On January 4th, Ashley took off from the West Coast in a little yellow school bus, along with her Golden Retriever Bodie, on a five-week cross country road-trip conducting interviews, creating art, and documenting the journey with audio, video, and photos. Along with partners, Springboard for the Arts, Creative Exchange, and Art of the Rural, Ashley hopes to shed light on the incredible work rural-based artists, cultural leaders, and arts organizations are doing at the intersection of art and community development. So far, she has visited artists in Del Rey, CA; Ajo, AZ; Show Low, AZ; Zuni Pueblo, NM; Santa Ana Pueblo, NM; Albany, TX; Edom, TX; Fayetteville, TX; Arnaudville, LA; Summit, MS; Newbern, AL; Denmark, SC; Lake City, LC; Flyd, VA; Whitesburg, KY – all communities with populations under 10,000 – the majority of theses communities with a population under 2,500.
Public Transformation is a cross-country documentary art project highlighting the work rural artists and arts organizations are doing to make their communities a more vibrant, healthy, connected place to live. After the election, which brought to light major divides in our country between urban and rural areas, Minnesota artist Ashley Hanson, purchased a little yellow school bus and began planning a trip from West to East, North to South to document and share stories of the work being done in rural communities with a national audience and to further connect rural practitioners across the country to each other.
In addition to being a documentary art project, Public Transformation is also a mobile artist residency. During the five-week journey, artists will join Ashley to create work about their experiences in these communities. Upon completion of the trip on February 6, all of the stories and works of art will be compiled into a multi-media exhibition that will be showcased at the Rural Arts & Culture Summit in Morris, MN June 6-8, 2017 and at Art of the Rural’s headquarters the Outpost in Winona, MN in July. The exhibition will be designed to facilitate conversation about the role of arts in rural community development and will seek to be useful for artists, organizers, planners, or anyone living in and working with rural communities.
The Mobile Artists in Residence for the Public Transformation journey are:
Additional artists will contribute to the project remotely and in collaboration with Ashley following the road-trip. These artists include citizen artist Mary Rothlisberger (Washington), writers Michele Anderson (Fergus Falls, MN) and Matthew Fluharty (Winona, MN), musician Brian Laidlaw (Denver, CO), and playwright Jessica Huang (Minneapolis).
Public Transformation invites you to follow the journey. Visit www.publictransformation.org to see updates from the road and become a member of the Department of Public Transformation. You can also follow Public Transformation on social media @publictransformation, #publictransformation.
To donate to Public Transformation, visit their Indigogo Campaign at: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/public-transformation-community/x/1693058#/
Public Transformation is supported by Springboard for the Arts, Creative Exchange, Art of the Rural and many generous individual donors.
About Public Transformation
Public Transformation is a cross-country documentary art project highlighting the work rural-based artists and arts organizations are doing to make their communities a more vibrant, healthy, connected place to live. Ashley Hanson’s little yellow school bus will act as a mobile artist residency to document and share stories of the great work being done in rural communities with a national audience and to further connect rural practitioners across the country to each other.
About Springboard for the Arts
Springboard for the Arts is an economic and community development organization for artists and by artists based in Saint Paul and Fergus Falls, MN. Springboard’s work is about building stronger communities, neighborhoods, and economics, and we believe that artists are an important leverage point in that work. Springboard for the Arts’ mission is to cultivate vibrant communities by connecting artists with the skills, information, and services they need to make a living and a life. Our programming focuses on supporting the wok of artists through professional development, health, and legal resources, and creating systems and programs for communities to connect to the creative power of their artists. We share this work nationally via our Creative Exchange platform (www.springboardexchange.org) and by freely sharing our work and creating connections among artists and communities, we work to make substantial, system-wide change. www.springboardfrothearts.org
About Creative Exchange
Dedicated to helping communities mobilize the powerful, creative force of artists to solve local challenges, Creative Exchange is a national hub where community leaders and artists share proven ideas and success stories for building stronger communities. Recognizing that many local governments, community organizations, nonprofits, and arts groups lack the resources to develop innovative programs from scratch, Creative Exchange offers free toolkits, consultations, and networking to help communities collaborate with artists in replicating successful programs that creatively address economic, social and cultural issues. Based in Saint Paul, MN, Creative Exchange is a national initiative of Springboard for the Arts. www.springboardexchange.org
About Art of the Rural
Art of the Rural is a collaborative organization that cultivates new ideas, media projects, and exchanges to connect rural and urban communities and cultures. Its national headquarters is located at the Outpost collaborative space in Winona, MN. www.artoftherural.org
More than 130 Kentuckians from 24 counties have been collaborating for Kentucky’s future. Since 2014, the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange has brought people together to integrate the arts, agriculture, health and small business in partnership strategies to build new models, share resources, and improve quality of life for Kentuckians. Each summer, the RUX is hosted in three regions of the state and is designed to help participants understand and value the culture, landscape, context, and people of each place.
The RUX is a partnership of The Art Of The Rural & Appalshop, supported by the Rural Policy Research Institute and has partnered with 52 organizations around the Commonwealth. RUX has been hosted in Whitesburg, Louisville, Paducah, Harlan, and Lexington so far, bringing dozens of people to these regions for the first time. From an Eastern Kentucky hotel development to integrated learning across our community college system, a dozen collaborations have developed. To learn more, visit: www.kyrux.org.
Brandon Coan is a founding member of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, representing the RUX 2014/2015 cohorts. His RUX project work has focused on the revitalization of the historic Daniel Boone Hotel in downtown Whitesburg. An active member of the Louisville philanthropic community, Brandon has also turned his attention to ensuring the sustainability of the RUX program.
Brandon is a Louisville native, local lawyer and active community member. In 2016, Brandon was elected to a four-year term representing the people of Louisville’s Highlands area (District 8) on the Louisville Metro Council. He has served as a director on the boards of Louisville Public Media, the Kentucky College of Art and Design at Spalding University and Louisville Grows, among other Louisville nonprofit organizations. Brandon serves on Kentucky’s Working Group for Next Generation: The Future of Arts & Culture Placemaking in Rural America. Brandon’s wife Summer Auerbach is the Second Generation Owner of Rainbow Blossom Natural Food Markets. Brandon is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of Kentucky College of Law.
How do you tell your story of Kentucky?
I was born and raised in Louisville, and lived here until I went away to college at the University of Michigan. When you’re a kid you don’t think about how your experience of place is different from other places. Going away to college in a diverse, liberal Midwestern town in Michigan was the first time I experienced any negative connotations to Kentucky. When classmates asked me where I was from, I explained that I was from Kentucky, but I was from “Louisville, Kentucky.” I realized then that being from “both” was hard to grasp – for others, and for me.
I come from an upper middle class family in the city, so I don’t have the same kind of identity as Kentuckians that grew up on a farm or in a hollow. I’m from a city that happens to be in Kentucky. I have always loved the city of Louisville. I loved the people, the laid back culture, the beautiful woods and creeks, the Derby, BBQ, college basketball. My Kentucky identity is tied up in the culture of the city I’m from, and the physical and historical characteristics of the state. That was my view of who I was and where I was from up until I went to law school at the University of Kentucky at age 25. I was right on the heels of having worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign for a year. When he lost his campaign, I went to the University of Kentucky.
When you go to medical school, no matter where you go, you’re studying the same human body. Going to law school at University of Kentucky was very interesting because the story of law in Kentucky is specific to the politics of Kentucky. I found that I didn’t agree with the majority of my classmates (who were from all over rural Kentucky) on just about anything. Their life was not like mine, we didn’t have the same experiences, I hadn’t been to their towns. On issue after issue and class after class I was the ideological minority, which was a new experience for me. University of Michigan and University of Kentucky were opposites. It put the contrast between Louisville and the rest of the state in much sharper focus.
In fact, I felt alienated by – and even in opposition to – Kentucky. I graduated from law school in 2008, moved back to Louisville and continued to concentrate more on the city and less on the state. I got even more deeply ingrained in my community and was inspired to build my life here.
How has RUX made you feel more at home in the state of Kentucky?
When I learned about the RUX in 2014, what really excited me was the opportunity to visit Appalshop and experience Whitesburg. In Law School I had found friends from other parts of Kentucky who also really liked the outdoors, and my belonging in the same Kentucky they did had become about outdoor recreation. I had heard about Appalshop from them. I’d heard about Summit City through the Louisville music scene, so I was thrilled to start our weekend there.
I knew that there were smart and thoughtful people all over Kentucky, but I wasn’t connected to them. I was intrigued by this place in Eastern Kentucky that was a center of activism in what I had perceived to be a desert of progressives, so I got in the carpool with my wife and other Louisvillians and drove into the Appalachian Mountains to Whitesburg. I felt like I got a feel for the place, but the most satisfying part of the experience was meeting these people that really excited me.
When I had moved back to Louisville, the only thing about rural Kentucky that I ever thought about was mountaintop removal. Even though I thought I cared about the people affected by Mountaintop Removal, I had only cared about them in the abstract. When I went there and got to know people, I came to really care about the people and the place. I found these little things that made felt deeply connected to my own experiences. I came to care about the Whitesburg Main Street in the way that I cared about community development projects in Louisville. I came to realize that meeting other people in Kentucky in the places where they live, in re-meeting Kentucky, helped me to overcome the perspectives I’d developed in law school and fall back in love with the state of Kentucky.
RUX helped me to realize that a constitutional law class wasn’t the best place for me to base my ideas on what other people in Kentucky were like. I hadn’t been to their towns, experienced their cultures, or understood their backgrounds. Those people weren’t at home either. It was a divisive environment; we didn’t get to know each other as people. In class, you get to see how other people lean on issues but you don’t understand why. The beauty of RUX is that it gave me context.
I had a great time and found a project I wanted to get involved in, so then I jumped at the opportunity to go to the first RUX weekend in Paducah. Paducah had always been on my list from an urban policy perspective. I also loved the sophistication and charm of that place. Now I’m sure there are other places in Kentucky that I’ll fall in love with too. It only took knowing a few of these magical places before the whole state became a magical place again.
What have you gained from your RUX experience that you have taken back to your community?
How do you make people from totally different backgrounds and experiences and places realize that they have something in common? It feels impossible.
That’s why I think the RUX is so important. RUX works because it shows that connecting with seemingly different people is actually really easy, it’s just a matter of seeking out other people’s experiences and then inviting them to share yours. It’s a two way street, I go to your place, you come to mine. I give you something, you give me something. When you go to someone’s home, when you meet their family and go to their workplace, you’re able to put yourself in their shoes and they become real to you. You begin to understand and care about them.
I’ve been so inspired by the exchange! Once you realize the benefit of this kind of exchange, you start to want to apply it to other parts of your life. I want to bring a lot of these RUX lessons home to Louisville to begin to bridge some of the divides in the city. Every city and state in the country could benefit from this kind of exchange.
That’s also why I think our RUX project on the Daniel Boone Hotel is so important. Not only is it an incredible economic development opportunity, but it can help to make the Eastern Kentucky region more accessible to people from outside the region. It continues to facilitate the value of this exchange to more people.
Describe your RUX project. How did your project begin and how has the idea changed over time?
During the first RUX weekend in Whitesburg, I was talking to local entrepreneur Joel Beverly, and he pointed out the old Daniel Boone Hotel building and said “wouldn’t it be great if 21c [Museum Hotels] opened a hotel right there?” I knew the leadership at 21C, so I told him that I would talk to them about what it would take to bring the historic hotel back to life. This conversation was happening right ahead of the centennial anniversary of the 1915 opening of the Daniel Boone Hotel, which made the idea even more exciting.
I went back to Louisville and talked with 21c President Craig Greenberg and told him about the people in Whitesburg and their vision for reopening the Daniel Boone. Craig then connected me with Rob Hunden, one of the nation’s top hotel industry consultants, and Rob and I talked about doing a feasibility study. Rob ultimately decided that he would take a risk on this small town hotel project, but we still had to raise $39,000 to fund the study. The city owned the hotel, but neither the city nor the RUX program had the capital to invest in the study. We did some research and went with RUX staff to meet with the Kentucky office of the USDA Rural Development. While there, we learned about the Rural Business Development grants.
We decided to apply for the USDA opportunity and recruited students and faculty from the University of Louisville School of Business to help conduct a community survey as part of our application. We brought two Louisville students and the RUX videographer back and forth to Whitesburg. Nearly 600 residents responded, which was amazing for a town with a population of 1200. This data really helped to support our grant application. So, too, did my fellow RUXer – and Eastern Kentucky native and consultant – Mark Kidd, who helped administer the application on the ground in Whitesburg.
We won the grant(!), which was really exciting because it was the first grant awarded to the city of Whitesburg in more than a decade. When the Hunden consultants came to town it was a very meaningful event for the city and business community.
Fast forward to 2016, and the study came back giving us reason to be optimistic about the project. The study confirmed market demand for the hotel (although public dollars would be needed to fund the development gap), and the original architect for the Appalshop building came on as part of the project team.
As serendipity would have it, just as I was gearing back up for another round of fundraising to support a national developer search, an interested investor – Louisville-based at that! – caught wind of the project and stepped forward to undertake it. Project planning continues to this day and all signs point to a future completed project.
What have you learned from working on this project?
In many ways, this project started as an impossible dream, and the hands-on learning it took to get it this far has been one of the best educational experiences of my life. From working around the administrative challenges facing small town economic development, to winning my first federal grant, to selling a vision for Whitesburg and the region’s tourism future to anybody who would listen to me, I learned to believe that a bright Appalachian future is possible if we work together across Kentucky, the economic sectors and levels of government to invest in it.
What’s next for your project?
The Daniel Boone Hotel Project has a long way to go before opening its doors to visitors again but the wheels of business are in motion. In fact, the developer is already thinking about the potential of a number of other hospitality projects in Eastern Kentucky, and I plan to do whatever I can to help bring them to fruition, including strengthening the connection between Louisville, the Bluegrass and Appalachia.
This interview was conducted by Savannah Barrett, co-founder and facilitator of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange and Director of Programs for Art of the Rural.
More than 130 Kentuckians from 24 counties have been collaborating for Kentucky’s future. Since 2014, the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange (RUX) has brought people together to integrate the arts, agriculture, health and small business in partnership strategies to build new models, share resources, and improve quality of life for Kentuckians. Each summer, the RUX is hosted in three regions of the state and is designed to help participants understand and value the culture, landscape, context, and people of each place.
The RUX is a partnership of The Art Of The Rural & Appalshop, supported by the Rural Policy Research Institute, and has partnered with 52 organizations around the Commonwealth. RUX has been hosted in Whitesburg, Louisville, Paducah, Harlan, and Lexington so far, bringing dozens of people to these regions for the first time. From an Eastern Kentucky hotel development to integrated learning across our community college system, a dozen collaborations have developed. To learn more, visit: www.kyrux.org
Jenny Williams is a 2014-2017 RUX participant and has been featured as the Chef-in-Residence for the 2014 Whitesburg weekend exchange, as well as a member of the RUX Kentucky Community and Technical College team. Her strong commitment to community, education, and food systems has added much value and impact on the RUX network. Jenny is the Chair of Pathfinders of Perry County, a non-profit citizens’ action group that promotes community well-being, engagement, outdoor recreation and education. Jenny grew up in Hazard, KY and is deeply rooted in the community and region of Eastern Kentucky. She has been teaching writing and reading at Hazard Community and Technical College since 1992.
She co-hosted “What’s Cookin’ Now: The World’s Only LIVE Radio Cooking Show” for six years and is passionate about food and trying to change policies and behaviors so that individuals, regardless of income, age, or geography have access to fresh, healthy, local food and know what to do with it. In the fall of 2015, Jenny co-organized “A Seat at the Table” which is an ongoing series of community dinners and conversations around various challenges, issues, and policies in the commonwealth state.
How do you tell your story of Kentucky?
I tend to approach my story of Kentucky and the work I do from a really selfish place. I think a lot of people do that. When I think of my story of Kentucky….it’s because it’s mine – it’s my story to tell. I was born here, and I have a really strong rooted sense of place. My family hasn’t been here for generations or anything, my parents are from Tennessee actually. But I feel really rooted here. When I was young I thought I would go off and live some place else and not live in a small town – not come back to Hazard. But, as it turned out, I did come back and I’m glad I did.
When it comes to criticism about Kentucky, it’s like how you would feel about someone in your family, right? I get upset when people try to criticize it. We can criticize it ourselves, but when people without deep roots here start stereotyping, I have a tough time with that. When I think about what I want Kentucky to be like, I think about what I want it to be like for me and my family. I want there to be more engaging places to eat, more art to see, more justice in the world, more economic prosperity, I want people to have enough to eat, and I want people to care about the things I care about. I believe people would believe in these things if they were given the chance to do so, you know? I want people to care about clean water and air, beautiful places to hike, good food to eat and fulfilling work to do.
I know food is a big part of your inspiration…
Food is the biggest passion that I have. Food in eastern Kentucky is one most healing issues that we can work on here. It doesn’t matter if you have a Friends of Coal license place, or a Friends of Mountains and Miners sticker and a KFTC bumper sticker on your car. Everybody thinks people deserve fresh, healthy local food. It’s been a real healing way to work across divides and get people at the table (literally and figuratively) who might not have shared that space before. Food crosses every single sector. Food is everywhere, at the intersection of the economy, the environment, education, and health – every single area.
That’s what I most passionate about working on now and how I came into RUX. I always joke around with Savannah that she just asked me to participate because she just wanted someone to cook brunch. She talked Reed and me into cooking – we missed almost all the meetings that weekend and just spent the whole time cooking and having a really good time. But having those connections like I’ve made with Reed, and looking at what people are doing with food systems across the state has been really important. And I’m about to start drawing on some of those people. I’m really looking forward to working with RUX folks in Paducah and Lexington. I’m interested in the connections between the way we are treating food insecurity in urban spaces and how we translate those strategies to rural places because a lot of it is the same and I’m really grateful to have these folks as a resource.
What are your sources of inspiration outside of food?
I would say hiking. Being outdoors in natural spaces where I can’t see manmade structures around me is really necessary to me. It’s necessary that I do that on a somewhat regular basis. I don’t do it as often as I want to. When I do, I realize how much it recharges my batteries and how important it is to me – Being able to go on hikes and visiting new places, seeing places I haven’t seen before. I love going to Lily Cornett Woods here and placing my hands on some of those super old trees – it gives me the same feeling of being up on a mountain. To be made to feel really small and temporary is not a bad thing. It’s quite a comforting thing for me; this mountain is really big and old, and I’m really small and a blip on the radar. It may make some people feel insignificant or like nothing matters…But for me, it makes me feel connected and a part of something in the world – not pressured is the best way to describe it. I don’t think I can truly verbalize the feeling, but that’s the only way I can explain it. The mountain is big and I am small.
How has participating in RUX affected your practice?
First of all, it’s just really inspiring to be around people who are passionate about what they do. When I was talking earlier about Kentucky, that’s what I want for Kentucky. All these people are doing work, and are really passionate about what they’re doing, and they’re doing it because they believe that it is going to make the world a better place. That in and of itself, just being surrounded by those people, is so inspiring to me and gives me so much energy. Then, actually hearing what they’re doing and learning from the things that they have done. It helps me get to ideas from their projects and it’s always inspiring to see how different people work through things.
I feel like I’ve gotten a really strong network to call upon. For example, we are getting ready to put in some gardens on the River Arts Greenway (Down in Hazard). We want to make traditional medicinal beds, but we don’t really have that expertise. So knowing that I can give Myron Hardesty (RUX Participant) a phone call, shoot him a message, or even visit him, knowing that those resources are available to me and that other people have done that is incredible and inspiring. RUX has created a really good network, period. I don’t know how it’s affected my work yet, but being able to reach out to those people is going to affect my work and give me really valuable resources.
What are the potential outcomes for RUX?
It’s so easy to be siloed—in our communities, in our work, in our disciplines. It’s really easy to only interact with a small group of like-minded people, or to only think about your personal projects and work. But RUX has the potential to bring us out of our silos so that we can see what people in other parts of the state, in other disciplines and areas of interest, and in other traditions are doing. For a long time, I think we’ve all been trained to grab our piece of the pie before someone else gets it, whether we’re talking about funding for arts projects or recognition for achievements or creating policy changes. I don’t get that sense of pie-grabbing with the RUX. Instead, it seems like we’re all lashing our rafts together so we can lifted by this glorious tide we believe is coming, and that all of us will be raised up and made stronger by working together. That’s the overall outcome I see—that we’ll all be lifted together.
This interview was transcribed in Spring, 2015. Since then, Jenny was accepted into the 2016-2017 Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange cohorts, in which she was matched with three other professors at Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges around the state. Along with team members Amelia Martens of Paducah, Brett Eugene Ralph of Hopkinsville, and Robert Gipe of Harlan, Jenny is working to connect KCTCS students across the state, to combine the RUX team’s resources and reach, and to encourage meaningful writing practices that promote inclusion across the KCTCS system.
The interview was conducted by Sean Starowitz. Sean is a Socially-Engaged Artist currently working as the Assistant Director of Economic Development for the Arts for the City of Bloomington, Indiana. Sean was a 2015 AmeriCorp VISTA with the Rural Policy Research Institute and fellow RUX participant.