Sowing Possibility Episode 6: Ashley Hanson
[5:30] Ashley’s early geographic identity
[7:00]: Pursuing her love of theater in Minneapolis
[8:00]: Ashley’s origins in nontraditional, site-specific theater
[8:30]: A multi-centered person with a multi-centered practice
[9:30]: Core of curiosity about place & working as a visiting artist
[10:15]: The nuances & uniqueness of rural places
[11:00]: How PlaceBase Productions works with small towns
[12:15]: Finding the stories & themes for PlaceBase’s plays
[14:30]: Memory mapping
[16:30]: Ash’s origins in performance & social change
[17:15]: Using theater to examine rural homelessness
[17:45]: Theater of the oppressed & activist theater
[19:00]: International Center of Applied Theater in Manchester
[19:30]: Economic development & theater in Scottish Highlands
[20:30]: The birth of PlaceBase Productions
[22:15]: Nostalgia without memory
[23:15]: Theater’s ability to bend time
[25:15]: PlaceBase Productions’ intergenerational casts
[26:15]: Building community cohesion through theater
[27:30]: Impact of participating in a site-specific theater
[30:00]: Pressing pause on site-specific theater due to COVID-19
[30:45]: Upcoming performance addressing vaccine hesitancy
[31:30]: Using theater to address water in the prairie & desert
[32:45]: Launching Department of Public Transformation (DOPT)
[34:45]: Lessons from leading an art nonprofit
[36:20]: Beyond the Clock, a space for rural cultural workers
[37:30]: Who does she think she is happy hour for rural women
[40:00]: Cross-country road trip to visit rural cultural workers
[44:45]: The role of the arts in addressing rural gentrification
[46:45]: How artists can aid rural community development
[49:15]: DOPT Civic Artist in Residence Program
[50:40]: Equity work takes time
[52:00]: Being a creative connector
[53:15]: Embedding artists in Granite Falls' City Hall
[56:00]: DOPT’s capital campaign & the fundraising world
[1:00:45]: Lack of grant funding for rural communities & the arts
[1:03:00]: Finding a healthy work-life-art balance
[1:08:00]: Emerging from the “castle walls” post-pandemic
Guest: Ashley Hanson
Host, creator, producer, editor and mixer: Megan Torgerson
Episode Music: Andrew Drinnan
SEASON 2 FUNDING PARTNERS:
Greater Montana Foundation
Megan Torgerson (narrating): Storytelling is a deeply human act. It connects us to our ancestors and our neighbors, bridging past with future and seemingly disparate cultures to one another. The stories we carry can help us make meaning of our longings and our anxieties, our collective history, interconnected future and the responsibility we have to the communities we belong to.
Ashley Hanson is a storyteller, story facilitator, theater artist and arts administrator whose attention to and excavation of rural stories has connected her to a robust network of rural cultural workers across the Heartland and U.S., earning her fellowship awards from the Obama and Bush Foundations along the way.
Ashley Hanson: What I love about theater is its ability to bend time. It really can play with the past and the future in a really fun way. You can mix characters that never would have met because they weren’t alive at the same time. You can take experiences that are global or national in context and then overlay them in something really specific and hyperlocal.
Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today, a conversation with Ashley Hanson. As producer and director of PlaceBase Productions, Ashley has made site-specific theater on riverbanks, hillsides, main street corners and in front of deserted grain elevators. This is theater that is made in direct response to a specific place and its stories. Theater that is devised through collective creation and reflection, and that from start to finish is co-authored by the members of small towns who are living in the places centered in PlaceBase Productions’ plays.
Ashley Hanson is also the executive director of Department of Public Transformation, a growing artist-led nonprofit that works to develop creative strategies for increased community connection, civic pride and equitable participation in rural places. In four short years the Department of Public Transformation has launched a first-of-its-kind Civic Artist in Residence program that embeds artists in small town City Halls to collaborate with government officials and increase civic participation in planning and policy-making. They have facilitated artist led activations of vacant main street buildings, including the Yes! House, a community gathering space in Granite Falls, Minnesota, that Miranda Moen, another Reframing Rural guest, helped design and renovate.
The Department of Public Transformation has also organized networking and educational events for artists and arts administrators, several of which I’ve had the privilege of attending. And most recently, they launched Ignite Rural, an “at-home” residency program that supports BIPOC and Native artists and cultural bearers in the process of engaging creative, people-centered strategies to address the unique challenges, needs and opportunities present in their rural communities.
This is one of the first conversations that I have had that bridges my personal, professional and creative endeavors. Reframing Rural listeners may not know, that not only am I the producer of a rural storytelling podcast and a rural-raised cultural worker invested in narrative change work, I’m also a grant writer for this project and for Alice Gosti, a hybrid performance artist who works in the U.S. and Italy, and MALACARNE, a site-specific dance company committed to fighting reductive ideas regarding class, sexuality, gender, ability and ethnicity. I’m also a freelancer who wears fundraising, marketing and content creation hats contracting with other rural, humanities, and women-led nonprofits and foundations in support of their missions. Ashley understands the juggling act that is being an artist and art nonprofit administrator invested in more than one place and more than one project. Just as storytelling helps us feel less alone in our experiences, speaking with Ashley helped me feel less alone in mine.
Our conversation spanned her childhood dreams of becoming an actor, her graduate work at the University of Manchester, where she researched the role of theatre in rural community development in the Scottish Highlands and the experience of being a nomadic cultural worker engaged in place-based work. We discussed the origins of Department of Public Transformation and a cross-country road trip Ashley took that involved a rotating cast of artists in residence, visits to rural artists across the U.S. and a culminating art exhibit. We also explored how artists can help bring people together during a fractured moment in history, examples of civic engaged art and the intersections of art and environmental advocacy and public health, and the power of compassionate storytelling.
Torgerson: So the first question I've been exploring with each guest this season kind of assumes that geography has played a formative role in people's early identities. But in some ways, I think this question might oversimplify just how complex our evolving relationship to a place can be. And so I'm wondering if you could please share with me how you've thought about your geographic identity throughout the years, and maybe how that understanding has evolved?
Hanson: Thanks, Megan, you know, this is a really complicated question for me. And I know a lot of people who come from maybe split or, you know, quote, unquote, broken homes. I mean, my home was rich with abundance and love. But my parents got divorced when I was eight, and I was a child of teenage parents. There was a lot of moving around when I was young, and mixing of stories of where we were and how it happened, and who is with whom, when. But the story that I tell and the truth that is my version. I grew up in northern Minnesota and the farmhouse where my mother still lives, which was my great grandmother's home kind of has been my consistent home place, which is in Aitkin County, and the town of Aitkin a one stoplight community. And my formative years ended up being in a town called Farmington, which at the time was a small town, but now has become kind of an excerpt of the southern Twin Cities in Minnesota. That's where my dad primarily lived and where I graduated from high school. So I feel like that part of my geography of, you know, rooted in place of like, where are you from, is always a complicated question.
And I like that dynamic, because it means that I can kind of connect to lots of different sizes of places, people who have had that experience of being a little more nomadic, and that has kind of stayed with me in my professional life as I've continued to grow up. I moved to the cities right away the same way that a lot of folks do have, like, graduated high school and get out of here. But I fell in love with theater in high school, and being somebody who, you know, has experienced with generational poverty and just kind of thinking of how to embody different experiences, I really fell in love with theater as an opportunity for world creation. And, you know, imagining different futures either for myself or the characters that we were creating. And so, you know, doing that, that Broadway musical thing of moving from a small town into the big city, to become an actor, you know, became my, my narrative as well. And then from there, really diving deep into an understanding of, you know the kind of theater that I wanted to make was not traditional theater. And we could talk a little bit more about that. But it what it ended up doing was bringing me back to my roots of ruralness, and trying to share and understand the stories of the places the multi-centered places that I came from. And then as I have continued to be a traveler, and continue to practice nomadic place-based theatre, which I recognize as a paradox. It has come into play to like really explore the complexities and uniqueness of each rural place, as I, you know, have the privilege and honor of being a visiting artist with many communities of many sizes. So the words I'm using right now are like I'm a multi-centered person with a multi-centered practice and that involves both in terms of like places, but the kind of artistic creations and ways we think about like civic engaged art, and storytelling, and the narratives that we're co-creating with the communities that we have the opportunity to work with.
Torgerson: It sounds like in your early experiences, you were able to identify the uniqueness of both your mother's hometown and where you were living with your dad at the time. And so that probably set you up for success to integrate yourself and your practice into other rural communities throughout Minnesota and beyond. So how has being a place-based artists who gets to work in numerous geographies as you just named changed how you think about place?
Hanson: Thank you for this question. I fall in love with places really easily and I think that comes from a core of curiosity. So the way that as a visiting artist, the way that I think about entering community, I take that responsibility, not lightly, you know. I understand what it what it means to enter a place and try to grapple with all of the historical context and current realities and hopes for the future that the people who live there are experiencing and so the way that you know, being nomadic has played out to my place-based practice is continuing to lean really heavily into that curiosity. So as you enter, you know, asking the question, even though it might be a community, seven miles away from a community we've recently been working in having no preconceived judgments or notions of what that is experience of that place is. So not entering it with not necessarily a completely blank slate, because the context of ruralness in the state of Minnesota is, is I can't remove the fact that I grew up in that environment. So I come with those biases or experiences, but really being open to what's underneath the surface. And like the stories that emerge, when you really enter with open mind and from that place of curiosity, and deep listening. So one of the ways in which our theatre company works with communities as we're entering is, yes, there's always an invitation.
So it has, for PlaceBase productions, we have never said, we're going to do a play in this town. It has always been somebody reaches out and says, “we would like to invite you to come and see if we want to do a play in this community.” Which means that like the consistency of work might not always be there. Sometimes there's a big flood of things happening. But that initial invitation means that there, there's an individual or group of people who are really ready to go on this journey. And you are then being vouched for in a trusted way by somebody who is deeply embedded. So that's a very, you know, that's been a very important part of our practice as a theatre company. And then as my practice as an artist. Just listening for the invitation, and then receiving that, with generosity, and humility. And then as you begin the journey of connecting with the kind of core champion people who are who are psyched to tell the story of their town, you continuing to ask the question of who else should I be talking to? But then the follow up question is who didn't come to your mind, first and foremost, that I should actually or really be talking to, you know, continuing to what we say like follow the rabbit trail. And usually what happens is it kind of becomes you know, a circle right? You follow the stories and follow the different experiences and timelines. And then you get at least a somewhat comprehensive view from a small amount of time of the kinds of themes or stories or challenges that this particular community is currently grappling with. I think how it's informed my experience of place is just really understanding the differences in the uniqueness of each place and people's individual experiences of each place.
Torgerson: Hmm, yeah. Do the people who invite you into these communities are they often part of like an economic development team or someone who already is an appreciator of the arts?
Hanson: I don't want to have to go through each of the different towns, but the very first play that we did was in collaboration with Clean up the River Environment, so as an environmental advocacy organization. We've been invited by arts organizations, city governments, historical societies, though, I make it very clear, like we don't do historical reenactment. All of our plays do build on the history of place from multiple angles, but only in its desire to look back in order to move forward. And economic development agencies have been more I think, part of our work with Department of Public Transformation, and looking at civic engagement, more so than PlaceBace, though EDAs have been partners of ours, for sure. And then we are currently working with a community development organization in California, Blue Sky Center in New Cuyama to develop a new play, but they're an arts lead artists lead, CDC.
Torgerson: Awesome, I really appreciate how you look for nuance, both like in a region and within the community itself. And because there's lots of sub cultures, of course, and the people who probably go to you first with an invitation to make a performance, they're just representative of one group. So I think that's really cool, how you follow the rabbit hole and try to bring all sorts of people in.
Hanson: Yeah, we do this thing called memory map, which is, you know, just a drawing a hand drawn map of the place. And we invite people to overlay their multiple memories of things that have happened in the community. So like, you know, this is where I had my first kiss. This is where my child broke their arm or, you know, these kinds of like, like personal memories, that lay on top of kind of the historical memories and finding some of those assets in that are like around memory, collective memory and collective experiences. That's been a really fun way to see the multi-layered history and memory of certain places. And you know that feeling of when a friend comes to visit your town or your place, and they see it with bright, sparkly eyes. And they're like, “what you have this here?” And you're like, “oh, yeah, I walked by this every day why this, you know, why is this special”. Being that version of the visiting artists is something that I really love just being able to see with fresh eyes, like the assets that have either you know, been forgotten or go unnoticed, or, or are celebrated, but are just a part of daily life. So maybe you need a little bit more life breathed back into it.
Torgerson: Wow, oh, I totally know that feeling. It's so exciting to both be a visitor in a place and to share a place with somebody else and get to see it through their eyes. So in preparing for your interview, I had the true joy of reading the dissertation “Sense of Place” that you wrote as an applied theatre grad student at the University of Manchester, and your paper centered qualitative research conducted in the Scottish Highlands on the role of theatre in rural community development. And there are just so many questions that I could ask you about it. But to start, could you please share just like what your time in the UK and Scotland has meant to you over the years as an artist and theatre practitioner?
Hanson: Yeah, for sure. So the way that I ended up in the UK was I took a class in my undergrad called Performance and Social Change. And that was where I shifted from wanting to be traditional theatre artists to being a more devised storyteller, with community members. And I got involved with zAmya Theatre Project, which I'm still working with. So this is the very first theatre company that invited me in to learn the process of interviewing folks and collectively bringing their stories together and working with nontraditional actors to retell those stories on stage. So zAmya works with people experiencing homelessness in the Twin Cities, primarily. But over the last few years, full circle again, we've been collaborating on a statewide project examining rural homelessness, the experience of people experiencing homelessness in rural communities around Minnesota, which is a radio drama that we're currently applying for a grant for so continuing to do that work.
But I fell in love with different like street theater and activism theater, Theater of the Oppressed. And there was a theatre company called cardboards, there is a theatre company called Cardboard Citizens as based in London, and they do similar work to zAmya. And since that had been my inroad into that kind of storytelling, I had just had this dream of working with them and learning more about their process. And so I did a study abroad, you know, my undergrad and got to know the place and then I showed up at the Cardboard Citizens office and just said, you know, “I will do anything else with your stage I will load your vans, like what can I do to learn from your process,” and they shared that they had a program manager position open, so I applied and, and got it and started working with young people experiencing homelessness in central London and Camden. So it's very different from my experience, but you know, gaining the skills and tools needed to do the kind of interviews story circles, partner research, and understanding super complex, you know, system oppression issues to like start to untangle through story.
And from that, I discovered this program called the International Centre for Applied theatre at the University of Manchester. And the great thing about that program was that you were learning about facilitating theatrical experiences, but you chose a different field to apply that theatrical practice to. And so some people were doing education, some people were doing microbiology, some people were doing regional planning and development. And so that's kind of the direction that I went was looking at rural community development, and how to apply the practice of applied theatre to rural community and economic development. And so, where that work has been really alive and thriving was in the Scottish Highlands.
And so I worked with five different communities all with a population of 1,000 people or less, that had a theatre person or company that was telling original stories based on the place and the people that live there and spent some time with each of those practitioners and learned about their methodologies. And then the dissertation was really kind of an amalgamation of what I had learned in the facilitation practice at the university, but also witnessing and experiencing the work of these five different practitioners across Scotland and that became the basis for PlaceBase production methodology. And it was not really even, you know, I hadn't ever tried it on my own before PlaceBase started before Patrick Moore, the, at that time, the executive director of Clean Up the River Environment I mentioned earlier, reached out to me after I had moved back, and I had been sharing with the world that I wanted to do rural community theater that was original works with the people who live there, but I had never done it before. I had only I only experienced it. And so Patrick, got my name and number from somebody from Aitkin actually. And he invited me out to this town of Granite Falls, which he didn't, you know, he didn't live in, but he has done a lot of work with and said to this town is right for something like this. And we want you to do this project. And so that was the birth of PlaceBase Productions. I met with a playwright, Andrew Gaylord, who became my long term collaborator, and we began on something that was going to be just a one-off show. And it was so beautiful. And it brought people together and it did the magical power of theater. And then we did a second show in Granite Falls. And then we did a third show in Granite Falls. And then we from there, we started branching out because people started coming to the show the saying, we want this in our town, we want this in our town, and then the invitations came and we continued on from there.
Torgerson: Wow. Oh my gosh, from the Scottish islands back home to Minnesota. You learned much along the way. And it's really interesting to learn about your program, a big part of my grad program, a lot of the students were in theater and part of the performance world. And so we would look and look at concepts like you know, the rural work that I was doing through the lens of Theater of the Oppressed, or performance studies. And so it's really cool to learn about kind of adjacent program.
And one concept that really stuck with me from your dissertation was nostalgia, without memory, a phrase from anthropologist Arjun Apadurai, and a phrase that you coined nostalgic narcissism. And so I'm wondering when you work in rural communities, where nostalgic narcissism is prevalent, or where a community is in the habit of defining themselves in opposition to the other, how do you use theater and all the methodologies that you've learned throughout your years to soften people's narcissism or their tendency to mythologize the past?
Hanson: Oh, what a fun question. I wish we had wine and ours. But I can do my best to articulate some of that, what I think you and I could go on about for a long time.
So part of that idea of nostalgic narcissism in the thesis was around like this idea of like, looking at your reflection and being frozen there, right? Like you cannot lift your head, lift the gaze to look toward the future, rather, you're consistently looking at who you were, but like, there's this idea that it's not changing, but it's, you know, our reflection is also changing as we're looking at it because we're growing wrinkles, right now. Right?
And so, like there is no, there is nothing frozen in time, like time is consistently moving. So I think one of the ways in which what I love about theater is its ability to bend time, you know, it really can like play with the past in the future. And a really fun way you can mix characters that never would have met because they weren't alive at the same time. You can take experiences that are global, or national and context and then like overlay them and something really specific and hyper local. And you can mythologize. So you can take something that is a personal experience, like my first kiss in this memory map and make it into a story about gods and goddesses. And it you know, it allows you to be expansive in in that way with story and with the ways in which we experience time, I think. And so like this idea of celebrating where we come from, in order to move forward is what I talk about in the dissertation too, is just about lifting the gaze. It's about like not being, like acknowledging that the reflection even though will remain in some form. But it's also flowing the water continues to move in the river unless if it's Minnesota in the winter.
But you know, like lifting your head up to see each other. And that is something that I think the what I love about warmup exercises even just like getting folks intergenerational casts of nontraditional performers mostly, so our casts are very large. They have been historically very large 50 to 100 people, ages five to 95. For our PlaceBase shows that are like community specific, we have had 100% participation of mayors in the play. And so there's this really fun thing that happens, where if you're doing you know, like a mirror exercise or warm up energizer, and you're doing that with, you know, business leaders and mayors and kindergarteners and teachers and, you know, together, you're seeing each other be playful and vulnerable, and listening to each other's stories, and hearing how your stories intersect with their stories, and how that also informs, you know, the ways in which the stories of like our places and our ancestors are intertwined, and how our futures are intertwined.
The playfulness that comes out in the rehearsal room, allows us to soften some of the that we hold too tightly to be examined, right. And we can, like, release our shoulders, and, and maybe be more receptive to another person's experience. And then, you know, once the show is up, and there's an audience, like, you have the attention of the audience for less than two hours, right. And so like, we always talk about, like, the really the work happens with the cast where we get to spend six weeks playing together. And, and then like, you know, putting a scene up, that is something we can really talk about what the context is, and, and go deep into like the layers that are that are there that might, you know, go by an audience member, because it's happening in real time is a little too quickly. So you get that deeper dive with the cast.
And then the last thing I'll say about that is like the play is just one of the things right, so it is the big celebration in the performance. But what I love the most is the feedback session with the cast after the play, where we come back together, and we talk about what their experience was like, not only as stepping out of maybe their known role into a different role, putting themselves out there in a new way, taking risks, being silly and playful. But also, you know, this energy and momentum that has been created with this group of people who showed up over and over and took risks together and listened to each other and then collectively told this story. What are we going to do with this momentum that we have built? And that's where really beautiful collaborations have occurred where folks have, you know, decided, “well, actually, I do want to get more involved, and I want to start that business I'd been meaning to or run for city council,” and you've got some friends in your, in your court that you've met through this experience, or that the relationships that you've strengthened, that you may be able to rely upon to help make some of those other dreams become reality. So watching that passion, go from this, like, there is no way I will ever be in a play to like, you know, singing and dancing loudly on, I put stage in quotes, because, you know, it's usually like on a riverbank or on a hillside, or in front of a building that you know means something to the story.
Torgerson: What a beautiful way to break down barriers between neighbors or even break down barriers in within yourself of maybe preconceived notions that you had of other members of your community or, like an example that I read about was a performance that you put on in which you researched Norwegian and Micronesian folklore and identified that they both shared a sea monster in kind of their cultural folklore. And I was really excited to read that because just this last weekend, I went to an exhibit at the National Nordic Museum that had a paper art made from a Scandinavian artist and a Chinese artist and the common denominator was the mythology of the dragon which both cultures share. And so it's really cool to connect cultures and this exhibit too is looking both at the past and the future that they want for their for their countries and for the larger world. So yeah, I'm excited to see your performance someday and it must be such an empowering experience for the performers to get to go through that with you for six weeks.
Hanson: Well you know, I'm excited to see it again too. And I just want to say that the last two years we have done no shows and like PlaceBase’s process doesn't lend itself to Zoom, you know. So I know a lot of theater companies adapted to online performances, but it just isn't. It just wasn't what I what I wanted to do. So I'm really thrilled in just a couple of weeks to begin the story circle process again, and start writing again. But otherwise, it has hasn't been since the fall of 2019. That, you know, we've stood in a circle and done shaking out our hands.
Torgerson: Yeah. Could you share a little bit about the upcoming performances that you have on the on the docket?
Hanson: Yeah, the performance that we are working on in New Cuyama is an artist led approach to addressing vaccine hesitancy, which is interesting. It's a grant from the CDC that was awarded to Blue Sky Center. And it's a six month project, that we don't know that much about what it is yet, because it's just getting started. I'm collaborating with a good friend of mine, Alex Barreto Hathaway, we've worked on a number of productions together. He created the sea monster and is a puppeteer, mask maker, movement artist, director, actor, just really fantastic guy. And so we're just in the very early stages of what that looks like. And then we have some research projects on to get started on another project that is looking at watersheds in the prairie in the desert. So trying to connect some of you know, I split my time between Minnesota and Utah, and wanting to kind of examine what the connection is between rural places in seemingly very different landscapes. And doing that through water and access to water and quality of water, and how that relates. So that will just be getting started in the very beginning research stages with the Catalyst Initiative through the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, which is a leadership circle that I'm so honored to be a part of with you to artists from across the country, looking at the civic practice and how it's showing up in our field right now.
Torgerson: Wow. So will the latter performance take place in Minnesota and/or Utah?
Hanson: I would imagine both, that would be a 2023 question. I think you know, something to note is that, yeah, like PlaceBase has been my primary artistic practice and what I've put my energy into for about a decade, up until the last few years, which is when myself and a group of dedicated rural loving, and living artists launched the Department of Public Transformation, which is our nonprofit organization, headquartered here in Granite Falls, but that does work regionally and nationally as a connector, field builder, place to gather and share resources with other rural arts and cultural workers. And so that has taken up a lot more of my time and creative energy in a good way. And so now I'm trying to figure out like in whatever version of next that we find ourselves as a society, and how those two things more intentionally overlap, or connect, or just make space for both. Because I know one of the things we talked about in the pre-interview, just like what fills me up as a creative, like the creative spark, like I haven't gotten to do with theatre production in two and a half years. And that means that you know, my own well has been a little dry. Even though I'm loving the being on the arts kind of administrative side of things and finding the creativity in that. I miss it. I miss being in a room with people exploring what's possible through storytelling and theater in their own bodies and voices.
Torgerson: Yeah, and I'm sure when you're feeling like your creative well is a little bit more full that you're even better able to show up perhaps with your art administrative work and vice versa. So hopefully as the pandemic tapers out that you can find more moments to be in in community and in space with people creating.
Hanson: Totally. And how they inform each other. I mean, the great thing about how the the crossfade that happened between PlaceBase and DOPT over the last couple of years. You know, I've learned a lot more about compassionate storytelling and a lot more about you know, how to show up in a room as a white woman, leading an organization in rural community what my responsibility is, you know, getting to hear from and talk to a lot more practitioners in the digital world but we host monthly It's called now called Beyond the clock, which are happy hours and learning exchanges for rural cultural workers. And, you know, two and a half years of, of these monthly conversations with people doing this, this hard work has just enriched what I think is possible with arts and cultural work in rural communities, and also like deepened and complexified what that role is. I think, not only as a place-based artists like working in in with a region like southwestern Minnesota, but as a nomadic artist, and what that means and what your role and responsibility is as the visitor. And what it means now versus what it meant in 2019. You know, what you bring with you might even be COVID, you know you have to be very mindful of how you're entering spaces for community care.
Torgerson: Yeah, and I've really appreciated the Beyond the Clock events that I've gone to. And just like I remember Anna Clausen kind of I could relate to her because we are both people who belong to rural and urban communities and that's not something that I can talk to very many people about. And so it's really cool that you've created those kinds of containers for conversation around what it's like to be a rural cultural worker, there's not a lot of places like that, that I know of.
Hanson: Right. And the name Beyond the Clock to is just kind of thinking about the - as a cultural worker in rural community, like, when are you really off the clock? You know, like, the conversations that you're having, at the brewery or, you know, after the city hall meeting, or on your neighbor's porch? Yes, they're like, your social time with friends. But you're also like listening to where the challenges are? And you're looking at, okay, well, then how do we? How do we address it? So it's this, like, there's the multiple roles that just living and being in a small town for anybody. And then I think someone who is identifying as either a leader or cultural worker, some of the diseases or their creativity, or their artistic practice to address some of these challenges? Are you ever off the clock? And what does that mean for you know, your, your social time and for how you charge and rest? And where you get to vent and process and with whom? And so that's what this space was about. There was this really great Happy Hour be hosted called, Who does she think she is a happy hour.
Torgerson: Great title.
Hanson: And it was for ambitious female leaders working in rural communities and how their projects or ideas have been, you know, thwarted by different things, you know, other groups of women or the old boys club or, you know, just this like resistance to progress or change that happens. All with this he tagline of “Who does she think she is?” So to have that space where six powerful inspirational rural women can come together and say, like, here's what really happened. And you know, and everyone going, I, you know, I can't believe it, and I can, because it's also happened to me. And like, then what do we do about this together in our disparate geographic communities, we don't get to get together on every Tuesday and drink beer at a real table. But once a month, we can get together and drink beer at a digital table and say, “This is how I'm dealing with this thing, or here's a challenge that's come up in my community and I can't talk to anybody else about it here right now. Not honestly not in this way. But this is what's going on” And you just did solidarity and that the wind in the sails that comes from that has been so vital for me as a practitioner, but you know, in terms of the feedback we've received from our participants.
Torgerson: And it sounds like you kind of started some of that connecting with rural cultural workers work before even before the pandemic and kind of in the Department of Public Transformations’ infancy when you took Gus the Bus on a cross country road trip, and then it later became Dan the Van because Gus the bus broke down from what I read, and this was just after the 2016 election, so I'm really curious to learn what did what did you learn about like the perceived urban rural divide that was being talked about so much, then? What did you learn when you when you got on the road and had conversations with rural artists? And what did you also learn about the importance of connecting rural places across different geographies too?
Hanson: Yeah, yeah. The project started in a similar way that I like start the research for theater project, where it's just have you have some questions. And this is actually a project that there wasn't invitations, right, like I reached out and said, Hi, I would like to come visit you and ask you some questions. But what was so cool about that was, you know, as rural practitioners, we are often invited to go to the city for a thing and get together, like at a conference in an urban area, whatever. But it's, can be rare for people to come to us. And so to reach out and say, like, I see what you're doing, you're doing something amazing, I would love to come learn from you here is when I'm passing through town. I mean, the like doors of hospitality were just blown open. So that was the first just like, amazing thing about I think our field of rural arts and cultural work is like come stay. The joke is like that, I like to use this as smell my place, like you can't understand it, unless if you smell the air. And so like, come and stay and smell my place. You know, kicking off that road trip I knew that like I didn't want to do it alone. And I wanted to use it as an opportunity for rural urban exchange. So it was with a cast, a rotating cast of mobile artists in residence, which were five of my friends who were either, you know, rural dwellers or rural lovers that lived in urban areas that wanted to learn more. And then we set up this itinerary, got this yellow school bus that was his continues to be a huge money pit. It keeps breaking down, but it was the birthplace of the Department of Public Transformation, which is like a fun plan where it's it can also be sometimes confusing. They’re like “what are you, are you have federal like, what?”
And so public transformation, the road trip and the follow up exhibition was about just asking questions. So the group of us in different iterations visited 127 artists and 24 communities across the country over a six week span of time. And the questions were really the kind of, you know, some of them remained consistent, but they changed as we went. And what became initially about this urban rural divide, you know, looking at the maps of the geographic disparities of the politics, became much less of the focus.
And it became much more about like, how do you see your role as a cultural worker in your community right now, you know, the divides that are happening, yes, might be political and informed by national politics, but like, there's so much more division than that. And there's so much longer term generational traumas that these communities are, and the people who live there are processing and dealing with. And so the rural cultural workers are, you know, really holding a lot of that. And so it became more about like, understanding the uniqueness of each rural community like debunking this kind of monolith, that rural is one thing. It became about our friend, Ben Fink, who's that Appalshop, said, “You know, we always try to deduce art to a blunt instrument for economic development.” And, you know, it's like, yeah, we're all like, trying to convince that, like, oh, art will help your town’s tourism. And it's like, sure, but also like, no, it's a really powerful tool for examining narratives and connecting people and stories and place, you know. And so it's like, being more intentional about like how we, or I, as an artist, like talk about that role and understand it and understand the weight of it, and still do that in like a playful way. I want to make that clear, I really value play as a way of connecting and as a way of lifting up challenging topics and issues to be seen from a new perspective. But, you know, it's just the cultural workers across the country where some of these issues of isolation and connection and who do I talk to about these things came up more so than like, the red and blue maps. So one of the projects that we did on the road was called Love Letter to a rural artist, and we asked each artists that we visited to write a letter to the next artists we're visiting, and then we hand delivered that letter, and then when we got back home, we sent the final letter to the first artist to finish the loop. And that was the beginning of really this like network generating, like, you're not alone. You know, the notes that people write to each other people they've never met, just like, you know, keep going keep doing the work that this is what it's like, in my place. I wonder if it's similar for you come visit.
Torgerson: I'm curious, when you were speaking with some of these rural artists, if – and years to speaking about tourism – if like the topic of rural gentrification came up, and the importance of putting on art programming for the locals, and not just for the tourism dollars that they bring in?
Hanson: it's such a good question, and it's, you know, so varied from place to place that I know that that's, I don't want to use that as a cop out answer. But like, at the same time, it's like some of the communities are experiencing major influx, and many aren't, and some want to be, but the housing stock isn't there. And there's not the resources to develop the kinds of housing and just like attraction of the workforce, or young families that might want to move and live in the place. And then the places that are developing really quickly as bedroom communities, the prices go up so fast, you know, and you get start to, like, price out the long-term residents. I don't know who's, you know, it's what a what a huge charge to ask of rural cultural workers to say, like, yeah, and rural gentrification, but it is our it is part of our role, to try to figure out how to celebrate the culture of the place and help our leaders and the, you know, economic developers and community developers understand how people-centered development and like, civic-engagement and, you know, being informed by a community process, artists can help with that, and artists can bring people together and elicit those responses to help a more equitable and compassionate development happen if the leaders are interested in allowing that space. And think we can push for it. Like, we can't just be like, “Oh, they didn't want it.” But you know, we can advocate for it. Yeah, but I really see it as like, you know, how do how do artists position themselves as valuable assets to the conversation of centering people-powered processes, more so than saying, like, it is the artists responsibility, right? Or, like, you know, or, or how does arts like add to or deter or detract from, I think some places like really have developed because of their arts scene and their arts community. And that's really, that's, it's, it's awesome, if it's, you know, done in a way that lifts up local culture and celebrates local assets. And, and again, like, you know, doesn't necessarily work toward pricing people out, but help folks understand how resources coming in can be beneficial to the community at large. But you're also dealing with, like, changing the culture of philanthropy, and you're looking at doing you know, and I think, a common theme, even though each of these communities are very different, is like, many, many of them have experienced decades of extraction of based on, you know, the resources that they have. And so there's a lot of mistrust from the outside, rightly so. And so I think that, you know, there's a lot of healing that has to be done about outsiders coming in, there's a lot of healing that has to be done about we are enough, or we are good enough, or the things that we have here are ours to celebrate, and not just ship out. So it's, it's big, but I think that like artists, if invited to the table, or invited to help build the table or are creating their own tables can be instrumental to the conversation into like, helping to guide what that development might look like, either from a town that is declining in population or a town that is increasing. But we Yeah, making space for the artists in that room, I think is really important.
Torgerson: Yeah, and valuing them and paying them for what they’re worth. That reminds me of one of your first programs the or do you call it the Civic Artists in Residence Program?
Hanson: Yeah. This initially started as the city artist in residence program, but now we're looking at kind of civic arts at large and how municipal artist partnerships play out or make space for in rural places.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. And it seems like that's also helping increase community participation and civic engagement. So that yeah, that the work isn't just on the artists but also integrating more people to become more involved in policymaking and planning and so on. And so kind of in thinking back to a theme that I saw from your dissertation about how modernization and globalization have created a human dilemma of individualism that ultimately inhibiting community cohesion. I'm wondering how some of your programs like artists in residence program or other artists led activations have kind of mended the fracturing of community that has been especially like acute in the last few years. But also beyond that, due to globalization and modernization.
Hanson: Yeah, I think like 20 something year old Ashley that wrote that was very, I mean, I'm very optimistic person but think she was even more optimistic about it didn't have an understanding of time. Like back to this bendy time thing. Yeah, I think that things will learn most is like this takes so much time. And I think like, you know, we are Department of Public Transformation is a four year old organization. We have had one city artists in residence in the community of Granite Falls. We have done a yearlong community engagement process for art .We have another project that's now called Rural Creative Build, but it's artists led activation of vacant spaces. Vacant spaces is another one of these major themes that show up in rural communities and how can artists help to reimagine what's possible in an underutilized spaces.
So we have some of that data. And we've seen some of that progress. But it really, this really is generational work. And I think like one of the things that we're advocating for in a lot of the room philanthropy conversations we get invited to show up in which is part of our advocacy work, trying to increase geographic equity and philanthropy is helping funders understand that a one year grant and a one year program is absolutely not going to be able to deconstruct globalization and individually that is causing fragmentations in our communities. But it can it can bring a couple of people together to learn some things about each other, that might then encourage more folks to reach out to their neighbors and invite more dialogue. But it's going to take a long time and a lot of us doing the work. And not just cultural workers, of course not but like, you know, neighbor to neighbor. So I think that how we define artist has been one way that we've been looking at like how to open that up so that it is like risk takers, entrepreneurs, craftspeople, anybody who like, you know, take takes an empty room, a blank canvas, an idea from their mind and turns it into reality, you know, a creator, that, like there's a, there's a role in a space for being a creative connector with the project that you're bringing to life that you're breathing life into.
This is a nebulous answer to your to your question, but I just want just like to, to acknowledge that it just takes a long time. We've seen small anecdotal connections being made and minds being changed. And I think one of my favorites is of like how the city council here has started to see in view art, right, like. This is the one community that I've had the longest - Granite Falls, we're headquartered the longest relationship with, even though you know, the Department of Public Transformation, something started four years ago. PlaceBase arrived here 10 years ago, to do our first play. The conversation that I had with city council 10 years ago about doing this theater production, to now like saying yes to an artist embedded in City Hall. And not only saying yes to it, but saying like after year one like we absolutely the mayor said in one of our advisory group meetings after the we of course, we have to have a city artists in residence. Again, this is who we are now. And so to watch that transformation, 10 years of work, not just of mine, or of ours, but of you know, many artists, activating these spaces and these ideas locally and visiting artists that we've invited and that you know, folks who've learned about the work that's happening here in Granite Falls, I think like that length, that duration of time is something that I hope more of the resources, the people with the resources, understand that the impacts are incremental, but also grand in they just that they take that it can happen over the course of in an afternoon on a front porch, but it can also be many generations of conversations.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. And that maps on to how you've kind of gone from a project based organization to like looking for more general operating support. And also that that big question that I just asked, I realize I'm kind of like mapping your past graduate studies work onto your current work, which is a lot big time gap in and of itself. But it's kind of interesting how you know, these things do take a long time to ferment and to come into fruition, but ultimately, like now your mayor's like, yes, we absolutely need this.
Hanson: Also it's really fun to have you ask those questions to try to tie back to 15 years ago, and what you know, were the foundations of my artistic practice, but also like, the research of that time, and like what writing that dissertation would be like now with the amount of attention and focus that rural seems to be getting that maybe I'm in a bubble of people who love rural.
Torgerson: that's true. I feel like I hear more about it. But that's because I'm also listening for it too. And also kudos to all the work that you've done. And I just read through the first four years report that you literally published this morning. So it's just an impressive amount of programming that the Department of Public Transformation has launched in the last four years as well as all the work that you've done in the last 10 years. And right now, literally, right now, you're in the midst of entering the public phase of a capital campaign to raise $900,000 to renovate and operate the Yes! House a creative community gathering space in Granite Falls. And from my work and nonprofit development and communications, I know that is a very big endeavor. So kudos to you. And yeah, to put your art nonprofit hat back on for a moment. What are a few things that you've learned the last few years about pushing back against the age old starving artist adage and navigating restrictive funding and moving from like project-based support into, like more general operating support for your whole organization so that you can pay for things like public restrooms I read in the report and, you know, staff and contractor wages?
Hanson: Absolutely. I mean, so much. The nimbleness that you that I had as an independent artist and being able to say, “sure, I'll take this project, what's the budget? Sure, I'll make it work.” I mean, you still do that as a scrappy startup nonprofit, but there's a lot more rightly so a lot more accountability to funder stakeholders, board members. And then also moving from, you know, DOPT was volunteer, completely volunteer run up until October of 2020. So for the first two years. And so the expectation, like having an organization, even though there's no staff, right?
You have to build it from some somewhere. And so it's a lot of project-based work to begin, it's a lot of like, here's something, here's a need we're seeing that needs to be met, either locally in this community or in our field at large. And so here's a funder that kind of fits what we're trying to do here, and here is the history that I come with, but I'm also like a brand, we're a brand new organization, please trust us with your dollars. So you start off in this really vulnerable place, and, you know, really is a labor of love.
And what's unique to this organization, too, is that the city artists in residence program was like, a sparkle in our eyes, before we became a nonprofit, was one of our foundational project programs. And around that same time was when this building that I'm sitting in right now, the Yes! House was donated to our organization by a local family here, which also has, you know, a complex history and story related to land ownership and privilege and white supremacy and like how these systems continue to benefit the same people, right? So like, these are issues that our organization is continuing to grapple with of like how what's our role in all of the conversations around equity in rural communities, our role in dismantling the oppressive systems, and also like, how do we show up in them and benefit from them and acknowledge that like, yeah, we're white, white staff, led organization, as an executive directors as a white woman, like what is my responsibility in this field in this moment? So all of that those learnings alongside of the financial literacy piece of it, building into the regulations and requirements of running and operating a nonprofit, and then the relationships with funders and donors. I mean, it's, again, just moving from individual artist running a theatre company that kind of pops into communities and does a show and like, does some good work that feels like, you know, happy and positive to like saying, okay, this is a long term investment in, in a place and in an issue and in a region and in a field. And like it's going to come with its waves of challenges and joys and tensions and so many learnings, and I'm grateful for all of them. You know, so I think that the first four years report is really our opportunity to acknowledge that we haven't done it right all along. And that like we have also worked really hard at trying to, to do better. Those realities have like, restricted funding and support for rural arts, right, less than 5% of federal funding goes to rural communities, even though it makes up 20% of the population of the United States, even less so in the arts world. It's more like two to 3%, these, there's these stats might be a little bit old, but from Art of the Rural, you know. So you're also up against, like the resource availability, and the kind of misconceptions of what's possible in rural places from urban centered philanthropic sources.
So there's a big, there's a lot of big hurdles. And it really is, has been a major labor of love that has come has been possible because so many people have been a part of it, right? Like, our incredible board of directors, our collaborating artists or advisory groups, here locally, and also across the country, folks who we visited on the very, my very first stop on the trip was Mikiko Masamoto in Del Rey, California Central Valley. And she is one of our speakers at our capital campaign launch this week, you know, it just like continuing those connections and in, you know, staying with each other, through these just wild times has been so beautiful. What a gift, really. And I think like now that I get to go be a theatre artist, again, I'm really excited to see how that all shows up with these new findings.
Torgerson: Yeah, it was really inspiring to go through that report too and it's not like a traditional case for support that I've seen. It was really authentic to yourself into your vision and to all of the artists that are involved and vulnerable, like I liked how you shared, you know, what you're seeking to do better with racial equity and different initiatives. I think that also provides people a way to see maybe how they could get involved and how they could contribute to your vision and to your work. And I'm wondering, as you're leading all of these robust and critical efforts and caring for other stories through PlaceBase productions and supported supporting artists financial wellbeing and advocating for rural communities across the country, how do you find a healthy work art life balance, and make time for your own art and music practice and what feeds you creatively and what kind of drains you?
Hanson: Yeah, I am a rock climber and a mountain biker and a hiker and explorer. So I like to think about it in seasons like theater artists do. So there, I think there are seasons where it's like really full on, it's like, the lights are up. And you know, all of the players are on the stage. And here we go. And then there are times when the theater is dark. And for those moments, like I you know, will go off the grid for a while and disappear into the back country and I try to sprinkle in you know, adventures as often as possible. And I think that that really heightens and again like enhances my practice in and with rural communities because it keeps my curiosity going and connection to the living breathing Earth and its memory. So I find that's how I fill my well especially since I haven't been able to do plays recently. It's been really about like spending time in reciprocal relationship with trees think that's very good.
Torgerson: That’s very necessary.
Hanson: Like I’m seeing you, you’re seeing me. And it helps us understand time differently, right, like placing ourselves in deep time. You know, getting to spend so my partner lives, we have a house in Utah together. And then our organization is based here. And that's there's complexity in that it's not a traditional way of doing things it's like can be really fraught in my own self of like the paradox of being a place based artist that lives in many places, and that has lots of places and that love lots of places and lots of people and as a practice thing works really well for me, but doesn't always work super well for some of my relationships, both, you know, here, and it might social relationships and romantic relationships. But I think what's been really beautiful about getting to know the desert landscape and its relationship, you know, going between the prairie and the desert. I feel like deep time can be seen more clearly in the desert landscape of to me, I think that other people would argue differently. But to me, it's like more obvious of how the rivers have shaped the canyons, and you can look at it, look at the stream and say, like, “Wow, you did this, like you made this huge canyon.”
And I had this revelation on a backpacking trip recently that this is like, you know, it's not, it's not totally new, but it hit me in a new way, where there was this little tiny trickle of a stream, and I'm standing there and looking at these cannons, I was like, you had this big of an impact. By just going with the flow, like there was no - it was effortless, like you just follow the path. And you know, this river created this canyon. And so like learning from there's times when like, I push too hard, and I am trying to learn how to how to find the creases and crevices that are going to have deeper impact that allow the energy to flow and the creativity to flow that I'm will not see in my lifetime. And like, you know, being completely aware of and like not only just accepting of that, like excited about that, right? Like what can we start now, as a field as like our organization, as an individual that may ignite a fire in someone that like changes the course of history, or creates this big canyon right from just like going with the flow. So those are some of the ways that I continue to stay grounded and connected to the much bigger picture.
Torgerson: Oh, thank you for sharing that. That makes me feel better about my own juggling of you know creative ambitions and consulting work and personal commitments. I love that image of the theater lights coming on and off and sometimes it’s the season to keep it off. And I love the image of the river in the canyon. It reminds of medieval people who built churches and how they knew in their lifetime the church wouldn’t be finished. So what can we do now that the next generation can finish or reinvent if they want to.
Hanson: We mentioned earlier in our conversation, pre-interview, that I was really into fairy tales right now and thinking about the symbolism of what’s beyond the castle walls, like what’s beyond the known. And I think like the last couple of years have been a time where we’ve had to or chosen to or been forced to literally be inside our castle walls. Right like and no wonder that we have developed stronger barriers to each other and each other’s beliefs. We’re just holed up inside of the fortresses. I’m really excited to see cultural workers, especially in rural places, in the next, whatever the next is, can really help people to exit those castle walls and go out into the woods where the magic happens. Which you know the woods are like this scary dark place where there is also the big bad wolf that you might also discover is there to protect you or help you find your own wild self. So thinking about the role of story and play and artists in inviting us back to the wild and inviting us into the unknown and to discover what’s possible outside our castle walls again in this next version of light, daylight that comes
Torgerson (narrating): Sincere thanks to Ashley Hanson for joining me for a conversation on the power and possibilities of art and storytelling in rural America. To learn more about and support Ashley’s work with The Department of Public Transformation, visit publictransformation.org. For more information on PlaceBase, visit placebaseproductions.com.
Next month, we will share a conversation with Jeanie Alderson, co-owner of Omega Beef and a rancher from Birney, Montana who was featured in The New York Time’s December article “Record Beef Prices, but Ranchers Aren’t Cashing In” that highlighted how the consolidation of the meatpacking industry is harming farm families and ranches.
I produced and edited today’s story on Duwamish aboriginal territory with recordings captured on Duwamish, Dakota and Upper Sioux lands. Reframing Rural’s episode and theme music is composed and recorded by Andrew Drinnan. Season Two: Sowing Possibility is funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation, Humanities Montana, and listeners like you.
Visit reframingrural.org to find links to resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation, an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC and a member of the Rural Radio Collective.
Thank you for listening!