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