Monday, September 1, 2014

Art and community in rural America

I recently took a road-trip through Washington, Oregon, and Idaho and encountered a variety of settings along the way. I drove through lush forests, snow-capped mountains, and dry, desert-like landscapes. I passed countless farms and a few small, isolated towns like Pilot Rock, Oregon with a population of 1,500.

It was not until I returned to the Bay Area that I realized how aesthetically different those small towns like Pilot Rock are from San Francisco or Oakland. The difference that stood out to me was not the obvious one of skyscrapers versus farmland, or bustling city streets versus virtual ghost town. Rather, when I returned to the Bay Area I was struck by how much the urban landscape incorporates and showcases art in comparison to the rural areas I visited.

Of course, big cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles are centers for art. Aside from their many museums and universities and art programs, these big cities are littered with murals and sculptures. In fact, urban areas make art out of the most mundane objects. I have seen public garbage cans ornamented with mosaics and intricate paintings on utility boxes in Oakland. 

The big, urban cities mentioned above are home to a community of artists, including some that are homegrown and some who have moved to the city for the purposes of pursuing their art. Though rural areas generally do not appear to showcase art on the same scale or in the same way as these big cities, rural America certainly has a number of artists. However, given the small populations of rural communities and, in some areas, their relative isolation from other towns or cities, one of the challenges for artists in rural areas has been establishing a community of artists. 

Rural America Contemporary Art (RACA) is an online movement that seeks to connect artists in rural areas of the United States. According to its website, RACA:
. . . aims to develop community among contemporary artists who live and create in rural America, and to be a positive, vibrant, stimulating voice for the evolving identity of the rural contemporary artist. RACA seeks to contribute to the whole of American contemporary art through a culture of discourse, inclusion, and aesthetic engagement.
Art of the Rural is another organization that gives voice to rural artists and allows them to create their own, evolving narrative of rural culture. Art of the Rural also seeks to bridge the rural-urban cultural divide by connecting with various communities through digital media. The organization also encourages people from diverse communities to participate in an ongoing dialogue on art, culture, and policy through various events and publications.

Some rural artists, such as painter Russell Ricks from rural Idaho, see their art as a way of "preserving" or documenting rurality. Toward this end, Russell Ricks travels to various regions to paint rural landscapes and landmarks. Brian Frink, the founder of RACA, seeks to narrate a piece of rural life and culture through painting his rural clients' pets. These are just a few of the many examples of persons giving voice to the community of artists in rural America.

The proliferation of art found in urban areas does not and should not suggest that rural areas lack or have a shortage of artists. Nor should it suggest that the urban artist is more progressive than the rural artist. Although spatial obstacles have presented and continue to present a challenge in the way of establishing an interactive community of rural artists, the internet has provided one way of alleviating that challenge. And although rural art may not be as conspicuous as urban art, rural art is very much alive.


Charlie said...

Yes, artistic talent is definitely not limited to geographic location. The documentary Rich Hill showcased this point by introducing the boy who dreamed of going to China to pursue his artistic passions.

Damon Alimouri said...

American popular music interestingly has almost entirely originated from rural America. We can trace back the roots of literally every American musical genre (e.g., Blues, Jazz, Rock, Soul, Country) to the countryside, particularly the rural black populace.

Listen to any popular song on the radio today, and you will find that it ultimately has some sort of pentatonic or blues derivation. The blues, a Black-American art form, originated in the Mississippi delta region. It is amazing that this rural art form has shaped the course of music, an art-form, worldwide.

Tiffanie said...

You make an interesting point that so many people immediately think of big, urban cities such as New York or San Francisco for great art. Not only are rural places often overlooked at centers for art, but even smaller cities (meaning, smaller than say New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, etc) are still overlooked.

For example, Sacramento is often disregarded, but it has amazing art! Not only is there the Crocker Art Museum, but the city celebrates the amazing artistic talent in this city through Second Saturday, a event held every second Saturday of each month, in which art galleries all around the midtown and downtown area open their doors to the public.

As you stated, art is very much alive - whether in an urban or rural environment!

Juliana said...

This is very interesting to think about. It would be interesting to explore other factors that might contribute to a lack of the arts in rural areas. Perhaps in addition to the lack of population density generally in rural areas needed establish an art community, I think in areas of lower economic status, art might be less of a priority.