Introducing The American Bottom Project

East St. Louis, at the base of a Cargill elevator and overlook; photograph by Jesse Vogler

Art of the Rural recently launched Middle Landscape, a series of projects that combine releases of artistic and cultural material with digital work and on-the-ground action to facilitate a collaborative space that creates relationships between ideas, individuals, and communities. Today we are excited to share the American Bottom Project, one that will evolve over the course of many years and will connect across multiple fields and conversations.


Few regions in the United States exhibit a social and spatial fragmentation as extreme as that of the vast flood plains of the East St Louis region. As a coherent geographic interval stretching from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers down to the confluence with the Kaskaskia River, this flood plain–known to geographers and anthropologists as The American Bottom–is site to the social and spatial aspirations of pre-contact Native Americans, 19th century industrial expansion, 20th century infrastructural consolidation, and 21st century ecological precocity. Yet this is a region defined less by its inherent ecological and geographical continuities and more by the industrial patterns that have effectively fractured this region into closed communities of extraction, production, and displacement.

The American Bottom is a landscape of interruptions and strange adjacencies – but also a living landscape, where sites of the familiar and the extraordinary continue to shape the social and spatial processes of the present. This project — a collaboration between Middle Landscape, The Institute of Marking and Measuring, The Center for Land Use Interpretation, and the Husbandmen design group — seeks to tell a political, spatial, social, and ecological history of The American Bottom by focusing on the cultural landscapes of this region.

One only needs to a run a finger down the length of the Mississippi to begin to uncover the complexity and variousness of this story. Alton was a flashpoint in the abolitionist movement (when the eastern banks of the river meant the difference between freedom and enslavement), the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate, and also the birthplace of both Miles Davis and James Earl Ray. A long red line on the ConAgra grain silos mark the height of the 1993 flood that submerged blocks of the city.


Holding grounds in National City for Interstate 64 renovations, November 2013; photograph by Matthew Fluharty

Moving south, we find the highest cluster of industrial suburbs in the country: a few include Wood River (built by Standard Oil), Alorton (formerly named Alcoa), Granite City (US Steel), and Sauget (formerly named Monsanto). While these company towns occur in great number, this region also features a number of municipalities that were dis-incorporated and subsequently razed when industrial owners withdrew. This appears most forcefully in National City, the former home of the National Stockyards; at its peak, this was the site of the largest hog processing facility in the world. All that remains now of National City is the National Stockyards Building and an abandoned playground (another spatial theme across the bottomlands).

These social and economic legacies converge in East St. Louis, perhaps the most misunderstood area in the midwest. Much of the political and economic challenges to the growth of East St. Louis are decades old, historically embodied in the most violent labor- and race-related riot of the twentieth century, in 1917, when white mobs infiltrated the city and murdered hundreds of its African American citizens. While the structural causes of the issues facing East St. Louis often go unexamined in the region, the city holds a rich cultural heritage stretching from the emergence of ragtime and jazz, through to modern architecture and innovative community projects sparking new forms of engagement.

As our finger might progress south, we find a transition from rural to urban already underscored by the rural diaspora who populated, and built, the industries and municipalities of places like East St. Louis. These connections stretch across cultures, geographies, and centuries. For instance, our finger might trace a line from Brooklyn, the first African American incorporated town in the U.S., to the Cahokia Mounds, once a city of 40,000 residents and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We might trace a line from the labyrinthine man-made cave system of the Rock City Business Complex (housing both the National Records and Archives Administration and, in the deeper cold storage facilities, the hops for Anheuser-Busch) to Valmeyer, a farming town submerged by the 1993 floods and subsequently rebuilt atop its neighboring bluffs.


Display from the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site; photograph by Jesse Vogler

Though these points of connection and divergence can be overwhelming, we find that a whole history of America can be told here—through the beliefs, hopes, aspirations, and failures of five centuries of civilizations.  With the American Bottom project we will focus on the specificity of place and storytelling to access the what is at stake on a conceptual, historical, and local level.

Over the first twelve months of this project, we will reach out to new partners and audiences and deepen our engagement with the region, its people, and this cultural landscape. This autumn, in collaboration with the Center for Land Use Interpretation, we will create a project within their Land Use Database. Through this period we will welcome individuals and groups from the St. Louis area and beyond for guided tours and fieldwork excursions.

In concert with these collaborations, the project’s focus will turn to the production of publications, recordings, maps, and additional events to further connect disciplines, cultures, and forms of community practice. Along the way, we will regularly share online images from the American Bottom Archive alongside pertinent news, readings, and links from this river landscape.




This Weekend: The Launch of the Mary Celestia Parler Project


Today we are excited to share more details on the launch of the Mary Celestia Parler Project this weekend at the Fayetteville Roots Festival, in collaboration with The Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies, and the University of Arkansas Special Collections department.

A schedule of free events are featured at the Fayetteville Public Library, programming that reaches to engage the public in the diverse and wonderful elements of Parler’s work — everything from an exhibition to a square dance to a series of panel conversations and film screenings. The weekend will conclude on Sunday with a live taping of Tales From the South and followed by a discussion of the Child Ballads with Anais Mitchell and Rachel Reynolds Luster, the Director of the Parler Project.

Folks who can’t make it to Fayetteville: we’ll be sharing much of this weekend’s festivities online in the coming weeks, so please stay tuned.

We’re proud to share below the gorgeous poster for these Parler Project events, created by Gustav Carlson:


Fayetteville Roots Festival Presents: 
Mary Celestia Parler: Celebrating 25 Years of Arkansas Tradition
An Interactive Exhibit 
Walker Community Room, Fayetteville Public Library, 401 West Mountain 

Thursday, August 28th:
1-3 PM Genealogy Workshop, Hosted by Joshua Youngblood, U of A Special Collections
3-5 PM Field School 101: Documenting Your Cultural Traditions, Hosted by Rachel Reynolds Luster (curator), Jenn Jameson (Mississippi folklorist), and Allison Williams (folk musician)
6-8 PM Ozark Music Listening Party, Hosted by Willi Goehring and Featuring the Ozark’s Finest Traditional Musicians and Folklorists

Friday, August 29th:
9-11 AM Crooked Crow Songwriting Workshop, Hosted by J Wagner
12-2 PM KUAF Ozarks at Large Live Radio Broadcast
2-3:30 PM Screening of “FOLK”, a documentary by Sara Terry
3:30-4:30 PM Film Q & A with Director Sara Terry, Raina Rose, and Anthony DaCosta
8-10 PM Old Time Square Dance @ 546 W Center Street

Saturday, August 30th:
11:30-12:30 Panel Discussion of Mary Parler Exhibit with Bob Cochran (Professor, U of A), Tim Nutt (U of A Special Collections) and Rachel Reynolds Luster (Exhibit Curator)
12:30-1:30 PM Screening of “The Search”, CBS Documentary on Mary Parler
1:30-2 PM J.B. Hogan, Folksinger and Writer
2-2:45 PM The Red Star Rounders, Traditional Ozark Music
2:45-3:15 PM Adam Cox, Folk Musician and Social Justice Advocate
3:30-4PM Kim Lansford and Nathan Mcallister, Missouri Dance Music
4-5PM Screening of “The Search”, CBS Documentary on Mary Parler

Sunday, August 31st:
3-4 PM Tales from the South: Live Radio Broadcast with Anais Mitchell and Anthony DaCosta
4-5 PM A Discussion on Child Ballads with Anais Mitchell and Rachel Reynolds Luster



Restore/Restory: A Mosaic Of Voices in Rural California


Nature and culture tour of the oak savannah led by landscape designer Sally Barrett and Native rancher Wyatt Cline; Steve Fisch

Today we are grateful to share the community-based digital work of Restore/Restory as a feature within the Year of the Rural Arts and its mission to communicate the breadth of cultural and artistic expression across rural America.  This innovative project, led by jesikah maria ross, offers an opportunity to expand how we talk about so many concepts central to rural communities: inclusivity, cultural heritage, community and environmental sustainability, land use, and new frontiers in placemaking practice. 

By Matthew Fluharty

On an autumn afternoon, folks gathered on the grounds of the Cache Creek Nature Preserve in Yolo County, California for a chautauqua-influenced program of story circles, nature and culture walks, and presentations by a range of regional artists, educators, and businesspeople. As if a mild, cloudless October afternoon was not idyllic enough, events concluded with a Hootenanny in front of the Preserve’s historic barn, with music, storytelling, and plenty of food. As Cache Creek meandered in the background and birdsong filled the woods, it would have been easy for an observer to understand why Californians are reluctant to live anywhere else.

The Cache Creek Nature Preserve stands on 130 acres of restored wetlands, woods, and grasslands located outside of Woodland, California, 30 miles Northwest of Sacramento. The Preserve itself is managed by the Cache Creek Conservancy, a coalition of environmentalists, farmers, landowners, civic leaders, and representatives from the local gravel industry. This group’s work began in 1995 as a concluding note to twenty years of bitter disagreement over mining gravel from the creek; their belief in the power of place helped to establish the common ground necessary for all sides to move forward together. In 1998, colleagues at the Teichert mining company provided the donation of land that now comprises the Preserve and allows for the Conservancy to promote their shared goals of ecological restoration, agricultural preservation, and business development. Today, the Preserve offers spaces for a Native American tending and gathering garden and also welcomes residents from across the region (along with thousands of elementary school students each year) to explore the joy, and the responsibility, of environmental stewardship.

From a distance, the chautauqua’s union of art, environmental sustainability, and community engagement resembles the boundary-crossing ethos of creative placemaking, what the National Endowment for the Arts defines as an opportunity when “public, private, not-for-profit, and community sectors partner to strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.” However, two significant factors set the mission behind that afternoon’s conversations on different terrain: first, many of crowd on hand had once ardently disagreed with each other on the future of the very land on which they stood, and are still at work to mend these community connections; secondly, the force that brought these individuals together for honest conversation was generated not through traditional placemaking channels, but through the efforts of mediamaker jesikah maria ross and her collaborative vision for a kind of digital placemaking that gives storytellers an imperative to create online work that transcends the confining dimensions of the computer screen.


UC Davis students share diverse stories of place in the historic barn at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve; Steve Fisch

The Conservancy and its communities are the focus of Restore/Restory, a media arts project created by jesikah maria ross along with University of California-Davis students and faculty, along with members of the Cache Creek Conservancy and a cross-section of Yolo County residents (Native leaders, miners, farmers, environmental activists, and policymakers). With a goal of creating “a people’s history” of the creek and its environs, ross involved 100 students, 20 project scholars, and 80 area residents to collaboratively author a range of multimedia pieces, including a site-based audio tour, an illustrated timeline, and a story map, complemented by a series of panoramic interactive digital murals featuring fifty conversations with a diverse range of individuals who take a personal and professional stake in the continued stewardship of the land.

ross created Restore/Restory through the Art of Regional Change (ARC), a UC–Davis program she founded and directed that merged creative storytelling practices with scholarly-informed research methods to explore the dynamics of local culture through digital storytelling, student and faculty collaboration, and community engagement. Past projects – all richly documented online – focused on the culture and agriculture of the Sierra Valley, community revitalization in the Blue Mountain region of the Sierra Nevada, and the perspectives of youth living in the neighborhoods of West Sacramento. This collaboration with the Cache Creek Conservancy was funded primarily by the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts, an interdisciplinary effort that supports “creative research and critical discourse” within the state’s university system. This partnership of like-minded institutions provided the capacity and the imperative for the project’s searching, interdisciplinary mission.

Restore Restory FrontThe Front Page of the Restore/Restory project

“The tension between doing community-driven and artist-driven work, and having university participants involved in the process, can be incredibly productive,” ross believes. While community members are usually looking for a focused and positive story to be told about their place and themselves, university partners often desire rigorous scholarship and diverse, nuanced representation. Between these two needs, ross’s project works to tell a story – and build a digital platform – that compellingly acknowledges these tensions while crafting a kind of third space. Unlike many traditional media projects, ross fostered an aesthetic that imposed little technical or academic hierarchy upon those who came together to tell the multifaceted story of Cache Creek. The persons interviewed and photographed were considered collaborators instead of “subjects.” This strategy equitably communicates those various conceptions of place, history, and community, but also, when those parts converge within the whole of Restore/Restory, assembles a deep, prismatic representation of a single place.

As ross describes this, she was interested in a process that might be “braided together as a mosaic of voices, signaling that they all are of equal merit.” This philosophy places a collaborative emphasis on the community, their shared history, and the potential for new media storytelling to find ways to engage the digital and analog aspects of their living culture. While this innovative approach is remarkable in itself, this was perhaps the only way to build the kind of trust that might allow for the more challenging, more complicated narrative of Cache Creek to be told.

Restore/Restory can serve as a lens through which to consider how a range of collaboratively-minded endeavors — from creative placemaking to public humanities projects — might operate when the practice occurs within communities in the midst of social and economic upheaval. The multivocal nature of Restore/Restory does the hard work of grappling with what Roberto Bedoya has argued is the central “insufficiency” of creative placemaking, “a lack of understanding that before you have places of belonging, you must feel you belong.” This project’s combination of digital fieldwork and design with inclusive on-the-ground conversations takes great steps towards creating a space for storytelling, listening, and a collaborative vision of a community’s future.

Relocation Of Patwin

Timeline Information on the Relocation of the Patwin People; Restore/ Restory

In this respect, Cache Creek can stand in for so many other places where sentiments of belonging and dis-belonging have effected the civic and cultural fabric. This region, as with so much of rural America, is marked by natural beauty, but also by a complicated history and long-standing disagreement over the use of land and resources. The cultural landscape bears the marks of colonialism and its aftermaths, as the Wintun people – through successive Spanish, Mexican, and American incursions – were gradually driven from what French Canadian Fur Traders named Cache Creek. More recently, these acres were a part of what Yolo County citizens refer to as “The Gravel Wars,” a twenty year debate between the aggregate industry, environmentalists, farmers, citizens, and local government over the extent to which operations such as Teichert (the mining company who later donated the Preserve acreage) could dredge the creek beds for gravel. Restore/Restory, to its great credit, creates a space in which individuals can narrate these dynamics with honesty and mutual respect, mirroring ongoing negotiations between its participants toward the future of their place.

jesikah maria ross and her collaborators understood this experience and designed a digital landscape that feels like it was created, and exists, in place. The sounds of the creek and its wildlife – from the breeze through the cottonwoods to the calls of black phoebes and owls – provide a continuous point of reference across the five different responses to each stop of the audio tour portion of Restore/Restory. Thus, when Native rancher Wyatt Cline refers to Cache Creek’s ability to serve as a “live canvas” for the region’s cultural history, an online listener is able to grasp and grapple with the beauty, but also the gravity, of such a metaphor.

The Memorial Grove stop on the audio tour, when considered alongside the interactive timeline on Restore/Restory, illustrates this quality of the “live canvas” with great force. The tour begins with Yoche Dehe Wintun tribal chair Marshall McKay reflecting on the genocide brought upon his people by the succession of Spanish, Mexican, and American forces. McKay believes that such trauma continues to be felt:

The Wintun people are healing from this kind of trauma simply because we’re able to tell our story now. We’re able to talk about it. We’re able to explain what happened and we’re finding the courage to do that. We’re finding the resources to tell the story…It’s going to take preserves like this to show what it was like before. It’s going to take an intricate network of information to tell the whole story and be able to then process that pain and damage and move forward.

Part of the contextual depth of this project, an element ross attributes to the inclusion of academic partners and community scholars, is how the perspectives of Cline and McKay meet with their contemporary neighbors: the farmers, miners, and environmentalists who embodied the various sides within the twenty years “Gravel War” that concluded in the mid-1990’s with the establishment of the Cache Creek Conservancy. Though tensions have calmed recently, this digital project brings these perspectives together in the Audio Tour as different narrators speak to how face-to-face, human dialogue led to the creation of the very landscape that sonically surrounds their voice.

Though there are points of disagreement on the terms of land use within the recollections of farmer Lynnel Pollock, gravel miner Ben Adamo, and ecologist Ann Brice, each expresses a responsibility to the people and place of Cache Creek and attribute its existence and its potential for sustainability to negotiation and compromise. Ben Adamo reflects on the positive conclusion to the “Gravel Wars” in language that uncannily matches the ethos of Restore/Restory itself:

When it comes from an individual that you trust and can believe, then progress is made and that’s ultimately how some issues were resolved. And it helped the county get to a point where they had a certain comfort level that everyone’s needs were going to be addressed to a certain degree…when you have individuals that are willing to put themselves in the other persons’ shoes and look at it from that different perspective, it benefits everybody.


Table Conversations Following the Speakers at the Restore/Restore Hootenanny; Steve Fisch

During the fall 2012 chautauqua, visitors had an opportunity to expand their own sense of perspective within this environment, as the work of Restore/Restory migrated from its digital space to anchor the exploration of the Preserve’s grounds. All afternoon, guides led groups through a handful of Audio Tour stops serving as points for the audience to access, and discuss, the deeper historical and cultural connections within the place. Two years later, those headsets, audio devices, and the interactive maps ross created are available for new visitors each day, alongside a computer kiosk containing the full Restore/Restory project that will soon be installed within the Preserve’s visitor’s center.

Such planning illuminates the ways in which ross envisions multifaceted storytelling and long-term community engagement as necessary foundations for the cultural sustainability of a place or its people. In this respect, digital practice merges with an ethos of creative placemaking – and in the process allows the medium to exceed its physical boundaries while also forwarding a vision of cultural programming that asks how such events will impact a place six months, or five years, into the future. Two years after the chautauqua at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve, Native American leaders are using those resources to introduce visitors to the Tending and Gathering Garden, school teachers are leading their students through the space with the Audio Tour materials, and university faculty are incorporating Restore/Restory across a range of curriculum. Whether such individuals are considering rural community development, American studies, or whether they are attracted to the Conservancy’s mission of environmental stewardship, each participant is prompted to consider their role, and their points of contribution, to this evolving story. Each day these materials are also available to the public, so that they may more fully engage with the land and the cultural landscape surrounding them.

As jesikah maria ross reflects on the project and its physical manifestations, she stresses how “group interaction makes meaning,” how, along Cache Creek and beyond it, people from diverse and too-often contradictory walks of life must keep talking. “You can’t share a history if you don’t make it together,” she concludes. From the chautauquas to role of the digital material as a living document to accompany a visitor’s exploration of the Cache Creek Nature Preserve, this project ultimately asserts that community meaning-making is never finished, never a product encased in glass – or embedded on a website. Restore/Restory offers a model, and an inspiring challenge, for how cross-sector collaborations can create a digital space that not only thrives beyond its launch date but also tells the harder, necessary, stories of rural place.

Matthew Fluharty is the Executive Director of Art of the Rural and the designer of its Middle Landscape projects. He is a member of the M12 art collective and currently a Research Fellow in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. 


Year small

THE YEAR OF THE RURAL ARTS is a biennial program of events, conversations, and online features celebrating the diverse, vital ways in which rural arts and culture contribute to American life. The Year is coordinated by Art of the Rural and organized by a collective of individuals, organizations, and communities from rural and urban locales across the nation.

The inaugural Year is a collaborative, grassroots effort designed to build steam over the course of 2014. To present a more equitable representation and a more comprehensive narrative of rural arts in culture, all online features will be freely shared across websites and social media. For more information on the Year of the Rural Arts, visit: