Nov
17

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Designing a Community Hub in the Ozarks, Welcoming the Whole Community to the Table

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The Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op is a market and community center located in the Missouri Ozarks in the town of Alton, pop. 879. OCFPAC, which serves as both an economic and cultural driver in the county, was the idea of Art of the Rural founding member and OCFPAC Project Steward, Rachel Reynolds Luster. Almost three years ago, she set out to organize farmers, gardeners, ranchers, crafters, artists, and musicians as part of her efforts to develop a holistic approach to community wellbeing and cultural practice. A year and a half ago, efforts to organize gathered momentum as the co-op opened its headquarters on the square in the county seat of Alton. Since then, they’ve expanded to add a community kitchen, garden, and exhibit space which also host skill-sharing workshops and a resource library of local and regional books, music, and art for visitors to use.

This summer, OCFPAC was one of four community organizations across the country to receive an award from The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, a project of collaboration between the USDA, The National Endowment for the Arts, Orton Foundation, and Project for Public Spaces. The award facilitates a three-day community engagement workshop bringing in a resource team of designers, horticulturalists, market specialists, architects, artists, and more to help OCFPAC and the communities of Oregon County develop a vacant property into a community hub.

Last week Matthew Fluharty had the pleasure of asking his fellow AOTR colleague about the latest on the Co-Op and the upcoming workshops.

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Rachel, what can you share about the cultural landscape of the Ozark region of Southern Missouri and how the prospect of a Co-Op that features art and agriculture responds to this community texture?

We are at the southeast edge of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. The mountains here are old, beat down to rolling hills. A large chunk of Oregon County is held in National Forest land, the remainder is sparsely populated. Unemployment is high, more than a quarter of the residents live below the national poverty line. There is no real industry here. Most people craft a living out of several part time jobs or entrepreneurial efforts, mostly deriving from relatively small-scale agriculture ventures. I’ve lived here nine years now, although I grew up in the Ozarks just over the line in Arkansas. I began to think about using my skills as a folklorist to address this need. To that end, I realized that there was actually a really wonderful sense of community life that came from what some would call abysmal statistics. There had never been any real industry here. Jobs had always been scarce and incomes low. Consequently, it was part of a cultural continuum that people produced more for themselves and relied on a barter exchange with friends and neighbors as a means to stay here, and they did/do it, because they love it here. Why wouldn’t they? It’s beautiful, unpolluted, crime is low, and recreation is high. So the Co-Op began as a sort of effort to centralize this exchange with the hope that we would not change but rather nurture this. What was unforeseen, and what has been the most interesting thing to me, has been that we have become the connective tissue between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Newcomers and people of very different backgrounds, opinions, and belief systems find us and join.

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Can you tell us a little bit about the current status of the Co-Op, and why this seemed like an opportune moment to apply for a Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design grant? 

In some ways, I always imagined us being able to develop our own space, but now we’ve arrived at a moment where it all, anything, seems possible. We are in the process, thanks to the great generosity of one of our members, of purchasing an old vacant bar on the square and the property that it sits on. We were in the process of making the decision on whether or not to pursue this when I saw the release for applications for CIRD. I really thought that if we received this award, which was a huge longshot for a small organization that had never applied for funding, we would be able to get so many of our questions answered about the structural integrity of the building – and that this would be the nudge to help our members make the decision of whether or not to take on this responsibility. To my surprise, we not only got the award, but the members voted unanimously to pursue the property. Through the upcoming workshop we can learn not only how to develop these plans but also how to further our mission and fill in the gaps in terms of our collective sense of what is needed within the community to develop a true hub.

Who are team of folks that you’ve collaborated with CIRD to bring to the community?

I feel very lucky to have been allowed so much freedom in selecting what I believe will be the perfect resource team for our project. M12’s Richard Saxton and Kirsten Stoltz will be there along with Maria Sykes from Epicenter. They will be holding the reins on the design aspects of the project along with Guy Ames, one of the nation’s foremost experts on community orchards and sustainable orchard practices in the Ozarks. He will be helping us to imagine an edible courtyard and other edible landscaping that is bio-regionally specific. Finally, Ben Sandel of the CDS Consulting Co-Op is on our resource team. He is a nationally-renowned expert in co-operative markets. In addition to the resource team provided through CIRD, we’re very lucky to have architect Mark Wise of KEMStudio, a Rural Studio alum who’s worked in the Ozarks extensively; Jesse Vogler a designer, architect, and cultural geographer and visiting professor at the Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis; Emily Vogler a landscape architect from Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.; and Barbara Williams, a regional artists doing multi-media pieces based on native stone houses in and around the county. All of these specialists believe, as I do, in the critical need of community engagement in each facet of project design. So, our largest resource will be the attendees, co-op members, local organizations, and other interested community members that will help envision our community hub.

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This is such an exciting list of folks! How has the community reacted to the news of this grant and the upcoming workshops?

People seem very excited about it and anxious to participate in the workshop. I think the property in question is seen as an eye sore, and many from civic government on down are excited by the possibility of both us expanding our reach and a new public space that’s beautiful and useful. The last day of our workshop on Saturday, November 22, we will host an open community forum where we present what we’ve all come up with over the course of the first two days. Then we will have a community celebration to acknowledge the award and what we’ve all been able to accomplish. I have to say, this is one of my favorite aspects of OCFPAC programming and we usually do it a couple times a year, at least. We block off the square, bring in a flat bed, cook a bunch of food, give it away, and have live music and fellowship for hours on the square. I’m particularly excited for this event because we’ve got a couple of special treats. Jesse Charles Hammock II, who lives about 20 miles up the road and just got a nod form the Washington Post, is playing along with two other bands. Also, Neil from our locally famous ice cream joint, The Spring Dipper, has crafted us some special fall flavors of his award-winning ice cream to give to all of those attendees to the community forum.

After the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design workshops become part of the Co-Op’s own history – and we’re looking five years down the road – what kinds of activities and services might you and your fellow members provide to the community and the region?

I see us fulfilling all of the functions we do now on a larger scale. For instance, our community-certified kitchen expands to a commercial kitchen with storage and the possibility to be a regional distribution point for fresh Oregon County grown produce. I see our space where we exhibit local art and have pickin’ circles having the possibility of providing stage space for local productions of all sorts. I see incubation spaces, whether that be artist’s studio space, business, agriculture or something totally different that I haven’t even imagined. I see people playing dominoes on our porch, and eating paw paws, and sorting out differences and similarities. I see it all.

I also see more co-op’s popping up. We’ve got our first two sister co-ops in a neighboring county starting up, based on our models. As the story of our little co-op has expanded to a national one, there is more interest in locally adapting the model to other regions of the country, which is very exciting to me.

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Please find these links for further reading on the Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op and this week’s Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design workshops:

Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op Facebook page

Butchers, Bakers, & Candlestick Makers: A Co-Op Creates Community in Rural Missouri, Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design site

Food Co-Op Promotes Bartering, Sustainability, Linda Holliday, Mother Earth News

Food Producers, Artisans Co-Op in Alton to Host Rural Design Workshop, Terry Hampton, West Plains Daily Quill

Profile on Rachel Reynolds Luster and OCFPAC on the Penzeys Spices website

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Nov
5

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Featured Year of the Rural Arts Event: National Storytelling Festival

© Jay Huron - caseSensitive Photos
Courthouse Tent and the Old Courthouse © Jay Huron 2014- caseSensitive Photos

By Savannah Barrett

The National Storytelling Festival
Jonesborough, TN

The National Storytelling Festival celebrated their 42nd consecutive event this past month. Organized by the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, the Festival put “Tennessee’s oldest town” on the map as the “storytelling capital of the world”.

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Yarnspinners Party on the ISC Courtyard © Jay Huron 2014-caseSensitive Photos

The tradition began in 1973 when a high school journalism teacher and a group of area students heard Grand Ole Opry’s Jerry Clower tell a story about coon hunting in Mississippi. That October, the same teacher brought in hay bales and wagons to historic Jonesborough so that he and about 60 attendees could launch the first formal storytelling festival in the nation. Thousands of stories later, the event is ranked on the Top 100 Events in North America and sustains the International Storytelling Center and their mission to improve people’s lives around the world through the power of storytelling. Now featuring two dozen internationally acclaimed storytellers, the National Storytelling Festival attracts more than 11,000 people from all 50 states and several continents into the Appalachian town of 6,000.

The National Storytelling Festival is comprised of main stage performances alongside educational programming, a Story Slam, a showcase for new talent, and a stage for anyone to tell a story. This year’s featured tellers included NPR personality Kevin Kling, mythologist Megan Wells, Japanese traditionalist Kuniko Yamamoto, and First Nations teller Dovie Thomason. These public performances are accompanied by popular special events including concerts, ghost stories, and midnight cabarets. Storytelling Studios are offered throughout the week and provide an intimate setting to engage with featured tellers. The Festival also offers college credit for participating students through East Tennessee State University, and new this year, live streamed its K12 educational programming to reach an estimated 3000-5000 students from across the US, Asia, Africa, and Europe.

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Swappin’ Ground © Jay Huron 2014- caseSensitive Photos

The town of Jonesborough has built storytelling into the fabric of their community year round, as is evidenced by their tagline of the “Storytelling Capital of the World”. Yet, these community programs provide more than a gathering space for a traditional artform. The Jonesborough Storytelling Guild performs publicly each Tuesday and features local talent and a weekly teller. Additionally, the International Storytelling Center hosts a “Teller in Residence” program, which offers twenty-six storyteller residencies in which each resident spends a week telling stories publicly during daily matinees and special concerts.

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Downtown Jonesborough © Jay Huron 2014-caseSensitive Photos

The process by which this small Tennessee town came to recognize itself as a storytelling Mecca and leverage themselves as both an artist and tourist destination is an interesting one. In consideration with the emergent creative placemaking trend, the National Storytelling Festival and the community of Jonesborough’s adoption of the storytelling theme as their regional theme presents an interesting long term case study, as the story of the festival and its evolution over the past four decades offer significant experience-based knowledge to the field.

The International Storytelling Center filed for bankruptcy in 2010 after mounting considerable debt and completing a mammoth capital project for a three-acre facility in downtown Jonesborough in 2002. This Center became the first facility anywhere in the world devoted solely to the tradition of storytelling, but struggled with the support and capacity necessary to sustain itself. These days, the Festival and its corresponding Center are not only sustained and contributing more than 7 million dollars in economic impact to the East Tennessee region, but is growing and engaging new audiences in the performance and practice of storytelling. How they maneuvered the turnaround, and what their story lends to the field of creative placemaking in a rural context, is valuable for all of us.

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The Healing Force Sonji Anderson and Karim Anderson © Jay Huron 2014 caseSensitive Photos

The International Storytelling Center’s new Executive Director has leveraged significant national and international partnerships to address capacity, relevance, and access in the field. They launched a digital partnership with Google’s Cultural Institute [which reached around 8 millon viewers through social media access], as a way to highlight the impact of ISC’s work- highlighting old, renewed and newly established partnerships and collaborations with the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, NASA, the United Way, the United Nations, East Tennessee State University, and Harvard University. Many of these collaborations and more are detailed in the Google exhibit itself, which showcases ISC’s milestone achievements since the first National Storytelling Festival was held in 1973.

This fall, the Center partnered with Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort as a part of a commitment to maintaining and building new multigenerational storytelling traditions in East Tennessee, which assisted hundreds of school children in attending the 2014 National Storytelling Festival. Their relationships with partners and stakeholders seem to have reignited the sustainability of the National Storytelling Festival, and by so doing, the public celebration of storytelling in this country.

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Ghost Stories in Mill Park © Jay Huron 2014 caseSensitive Photos

For more information about the National Storytelling Festival and Jonesborough, TN please visit: www.storytellingcenter.net. Please mark your calendars for this fantastic event, check out the National Storytelling Festival story on the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture, and report back to us at Art of the Rural to tell us about your experience! Please use the social media hash tag #ruralarts in any social media posts from the event.

Year Logo Large

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: www.artoftherural.org.

Oct
24

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Featured Year of the Rural Arts Event: Shahrazad: A Tale of Love and Magic

Photo by David Weiland 2
‘Reflection’, Photo Credit David Weiland

Shahrazad: A Tale of Love and Magic
The Summer Spectacle, Double Edge Theatre, Ashfield, MA

By Savannah Barrett

The end of August marked the completion of a six-week run of sold-out performances of Shahrazad, A Tale of Love and Magic at Double Edge Theatre. Under the conception and direction of founder Stacy Klein, Shahrazad guides audiences from the mythical landscapes of the Arabian Nights and Song of Songs through the actual fields, barns, and gardens of a former western Massachusetts dairy farm. These 105 acres set the stage for a woman’s journey to transform her world and save her own life through the stories she tells.

Through writer Matthew Glassman’s weaving of texts from Arabian Nights, Song of Songs, Rumi, and Conference of the Birds, Shahrazad invites audiences to journey alongside King Shahrayar through place and story. Presented in association with a remarkable group of local and international artists, the performance incorporates site-specific installations and original compositions with North African, Middle Eastern, and Indian influences alongside physical, acrobatic performances that conjure flying genies, a giant hoopoe bird, and castles of illusion.

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‘Magician’s Wonders’, Photo Credit Maria Baranova

The setting makes this production unlike any other. As dusk extends long shadows from pines that mark the boundary between ground and sky, oud and violin accompany the rising voices of the harem who are invoking the rich smell of herbs under the rhythm of the pestle. “A night pregnant with the scent of stories” unravels as the audience is guided through the farm while the swimming, dancing, flying cast- demonstrating their intimate understanding of this place- moves in perfect step with the landscape.

At times, there is no separation of audience to performer, or stage to countryside: coyotes call in the distance, cows get after one another, thunderstorms descend. By the time the Milky Way reflects into the pond during the final scene, it is clear to us that the land, audience, and performers are interacting to create an intentional immersion experience that is unique to each evening’s performance.

Photo by David Weiland

‘Jullanar of the Sea’, Photo Credit David Weiland

Double Edge is internationally acclaimed as a preeminent laboratory theatre, and the Summer Spectacle evidences their commitment to research: The shows evolve daily through trainings and rehearsals and shared meals. Daily training- which they describe as a “holistic methodology that employs physical, vocal, emotional, and imaginative through physical training, improvisation, and etudes”- reminded me of something akin to ecstatic religious practice. Training and working on the farm seem to steward the ensemble’s reverence for the place and its presence in their practice.

This year Double Edge Theatre celebrated its 20th anniversary in Ashfield, Massachusetts (Population 1800). Within Pioneer Valley along the border of the Berkshires, Ashfield was historically a dairy farming community. Like much of New England, Franklin County faced a considerable economic transition in the 1980s and 1990s as Big Ag consumed the dairy industry and expanded westward. Ashfield’s dozens of generational family farms reduced to two. Franklin County displays a jarring contrast as generational hill-country families neighbor the seasonal homes of urbanites; Still, the region is persistent in its traditions of neighborliness. The town’s distinct history of tolerance and direct governance continues to gather the community in town hall meetings and town greens, and supports an impressive array of local businesses, organic farms, and artisans.

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‘Sea Creature’, Photo Credit Maria Baranova

Double Edge sought a laboratory space as it moved from Boston to Ashfield, but has evolved over the past two decades from a place to work to a place to live and connect to the community. Open trainings, in-school programs, collaborations with local artists and businesses, and the Summer Spectacle each connect the theatre to the community. The Double Edge Student Immersion program began in 1993 and the Summer Spectacle in 2002. These programs, along with an indoor Garden Cycle season, allowed Double Edge to not only cultivate a second generation of theatre makers, artists, and community organizers- but contributed to growing a committed local audience invested in the work and the farm.

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 ‘Hoopoe Spreads Wings’, Photo Credit Maria Baranova

This cycle of work has helped the company to teach the Double Edge language, which has even been reconstituted through a production with the local elementary school who, at the suggestion of a student, transformed the school play by “doing it the way that Double Edge does.” Thirteen years into the Summer Spectacle tradition the theatre attracts almost 3000 people per Summer to Ashfield, which demonstrates the effectiveness of long term investment in creative placemaking in a rural context. Double Edge Theatre’s model- described as creating both intrinsic and extrinsic impact through job creation, revenue streams, and deep cultural and social resonance in the community- has been the subject of an impact study by Williams College. This economic impact also makes sense to the people of Franklin County, who have come to understand Double Edge as good neighbors and as stewards of the land and community.

Through this unique laboratory of theatre, land, and community, Double Edge also stewards new developments and understandings of this kind of work in the rural arts field. In 2015, Double Edge will embark on the planning and development of the Spectacle Tour, engaging with rural populations throughout the world on the creation and production of The Odyssey in their hometowns. International programs for the Spectacle Tour currently include the Fredriksten Music Festival (Norway) in May – June 2015 and the Argentina National Festival in 2015/16. Double Edge also recently created and performed a Spectacle at Amherst College, a combination of three previous works, Shahrazad, Odyssey, and Don Quixote, which took audience from the library steps of the Amherst quad to the cliff overlooking the Pioneer Valley.

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Double Edge performing a Spectacle at Amherst College, Photo Credit Rob Mattson.

Art of the Rural recently completed a Year of the Rural Arts Residency at Double Edge Theatre. To learn more about Double Edge Theatre, please visit: http://www.doubleedgetheatre.org/. Please check out the Summer Spectacle story on the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture, and report back to us at Art of the Rural to tell us about your experience! Please use the social media hash tag #ruralarts in any social media posts from the event.

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: www.artoftherural.org.