Ashley Hanson responded to last year’s election by buying a little yellow school bus.
In January, she drove it across the country, visiting artists in cities with fewer than 10,000 people. She stopped in 24 towns in 20 states. Talked with 127 people. Trekked more than 6,200 miles. Her goal: to better understand the disconnect, made clear by polls and voting maps, between folks in urban and rural areas.
“As someone who straddles the line between urban and rural very often, I felt that my role had shifted to cultural translator,” said Hanson, 34, a St. Paul-based theater artist and musician.
This month at the Outpost Winona, Hanson will share the stories people in those small towns told, trinkets they offered and letters they wrote. The exhibition, which also features videos and works by several “resident” artists who traveled with her, opens Oct. 20, with events all weekend. The bus, which Hanson named Gus, will be there, too — despite proving unreliable.
In rural Arizona, just a week into the journey, Gus broke down. But Hanson kept going, renting Dan the Van.
“I really had my tail between my legs for a few days,” Hanson said, laughing. “That will teach me to build a brand identity around an old diesel engine.”
The exhibition will be held in a space in downtown Winona run by Art of the Rural, an organization that works nationally to boost the arts in America’s rural reaches, telling new stories about small communities. Hanson’s journey upends an idea, popular after last November’s election, that folks in rural communities “were not interested in cultural equality and inclusion,” said Matthew Fluharty, the organization’s executive director.
“The level of hope and positivity was really moving to me,” he said of Hanson’s project. “In a lot of our rural communities there is pain, there is suffering, there is disconnection. Yet at the same time, there is tremendous resilience.
“And there are expressions of local culture which will buoy the next generation.”
‘Don’t give up!’
Hanson grew up in Farmington but split her childhood between there and Aitkin, Minn., on her grandmother’s land. “I’ve always had a strong affinity and connection to my rural places,” she said.
She co-founded PlaceBase Productions, a theater company that works with communities, including small Minnesota cities such as Milan and Appleton, to tell stories through site-specific performances. “There’s something about being the cultural translator between the urban and rural environments that has enhanced my work on both sides,” Hanson said.
After Donald Trump was elected president, Hanson could feel tension between urban and rural citizens “just grow and grow and grow.”
She heard friends making sweeping statements about people “out there” in rural areas voting against themselves, painting them as “racist country bumpkins.” Hanson knew that wasn’t true, that folks in rural areas had many reasons for voting how they did.
“But I didn’t have the tools to really make the case,” she said. “I can’t give you concrete examples, but I know that it’s true.”
So Hanson, who learns by talking with others, proposed the trip. (“Reading books can only get me so far,” she said. “I need to be in a room with people.”) She started planning the trip in mid-November. She launched a crowdfunding campaign. Springboard for the Arts, which has offices in St. Paul and Fergus Falls, Minn., helped fund the project.
On Jan. 4, she hit the road. Three artists joined her for portions of the six-week trip.
They met artists who were thriving, artists who were fighting and one artist who had given up. They asked for mementos, artifacts that could be shared with a wider audience, and received paintings, tomato seeds and, in Kentucky, a piece of coal. The artists treated their guests to meals, tours, performances.
“Ashley is one of the most engaged listeners I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Fluharty said. Because she’s trained as a theater artist, she approached the project with a different perspective than visual artists might have, he said. There was less artifice, less of a critical perspective.
“What they miss, in particular in a rural setting, is a deeper cultivation of relationships,” he said. “If you’re a community-based theater artist like Ashley, the first thing you’re aiming for is a relationship.” That allowed her to see these communities, “honestly, and without judgment.”
Hanson asked each artist or artist group to write a letter to her next stop. “I know this work can be isolating,” she told each group. “What would you say to somebody else doing this work 300, 500 miles from here?”
Leaders of a theater in St. Croix Falls, Wis. wrote: “For 27 years we’ve been producing plays to bring our community together and foster conversation. We believe that never before has our mission been more important than now in 2017, as our community, friends and families and our nation reel from a particularly divisive election.”
“Art in rural communities is just as valuable as that produced in big cities,” one Texas artist wrote on a postcard. “Don’t give up!”
Depth and diversity
That letter-writing helped unify far-flung rural artists across the United States, connecting people who often feel isolated, said Ellie Moore, one of the artists who trekked with Hanson.
Moore, 29, first heard Hanson’s plans — and saw the yellow bus parked outside — in November, over Thanksgiving dinner. (Hanson’s partner is a family friend.)
Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Moore had been shocked by Trump’s election. Despite years in other parts of the country, Moore realized how much of her experiences fell under a “liberal white bubble.” Conversing with rural artists across the country would allow her to “get to know in some small way this vastness of America.”
“Sign me up,” she remembered thinking. “This sounds perfect.”
Quickly, she experienced the country’s depth and diversity. “People think of these places as all the same place,” she said, “like rural America is this one place, one entity.”
The plan was to travel with Hanson from Washington, D.C., to Chicago. But Moore canceled her flight home from the Midwest, staying on until Colorado. Along the way, she collected animal bones, which became part of the mixed-media art pieces at the Outpost show. Such bones reflect a piece of the land’s long and varied history, hinting at the American Indian communities, cattle grazing or perhaps the logging that came before.
At each stop, the artists discussed knotty topics. The growing rift between urban and rural, of course, but also the tension between tradition and transformation. “How do we honor our traditions and keep them and preserve them,” Hanson said, “but also keep them alive?”
Hanson returned to Minnesota in February. She’s planning her next trip, dreaming of putting bunk beds in the little bus. That bus is running again, Hanson said, so “he will be a part of Public Transformation 2.0, 3.0, 4.0.”