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