Community artist designs poster for Houston County and its passions

Jordan Gerard

Community artist and designer Katie Blanchard spent a week in Houston County last week, discovering its cares, shares and passions among the residents.

Originally from a small town in northern Michigan and currently working out of Minneapolis, Blanchard was the first citizen-artist resident at the Crystal Creek Artist-Residency program of 2019. Two more artist sessions will be held later this year.

As a community artist and designer, Blanchard “aims to bring those stories of leadership and community action into the spotlight, ‘to ensure the stories of people-power are accessible and broadly shared, especially so that young people understand them and can be inspired by them,’” a press release said.

“It’s about change-building. The signs people made [that showed] what they cared about where I grew up,” she told a group of participants Thursday night at Karst Driftless Guidepost in Houston. “One building in our downtown that was getting remodeled had the same importance as a national topic.”

For smaller communities, it’s the “especially excellent mothers who knew how to put everything together but no one ever told you. There were no words to describe it.” 

During her one week stay in Houston County, Blanchard worked on illustrating and fleshing out her current work-in-progress, an ABC book about unions and rural community organizing. 

“The book is most intended for people like me or folks in the Driftless—children of places like the rural Midwest, who live in communities with vibrant civic engagement and organizations, but whose stories of community transformation are far less often told,” she said.

At the event on Thursday night, Blanchard asked participants to reflect on Houston County – what did they see outside their window when they woke up in the morning? What did they like best about the Driftless Region? How did they describe it to someone else? What excited them about the future and what scared them? What would they miss the most if they left?

A lot of Blanchard’s work centers around community grassroots and how small towns are able to organize events, from town celebrations to potluck dinners to political movements. 

She presented her definition of community organizing, which is, “Community organizing is the process of building relationships and developing leaders in order to build community and build power together to move from the-world-as-it-is to the-world-as-it-should-be.” 

Though her definition is evolving, the sentence above stuck with many participants. She discussed parts of the definition with the group.

How do you get residents to realize they are part of a community? History tells us that part has already taken place, usually on a Sunday when many people attended church and did not go to work.

“It’s a community that is there and you show up and be part of it,” Heidi Eger said. “You wouldn’t work on Sundays, and you could go and talk to your neighbor.”

However, this doesn’t seem to exist in the younger generations, she added. Individualism seems to get in the way and people are internally focused. How do you help people realize community is important?

Eger is currently an incubatee farmer at Nettle Valley Farm, along with Bailey Lutz and Sarah Thorson. Altogether, the household invites friends for dinner on Wednesday nights.

“We desire to know other people. Dayna [Burtness Nguyen] might know someone and we show up and be there and get to know those people,” Thorson said. “It’s reflecting on the fact that all five of us in the house show up in that way and connect with the people we know.”

Building relationships is facilitated by intergenerational mentorships, Mainspring Founding Director Melissa Wray said. 

“I didn’t know I had that when I was living here, but it’s something that is happening,” she said. 

It’s teaching the next generation how to be good volunteers and useful citizens. Schools are especially a good example of this because they provide avenues for students to be leaders.

However, there are challenges to building relationships, especially for those new in town.

Though the term “outsiders” is generally outdated now, it’s still hard for new residents to make the right connections in town to feel welcomed. The key here is asking those people to be involved.

As for developing leaders, sometimes it’s a matter of someone’s ambition and other times they’re thrust into the job. 

“Somehow they managed to step out. When did the lightning strike?” Diane Crane of the Houston Arts Resource Council said. 

Leadership can also have a tendency to let quiet people bloom out and become a force to be reckoned with.

What challenges face the current leaders of volunteer groups, church groups, activist groups and others we have around our small towns in Houston County?

Burnout. Because they are trusted to do the job right and since they’ve been doing it a long time, no one else has had to take the responsibility on. 

This is where recruiting and training new volunteers comes in handy. Small towns are small enough where there are many opportunities for everyone.

And it’s not only groups that face challenges. Many times it is the businesses that need help and for that, there’s a chamber of commerce, in which a few Houston County cities have one, but some do not. 

The last part of the definition, “the-world-as-it-is to the-world-as-it-should-be,” was described as “neighboring,” or just being neighborly.

In many instances, payment isn’t expected when neighbors help neighbors. The favor eventually gets returned in the future.

Lastly, the group talked about how people can have a relationship with their community as a resident and a tourist.

Blanchard will create a large poster featuring images and key words from around Houston County. Keep an eye out for the poster, as it will be posted around the county.

Next session

Join Crystal Creek and the Houston Arts Resource Council for their next resident-artists: Aug. 4 through 10, featuring James Spartz (Unity, ME); and Nick Byron Campbell (Los Angeles, CA); Meet & Greet: 8/6; Workshop: 8/9

An ecomusicologist and environmental communications scholar, James Spartz, Ph.D., is a Driftless Minnesota native now teaching at Unity College in Maine as an assistant professor of environmental communication. 

Nick Byron Campbell is an experimental environmental musician based out of Los Angeles, California. Frustrated by the limitations of traditional recording and performing, Campbell now experiments in sound art, creating sound art installations across the United States.