"There are oceans of children in this town, and this is their home," said arts entrepreneur Barbara Peterson, speaking from her office in the farm community of Wapato, Washington, roughly 150 miles southwest of Seattle. "Even though this is a tiny, hardscrabble town, there's no reason they shouldn't have beauty here."
This is precisely why Peterson, who serves as executive director of the educational not-for-profit Northwest Learning and Achievement Group, has spent years creating innovative art projects in her adopted hometown, sparking a striking rural renaissance in the process.
Just about 30 miles northwest of Wapato, a similar transformation has been underway in the town of Tieton, another small, rural community. "Years ago, people in the area had the mindset of, 'What if we could get a golf course or high-security prison to move here? Wouldn't that be a shot in the arm for the economy?'" said Seattle art book publisher Ed Marquand, who played a key role in catalyzing Tieton's own artistic rejuvenation. "Our approach was, 'What if we take designers, architects, and other creative people from Seattle, and plug them in here? Would that model work?'" By the looks of Tieton today -- a busy artisanal outpost with locals and Seattleites working shoulder-to-shoulder -- the answer is a resounding "yes."
While Wapato's rebirth started with the engagement of youth, as well as active promotion of the town's unique ethnic heritage, Tieton's renaissance took a different route -- specifically, reinventing the town's forlorn, abandoned buildings as furnaces for artistic enterprise. And though the paths of the two towns may differ broadly, the introductions of the arts into Wapato and Tieton strike a clear pattern -- even in the tiniest of rural communities, artistic engagement can change everything.
FIVE ETHNICITIES, ONE COMMUNITY
Peterson's relationship with Wapato began in 1993 when, as an employee of the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board, she was asked to write a grant to support college outreach for high-poverty communities. "I needed to find some place where my grant would not be competing with pre-existing public services," said Peterson. "I was told, 'Go to Wapato; they don't have anything.'"
Wapato sits on the Yakama Indian Reservation in southern Washington. "When people were homesteading, this was one of the least expensive places because it was so far from settled areas," described Peterson. "So people who were quite poor made their homes here." While visiting, Peterson was struck by the unique diversity encapsulated in the tiny community. "It's a confluence of five ethnicities," she said. "You have the Yakama tribe of Native Americans, as well as Hispanics who moved in because of agricultural opportunities. In the 1920s and '30s, there was an influx of Philippine and Japanese farmers. And then you have white farmers as well, who are largely of Dutch and Irish descent."
Charmed and inspired, Peterson went forward with her planned college outreach program to a warm response from the community -- but she wanted to do more. "The town didn't have a good sense of self, so I felt it needed public art, student art," she said. "It was a hardworking place and it didn't have beautiful architecture or other lovely things to retreat to. But everything else was beautiful about it."
With the help of guest concrete sculptors, bronze casters, and other artists -- and funding from the Washington State Arts Commission -- Peterson's organization began to work with Wapato's children. The young residents created locally-themed pictures, images which the professional artists helped realize in sculptures of bronze and concrete. The artworks were placed around the city as public art installations. But the biggest project was yet to come.
"In Seattle, we had seen what the city did with metal cutouts, displayed on poles, in the middle of downtown," said Peterson. "It seemed to be an affordable, visible art form that we could easily maintain, and keep free from graffiti. We thought we'd try something similar in Wapato." Over the course of three years, Peterson and her colleagues brought children from the town's different ethnicities together to create a defining public art installation for the city. "We asked them to find an image that we could make that would be distinctive for each of these cultures," she said. "We would then cut the images into metal and display them together."
For the wide variety of Hispanic heritages present in Wapato, the children stepped back in time to choose an image from the Aztec calendar; to represent Native-American heritage, they produced an image of a feather inside the shape of a fish. "The images were not complex, but they were beautiful," said Peterson. The resulting metal cutouts were mounted on poles and placed in the center of town.
With such unique public art created and installed, Peterson saw outreach as the next step. "We started a Tamale Festival to bring people in, to have them look at these multicultural children's images that were displayed everywhere," she said. "One town nearby is known for its cowboys-and-Indians murals. Another one has dinosaurs, and another has fountains," she said. "We were without something to define us, so we moved in the direction of children's art."
Based on the vibrancy of the Tamale Festival and other community gatherings -- each rich with traditional dances from the city's core ethnicities -- street traffic in Wapato increased significantly, and local business owners started to notice. "Proprietors decided that this was a place with good circulation," said Peterson. "Some of them took a chance, and now we have a carniceria next door, a Philippine restaurant down the street, a new taqueria, a martial arts studio, and more. We've really started to recapture parts of this town."
Perhaps most compelling is how the cycle of innovation continued, using images from past Tamale Festivals to create even more public art. "We worked with a high school art teacher to try to capture images of the ethnic dancers, one for each of the five cultures," said Peterson. Again immortalized in metal, images of a Yakama fancy dancer, a Japanese dancer in a kimono, and even American cheerleaders are on display today in the parks of Wapato.
The city's renewal continues, with plans in the works to begin showing movies publicly in the park. "Years ago, there just wasn't enough reason to do something like that," she continued. "Many great things are happening in Wapato and it all started with art. That was the spark."
FROM ABANDONED BUILDINGS TO ARTIST COLONY
While Peterson's introduction to Wapato resulted from a careful search, Marquand's first rendezvous with Tieton was pure accident. "In 2005, I was taking a bike ride around the area and ended up in Tieton for the first time," he said. "I pulled into a parking lot and punctured both tires on a patch of goathead thorns, so I spent the afternoon doing repairs in the little main town square, surrounded by all of these storefronts."
While fixing his injured bicycle, Marquand noticed some intriguing things about Tieton -- the overall space and structure of the town, as well as a great many "for sale" signs. An idea began to grow in his mind. "Seattle real estate is far too expensive for most artists to buy studio space, so I started asking around about this town and why it was no longer as prosperous as before," he said. "It had always been a workman community -- no Carnegie library, no gingerbread -- just a nice little orchard town."
Tieton's fortunes fell, Marquand soon learned, when local, family-owned farms and orchards began to consolidate as a result of changes in regional agribusiness. "Right now, the fruit business is every bit as successful as it ever was, but the owners are a much smaller group of people," he said. "Many of them live in other cities and they don't need to come into Tieton, so there weren't as many people to support local retail business. The bigger farms built more efficient warehouses, too," he added. "That left lots of unused buildings in this sweet, beautifully situated town. My thought was, what could artists do with these spaces?"
During the summer of 2005, after his fateful accident, Marquand invited artist and designer friends to visit Tieton with him. After much discussion and collective dreaming, the group decided to buy nine buildings, including a large warehouse for which they had special plans.
"We were interested in adding to the town," he said. "None of the buildings we bought had viable businesses in them, so it's not like we were kicking anybody out. We converted some of the buildings into beautiful lofts to give people a place to invest in and stay while they did their work here." For Marquand, ownership of property in Tieton was a key component to success. "If people invest in the real estate of an area, they're also investing themselves emotionally," he said.
While Marquand's colleagues began plying such crafts as furniture making, sculpture, and architecture in their new Tieton spaces, Marquand himself expanded his art-book business with the help of local collaborators. "My main endeavor here is creating handmade art books," he said. "We've even branched out into making sketchbooks, letterpress items, and funny posters for sale in my Seattle design shop." All of their artisan businesses work under the banner of Mighty Tieton.
Marquand likens the successful model of Tieton's arts businesses to that of the Tieton Farm and Creamery, a nearby, locally-owned dairy that distributes cheese to restaurants and markets in Seattle. "That economy, like ours, relies on the urban creative component, combined with the advantages of being in a rural area," he said. "Tieton Cider Works does the same thing. Property here is inexpensive, there's a strong workforce, and it's just a nice place to be.
"This isn't just a situation where we have expensive studio spaces for painters and sculptors and such," he continued. "For this model to work, we really needed people who had broader business connections and reputations in order to sell the products that we are producing here. If you just plunked studios in rural Washington and opened a little pottery showroom, it wouldn't work. There's just not enough traffic going through. But if you can distribute the goods made here into an urban area, it can work quite well." The products that Mighty Tieton produces all carry the brand "Tieton-Made," further expanding the community's reputation as an artistic haven.
Rather than being tagged as carpetbaggers, Marquand and his colleagues received positive reactions from much of the Tieton community, thanks in no small part to the large Mexican population. "Many [Mexican] people here are familiar with artisan businesses," said Marquand. "If you know someone who's a potter, mosaic worker, or metal worker, then it's easier to relate." Also helpful in building community ties were the frequent art exhibits and other exquisitely executed community events staged in the large warehouse that Marquand and company had purchased.
Community reactions weren't all positive, though. "A lot of the older residents were standoffish for the first few years, but they've all come to us since then and told us, in their own ways, that they could never figure out what to do with all of those buildings. They're glad we didn't tear them down," he said. Indeed, while Tieton's buildings were decidedly nondescript and utilitarian, Marquand noted that they were still important parts of the community's collective identity, and deserved to be respected as such.
Marquand also described a distinct uptick in public mood during the six years since the Seattle artists first arrived. "Residents come to more community meetings and show up at farmers markets," he noted. Marquand also pointed to the reaction of one 87-year-old resident as evidence of Tieton's progress. "She runs a café and comes to work at 6 a.m. to pour coffee. She's tough as nails," he said. "Someone once asked her, 'When are you going to sell this place?' She said, 'I'm not going to sell it! I've been waiting 40 years for something to happen here -- and something's finally happening!'"
-- Michael Gallant is a composer, musician, and writer living in New York City. He is the founder and CEO of Gallant Music (gallantmusic.com).