.

After a long, semi-harrowing, and freezing cold drive through the Badlands, we made our way to Red Cloud Indian School and Heritage Center on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Here, we met with curator Ashley Pourier and Museum Educator Audrey Jacobs. They gave us an extensive tour while sharing the local history and engaging in deep conversation about the complicated past of this former boarding school turned public school and heritage center. We talked about the challenges the artists face on the reservation (access to materials, internet, or gas money to get to market days) and the next generation of Native artists whose work exists in, what Ashley called, the “grey area” between traditional and contemporary Native art.

The next day we landed in Alliance Nebraska where we spent our coldest morning yet exploring the infamous Carhenge sculpture. We spent the afternoon with Kyren Conley who recently moved back to Alliance after attending art school – her energy for engaging in creative placemaking and revitalization of her community through art was super contagious and I’m excited to see what she cooks up! She also told us about the complex relationship to coal Alliance has because it is a major transportation hub and rail yard – we had a lot to think about as we watched the coal trains roll on by…

We spent that evening in Sterling, CO where we got to talking with the bar staff about a muralists work that we saw around town. They told us that he lived next door and put us in touch with him, so we met up with Nate Laybourn the next morning to talk a bit about his work and life as a “farmboy turned artist.”

From here, we made our way to Last Chance, CO to check out the Last Chance Module Array sculpture created by M12. After an extensive photo shoot of the beautiful public artwork, we drove on to Byers, CO where we met with the incredible Richard Saxton, one of the founding members of M12. We sat by the fire and Richard filled us with wisdom and insight from his years of working and teaching at the intersection of art and rural community development. He also told us that one of the most important rules of community organizing was to engage with the cultural values of a community and build from there rather than imposing what you think is important or valuable… so, he took us out to meet a rancher named Joe – we visited his taxidermy filled “mancave” and shot guns on his property – and he was so genuinely excited to meet us and share stories so that we could learn from each other. Richard was right.

The following day, we met with artists and community organizers Kirsten Stoltz and Marueen Harty and author Greg Hill about their incredible work in Joes, CO. We talked a lot about the public education system in rural Colorado and the role of the arts, specifically music, in building bridges and forming relationships across differences. They have only recently moved to Joes and have already started making a major impact.

From here, we landed at my parent’s place in Superior, CO to rest for the evening with a long hottub soak and lots of verbal processing before Hannah and Ellie both departed the next day. We wrote thank you letters (which many of you will be getting soon!) and shared our highlights… and, made plans for BABE CAMP, which will be a long weekend in May at M12 where all of the lady artists involved in this project will get together to plan and build out the upcoming exhibition.

My original plan was to carry on from here to pick up Gus the Bus in Show Low, but I received word from the mechanic that he is not quite ready to come home… so, I am taking this week to start sifting through and processing the HOURS of video, audio, photos, artifacts, and scribbles that I have collected over the past 32 days on the road. I will continue to keep you all updated as I post these stories and find common themes, practices, challenges, and ideas. And, I will be sure to let you know once I get Gus the Bus back!

I know that some of you joined the Updates From The Road email chain later than others, so I will also be posting past emails on the website, in case you are interested in reading the highlights from the past few weeks. You will find these in the next week at

Also, all of our social media posts have shared #publictransformation if you are interested in looking back at our journey.

I know that these updates have been more a list of stops and people than deep reflections, but now that the wheels have stopped spinning for a moment, I am excited to dive in a bit deeper and will share these findings with you as they reveal themselves to me.

In the meantime, thank you all again for your love, support, and encouragement as we made our way from coast to coast and back again! If you are interested in hearing more first hand, please feel free to call or pay me a visit – 952-486-0533 – my door is always open!

With love and endless gratitude,

Ashley, Randi, Ellie, Hannah, Bodie, & Dan the Van
Public Transformation Team

DOPT UPDATE: From the East to the Midwest

Dearest wonderful members of the Department of Transformation!

What a crazy week and a half it has been - and, what a time to be traveling through America to hear different stories and perspectives and hopes and fears...

The last time I sent an update was the night before the Women's March on Washington and that feels like a world away. It was such an honor to be standing alongside 500,000 of my sisters and sister supporters in D.C. and 4 million of us worldwide - what a powerful day! Thank you to those of you that marched!

The day before the march, we spent in South Carolina where we first visited a town called Denmark, SC (pop. 3,538) with Susan from the South Carolina Arts Commission. Susan introduced us to Yvette and Ashley from their Rural Communities SC Initiative – Yvette is a local art maven and selected leader for this program and they talked to us about opportunities for young people to participate in the art sand showed us their first placemaking project, Pocket Park, which had transformed a run down abandoned lot into a community gathering space to be proud of!

Our second stop in South Carolina was in a town called Lake City, SC (pop. 6,724) with an organization called ArtFields – this group started only 5 years ago and through their annual juried art festival (which brings over 20,000 people to town) that turns their downtown into a high end gallery for nine days and their ongoing programming, they have helped to transform their downtown and make Lake City an arts destination!

The day after the march, we made our way to Floyd, VA where artist in residence, Ellie Moore and I had the privilege of participating in a Bluegrass Jam Session at the Floyd Country Store! These jam sessions have been happening every Sunday since the 1940s – so great to experience the Old Time and Bluegrass musicianship of the region! Following the jam session, we spent the evening with Casey and Emily from Floyd Community Theatre Group who just moved back to the region and started the theater a few years ago. We met over local beer, gluten-free pizza, and an open mic in this small town of 450 people.

The next morning, we had the sincere pleasure of meeting with Dylan Locke who is currently running the Floyd Country Store to talk about his plans for a the store and a new music school that will teach the traditional music of the region.

From there we made our way to the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky where we met with staff from the incredible organization, Appalshop in Whitesburg, KY. Appleshop has been doing programming in the region for over 35 years and provides training and job opportunities in media arts. One of their staff members, Ada, daughter of a coal miner, took us on a tour of Harlan county coal fields and miner camps – an incredible eye opening experience. We spent some time at the local haunt learning about regional dialect, discussing politics of the region, and were warned many times about not drinking the water because of the acid mine run-off.

The next day, we made our way to Pine Settlement School on Pine Mountain in Big Laurel, KY where we met with Geoff, Megan, and Ben – they gave us a tour of their incredible campus and talked about economic development of the region through teaching traditional trades like woodworking, weaving, music, etc. Geoff is also instrumental in starting Mountain Tech – a graphic design company located in Appalachia – focused on providing alternative job options to coal mining by exporting something else – local talent.

We then made our way to The Appalachian Center to meet with Higher Ground Theater Company in Cumberland, KY – whose original work is based solely on oral history from the area. Their large casts of community actors tackle incredibly challenging issues of the region – including health hazards of mining, addiction, abuse, lack of hope, young people’s desire to leave the region, women’s rights… the list goes on. The team talked about their personal and community transformation from being a part of these shows. They also started an annual conference called “It’s Good To Be Young In The Mountains” making art that encourages young people to think about “living their dream” in Appalachia.

On our way to Louisville, we got a flat tire on one of the most dangerous curves on Pine Mountain – every single person that drove by stopped to help us and we were back on the road in no time. When I commented on how friendly everyone was in Kentucky, the mechanic we were working with said “We have to be – we need each other to survive.”

We stayed in Louisville, KY that night with Savannah Barrett from The Art of the Rural and the Kentucky Rural–Urban Exchange for an evening of deep conversation about the role of the arts in community development across Kentucky.

The following day, we drove to Murphysboro, IL where we met with folks from the Murphysboro School of Art and a brand new initiative, The Oak Street Art Group. These folks were quite new to the field of creative placemaking, as they had only had one event so far, but they were enthusiastic and ready to dive in! It was a great opportunity to share some of the practices that we have seen along the way!

I was supposed to drop Ellie off at the Chicago airport the next morning, but she had been having such an incredible time on the road with us that she cancelled her plane ticket and decided to stay on until Denver! Woo hoo!!

From there, we made our way to Minnesota where we stopped in for a visit with Matt Fluharty from Art of the Rural at the Outpost collaborative space in Winona, MN. This space is where we will hold the final exhibition of Public Transformation and this was an awesome opportunity to discuss what this final product will look like as an exhibition.

We then took a few days off in Minnesota to regroup (and attend a beautiful wedding!), meet with our awesome partners at Springboard for the Arts where we discussed how Public Transformation will be shared at the Rural Arts and Culture Summit in Morris, MN – June 6th-8th. I encourage you to mark your calendars and all attend!!

From here we prepared for the last leg of our journey, which we are currently on, AND picked up our next artist in residence, Hannah Holman! But, I will wait to update you on this until we land in Denver. I will say that I am really starting to get a handle on the common themes, practices, challenges and possibilities of making art with rural communities and I am looking forward to diving deeper and sharing these findings with you on the other side!

Thank you all again for your incredible support! We are on the home stretch and couldn’t have done it without your love and encouragement!

With endless gratitude,

Ashley, Ellie, Hannah, Bodie, & Dan the Van
Public Transformation Team

DOPT UPDATE: Exploring the South

Dear Department of Public Transformation!

Since my last update on Monday evening, we have visited with artists in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. We have also driven through Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia – our wheels and are heads are spinning, but we are so happy, hearing so many inspiring stories, and making many new friends along the way!

First, we stopped in West Texas in a town called Albany to visit with Pat Kelly and Kenna Hogan at The Old Jail Art Center. In this town of about 2,000, this incredible former jail turned contemporary art museum has more works in their permanent collection (2500) than they have people in their community. This includes works by Klee, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, and Modigliani to name a few! Their mission is to make contemporary art accessible and relevant to their community and they are kicking-butt doing it!

From there, we made our way to the town of Edom, TX – in the 70s Doug Potter purchased an old building on Main Street of this struggling community and started a small but powerful movement of artists moving in! Here, we met with the potters Doug and his wife Beth, jewelry makers Zeke and Marty, Birdhouse Joe, Sherry Albertson, a musician and owner of the local coffee shop, and Jeff and Julie Gottesman who run The Old Firehouse gallery and music venue. In this town of 350, arts are more than alive and well – they are thriving!

Next, we made our way to Fayetteville, TX (pop. 250) to visit with Jeanne Schilling and her staff at ARTS for Rural Texas. In this area, nearly all arts programs have been cut from the schools. This little engine that could provides arts programming to thousands of children per year – both in their town and many of the surrounding rural communities. They utilize this youth programming to access the adults in the community, as well. And, since they started about 10 years ago, many more galleries and artsstudios have opened in the community – AND, the local community comes and participates! In addition to visiting with ARTS, we also met with Joan from the Red & White Contemporary Art Gallery and a local stained-glass artist, Blake Bour, who is also a veteran, a firefighter, and the only woman / person under 40 that’s a member of the local American Legion - in small towns, we wear many hats!

From Fayetteville, we made our way to Arnaudville, Louisiana to visit with the NUNU Collective – this eclectic and passionate group of artists have transformed their community in less than 10 years – not by leaving behind tradition, but by embracing, highlighting and celebrating the language, cuisine, art, talent and culture of Southern Louisiana. In addition to filling us up with so many inspiring stories and ideas, they also fed us a delicious pot of Chicken a la King, gave us a jar of roux, and taught us how to make Gumbo!

Next, we made our way to McComb / Summit, MS to meet with Calvin Phelps and his husband, Clay, of Pike School of Art. Calvin moved back to the area from Los Angeles less than two years ago and is already making major connections and incredible work happen – including a nomadic arts residency for artists to research and create work based on the troubled history of the south. We also met with the powerhouse Fern Crossley in an on-air interview on WAZA (which we live-streamed on Facebook here) and at her home gallery showcasing her late husband’s art work. We also paid a visit to the incredible Jubilee Center for the Performing Arts – whose students blew us away with an unbelievable impromptu choir concert!

From here, we made our way to Newbern, AL to meet with Xavier Vendrell – one of the instructors of Rural Studio – an amazing program of Auburn University. Architecture students have the option of participating in the Rural Studio as a part of their degree program. In the 20+ years that rural studio has been in operation, they have built a beautiful new firehouse, library, and city hall for the community alongside many other development projects, giving the students real-life community engagement experience and showing them that there are options for designers and architects outside of the urban environment.

From here, we drove through Georgia, spent a day in South Carolina (which I will write about in my next update, since this one is already so long!) and we are now driving through North Carolina and Virginia on our way to Washington DC to prepare for the Women’s March on Washington tomorrow.

I march for Public Transformation.

Thank you all for your love and support and words of encouragement along the way! There are so many more stories to share and I am looking forward to giving them all the reflection and time they deserve, so I can share them back with you!

In solidarity,
Ash, Randi, Bodie, & Dan the Van

DOPT UPDATE: The journey continues!

Dear wonderful DOPT members!

Hello from Fayetteville, Texas - population 250! We have had a very eventful few days... whew! After we stood back up and brushed ourselves off after being knocked down by Gus the Bust, we were back on the road - collecting amazing stories and meeting a ton of new friends! We have even had some time to upload a few more blog posts - including a Vlog about our time in Ajo, AZ - click HERE or check out the Stories tab on the website:

We made a stop in Zuni Pueblo, NM where we met with the Zuni Visitor and Art Center Director, Tom Kennedy and Zuni artist Narren Bowannie. Our conversations flowed effortlessly between history, culture, art, tradition, beliefs, and life of the Zuni community. They told us how the Zuni language has no word for "art" because it is a part of life, we talked about the challenge of balancing the preservation of tradition with the progress required to exist in modern America, and the impact that imported art objects have had on the Zuni economy... After we purchased a stone fetish from Narren that is meant to bring strength and good luck, we were on our way. 

We made a stop off at The Old School Gallery in Ramah, but our contact was no longer able to meet with us that day because the dirt roads to her house were washed out and she could not make it to the gallery. So, we carried on to Santa Ana Pueblo where we met with the incredible artist and entrepreneur Warren Montoya. Warren runs two organizations, Rezonate Art and Rezilience. He is a true civic artist whose mission is to lift up other rural and native artists and to cultivate the next generation of art leaders - he was amazing! We met with him at his parents house and his mother gave us delicious homemade tortillas to take home for dinner! 

The next day, we met with Joseph Kunkel from Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative and traditional Santa Domingo potter Thomas Tenorio over an incredible lunch in Santa Fe. Many themes of the conversations that we had with Tom, Narren, and Warren resurfaced - especially the tension between tradition and transformation. Thomas also made the point of thanking Joseph for working with his community by saying "you are so talented, you could be anywhere in world, but you choose to stay work here with us - we are so fortunate." Which reminded us that all of the people we have met so far, are choosing to stay and work in rural areas, despite the challenges that they face - we thank them all for their work!

That evening, Randi and I gave a presentation at the Santa Fe Art Institute on Public Transformation and our findings so far. We attempted a Facebook Live, but it ended up coming out sideways... So, we fixed it and uploaded it to our blog! If you are interested in watching the 20-minute presentation, click HERE

We have spent the last few days in Texas, but I am going to include those updates in my next email, because this one is getting loooooong!! In the meantime, know that we GREATLY appreciate all of your love and support along the way! If you ever want to give a call to say hi, we would love to hear from you during one of our drives! 952-486-0533. 

More soon - over and out!

Ash, Randi, Bodie & Dan the Van

DOPT UPDATE: The bumps in the road...

Dear members of the Department of Public Transformation, 

Today was a bit of a tough one! After a wonderful week of adventures with Gus the Bus, he overheated on a mountain road... After a tow into town and a full day at a garage in Show Low,AZ, it became very clear that Gus' situation was going to need more time to fix than we had to give - so, we made the difficult decision of saying goodbye to Gus for now... We found a new friend (Dan the Van) and hit the road to Zuni, NM to get back on track! You can watch a video about our adventure here:

Gus is a great part of the Public Transformation project, but the real heart of the work is, of course, the stories. And, what we have been hearing over and over again in the stories we have heard so far - what makes the arts thrive is resilience, perseverance, commitment, dedication, and the willingness to play the long game - so, we are taking a page from the book of the friends we have met so far, and we are moving forward with the same amount of passion we had before we hit the bump in the road!

In other updates, we rounded out our time in the border community of Ajo with an incredible interview with photographer Tom Kiefer, ( an artist whose work seeks to honor the artifacts stripped from those who attempt to cross the border through the desert and are caught. Please visit his website for a look at his powerful and important work. 

We also met with Emily, Stuart, and Jonah Siegel of the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center who talked about where their dreams of running an artist retreat center and the reality of managing a hotel in a rural community collide. 

From there, we made our way to Phoenix to talk with urban-based artists and organizations that do work in rural areas around the state. We met with Jaclyn Roessel, who goes by the stage name Grownup Navajo ( whose work looks at honoring the traditions of her culture through a modern lens. 

We also met with Gabriela Munoz from the Arizona Arts Commission who talked about their ArtsWorker Program, which brings artists to the rural community of Douglas, AZ. And, we had the sincere pleasure of spending an insightful evening and morning with one of my heroes, Michael Rohd, whose little red book I carried around with me throughout my undergraduate career. 

After we made it to Show Low, our host, playwright and theater artist Lisa Jayne, invited us to spend the evening at her house where we talked about the real challenges of making art in rural areas. 

Once we get over the blow of losing Gus, I will be writing some much more in depth reflections on the blog and will be sure to share them with you all! But, for now, it is 1am in Dan the Van, we are parked near Zuni, NM on Navajo Nation land, and Randi and I are in need a good night's sleep!!

Onward! Over and out, 

Ash x

Ajo, AZ (pop. 3,705)

On January 6th, I pulled into Ajo, AZ in my little yellow school bus, where I had the sincere privilege of meeting a number of artists and leaders in the community. The video featured below includes snippets from interviews conducted with the following Ajo residents:

Emily and Stuart Siegel are the Co-Directors of the Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center - in this clip, they talk about being introduced to the term Creative Placemaking and how they balance their desire to be an arts destination with the realities of running a business;

Kat Anderson is a local muralist - in this clip, she talks about what attracts artists to Ajo and some of the initiatives of local artists and leaders to help revitalize the area;

Wolf is a local muralist whose work can be found on buildings all over Ajo - in this clip, Wolf talks about the role of the artist in community development from his eclectic studio; 

Thomas Kiefer is a local photographer and former janitor at the border patrol station near Ajo - in this clip, Thomas talks about how he got started photographing artifacts that are stripped and discarded from people who are caught trying to cross the border. Check out his work at

DOPT UPDATE: Del Rey, Slab City, Ajo

Hello Department of Public Transformation members!

Thanks for jumping on board Gus the Bus! This is the first of many updates that you will receive from the road for your incredibly generous contribution! My plan is to send an update every three days, but if you would like more regular updates, please join our Facebook Group or follow us on Instagram @publictransformation!

After a nerve-wracking saga of title transfers, auto insurance policies, and oil changes, (whew!) Gus, my dog Bodie, and I hit the road on January 4th from the San Francisco-area. Our first stop was at Mosumoto Family Farm where I interviewed Nikiko Masumoto - farmer, storyteller, performer - and had dinner with her wonderful family. You can read excerpts from our interview at the Public Transformation blog here:

We headed towards Slab City, CA. We camped about 30 miles north of Slab City, on the banks of the Salton Sea - this amazing salt water lake in the middle of the desert - where we met two wonderful artists from Taiwan, Liu Yu and Wu Sih Chin, who happened to be camping next to us, and who happened to be doing an amazing project on ghost towns in California! We spent a few hours by the fire chatting about art, life, cycles, change...

This morning, we hit the road to Slab City, just outside of Niland, CA. This former military-based turned commune-of-sorts has a large population of artists, and therefore, art is EVERYWHERE! And, the centerpiece is this incredibly sureal large-scale sculpture called Salvation Mountain. You can check out photos in the Public Transformation Photo Album here. And, more will be coming from Ali soon. Here we talked with the locals about how art is integrated into their community, how Slab City is similar and different from other small towns, their relationship with the neighboring communities, etc. It was very interesting and I will post more about it on the blog when I get another break in the action!

From here, I made my way to Ajo, AZ. My first meet up was with Kat Anderson, a local muralist. Her and her three year old son took me on a tour of Ajo, showing me the murals and other art projects around town. Then we went to Artist Alley, which is an awesome alleyway near the plaza that artists have transformed and every March they meet to create more murals. Following this visit, Kat invited me to visit her friend, Wolf, who is another artist in town. Past experience has proven that whenever you are invited to meet someone named Wolf - you go! We made our way over to his "compound" and spent the evening surrounded by found objects and deep conversation. I will post a video blog about this soon too! 

Now, it is 1AM and I am parked in my bus at the Sonoran Desert Conference Center with Bodie at my feet, about to close my eyes so I can wake up early for two more interviews in Ajo tomorrow morning! Then, off to Phoenix!

More updates from the road to follow, but for now, I wish you all the best in whatever journeys you are making and thank you for following along on mine!

Over and out! 

ash x