As a Walker program that works with artists across the state of Minnesota, Mn Artists is uniquely positioned to host discussions and foster connection points between artists working in urban, suburban, and rural contexts. Over the summer of 2018, artist and writer Matthew Fluharty served as guest editor of the publication. A key contributor in the national conversation on rural arts and culture, Fluharty chose to reframe the accepted terminology and focus instead on local practice: “the questions and relationships raised through deep, long-term, on-the-ground engagement with the particularities of place and community, whether within urban neighborhoods or rural locations.” At the conclusion of the series, Fluharty shares his reflections towards future work in this field.
I write this from a hotel room looking out over the rainy, anonymous streets of Washington, DC. It’s the day after the midterm elections. The alternate red and blue patchworks of states, counties, and municipalities make visible last night’s results.
These maps function in our political imaginary not as itineraries toward some collective future, but as talismans for a divided nation, a Rorschach of anxiety and misunderstanding. For many, those increasingly deep monochromatic reds shot across the rural landscape will stand, in our popular retelling of this night, against a historic progression toward representation and equity. This narrative of division will carry forward, reinforcing our field’s spatial understanding.
We often forget, in the rush to categorize the rural condition, the degree to which the challenges we seek to address were created elsewhere. In our field, “rural,” though challenging to define, can be initially distinguished by its lack—by an intentional and inequitable lack of funding, discourse, and network resources imposed from beyond. Each of these gaps exacerbates the others. Taken together, this lack creates cultural conditions in which people are primed for the emotional arguments of a political agenda, as we’ve seen in the last two years.
While, in this moment, the voice of urban folks with a connection to rural areas is needed, the conversation must create space and agency for those artists, writers, and organizers who actually live in rural areas, or who at least travel with intention along the rural-urban interchange. The artists in the Local Practice series embody these continuums, and the tension inherent in this perspective animates their contributions to this series.
In Michele Anderson’s contribution, we see how rural communities are often disembodied and sentimentalized through urban-normative lenses while, simultaneously, these communities are creating strategies to solve the very real problems of equity and representation within community decision-making processes. Through the work of Anderson and Springboard for the Arts in Fergus Falls, artists such as Bethany Lacktorin and Nik Nerburn have taken leaderships roles in sparking the conversations, performances, documentary projects, and “backyard histories” that articulate the deeper cultural currents that distinguish rural people and their places.
The Hinge Arts residency has been an important site for the work of Ashley Hanson and Mary Rothlisberger, whose piece in this series centers on the essential quality of neighboring, of acting as “translators, storytellers, documentarians, organizers, archivists, conversationalists, and catalysts.” Throughout this series, these voices outline how an engaged, post-studio approach by both artist and the program are necessary. Shanai Matteson’s meditation on her responsibilities to her hometown of Palisade underscore what’s at stake for so much of this work. Matteson balances questions about the responsibility of socially-engaged art in a rural context with her family’s efforts to halt the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline—and she eloquently frames how our field must come to terms with its own extractive tendencies, particularly when orienting towards the cultures present in rural Minnesota and its sovereign Native nations.
Throughout this series, we can look to communities such as Palisade, Winona, or the West Side of St. Paul to learn how artists are locating communities’ shared cultural traditions as sources of strength in the often-unrecognized struggle against gentrification and white supremacy in rural areas. Mai’a Williams places a meditation on the roots of her creative practice within a legacy that extends back to generations of her family in the South and forward to an instance of police brutality in a rural Minnesota park. The centrality of deep care for family and neighborhoods is shared with Rebekah Crisanta de Ybarra, whose work threads connections between folk arts and the potential for shared community power through her curatorial and placemaking practice, from her work at Electric Machete to her time with immigrant and refugee communities in rural Minnesota.
Throughout these pieces, we see a need for deeper systems of support—from channels for enabling dialogue and movement building to raising up what a sense of belonging should truly and equitably resemble in our rural places. As this Local Practice series demonstrated, the work ahead will be hard—but a deeply relational and durational frame can deliver the more complex contours of culture, region, and community that our red and blue maps obscure.
Matthew Fluharty outlines the vision for his editorial series focused on “local practice”—challenging urban-normative ideas not just about place, but also about audiences, outcomes, disciplines, and the temporality of artistic work.
Writer, public artist, and cultural organizer Shanai Matteson ponders the slow work of relationships, the language of social practice, the threat of extraction, and the consequences of drawing boundaries, in the first of two dispatches from the pathway of the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline.
Michele Anderson, the Rural Program Director at Springboard for the Arts in Fergus Falls, explores how insider/outsider narratives shape perceptions about rural places, and how the complex ways we relate to a place can give rise to our responsibilities within community.
Ashley Hanson and Mary Welcome—both traveling artists working in rural places—team up to articulate their work as a practice of neighboring, in order to show how mutual exchange, compassion, and care can shift the narrative of artistic success.
Artists Bethany Lacktorin and Nik Nerburn gathered in a Google Doc to discuss how their story-based work engages with the contours of local culture, through sound, performance, film, and photography.
Writer and artist Mai’a Williams elucidates the persistence of white supremacy in the cultural landscape of a small town in Minnesota, and reflects on the intimacies with place, family, community, empire, and violence that weave through her creative practice.
Rebekah Crisanta de Ybarra, an interdisciplinary artist, musician, and co-founder of Electric Machete Studios, explores how pathways of migration and displacement in rural towns and urban neighborhoods affect local culture, and the potential of folk art to create belonging across difference.