Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Talent is House Dust

Although I have come to love living in a small town, I do not dislike cities. I love visiting them and understand their gravitational pull, particularly in the area of the arts. There are cultural offerings that are hard to support without great numbers of people to show up and pay money. That's just a fact that I don't fight. I don't expect to find an opera company and a specialized French bakery in my closest town (pop. 3100 or thereabouts). Variety simply flourishes more readily with a greater pool of humanity to feed it. Still, it bothers me immensely that small towns and rural areas are perceived as sleepy, boring places with nothing much to offer and their residents as slow folk who wouldn't know a latte from a ladder. The artists and writers and performers are out there, but they have to create their own outlets--or go to the big city.

The irony in this perceived culture gap is that there is tremendous beauty, one of the touchstones of art, out here in the country, the sort of visual wealth that inspired artists like Vincent Van Gogh, writers like Henry Thoreau, and photographers like Ansel Adams. Out here we have the gorgeous in spades (When I learn to upload pictures, I'll prove it); we just don't have the nearby economic machine in place to easily monetize it. We have the peace and quiet that inspire creation, without the ready market to make a living at it, although the internet is changing that limitation. If artistic production is separated from money and image, we have the best of both worlds, especially with internet connections for exposure and sales when desired.

This all may sound like pipe dreaming (Is that an opium reference, or what?), but some examples from my own painfully unglamorous life back me up. The first is TANO. Never heard of it, you say? I don't doubt it. TANO was the acronym for Toketee Artist's Night Out, a small group of creative souls in the big woods of Oregon. I discovered them when I lived in their community from 1990 to 1992.

The tiny spot named Toketee Falls, 2800 feet up in the Cascade mountains, is home only to a Forest Service Ranger Station with its employees and families, and a Pacific Power and Light hydropower installation with its crew and families. Moving there from a small city (Knoxville, Tennessee, pop. 200,000 plus), I expected to find nothing but basic life going on. For the most part that was true, except for a few proactive people. This handful of artists formed a group to provide mutual support for themselves, but ended up putting on an art show in the middle of nowhere for others.

I helped set up for this out-of-the-way art show one year. I'm here to tell you that it took some doing. Over two days we cleaned up the community building, set up display panels, hung rigged "gallery" lighting (swing arm lamps with clamps), printed flyers, and put signs out to direct guests from the nearby state highway. And guess what? Some passersby actually came, and some actually bought. Back then, a newly transplanted city girl, I was surprised. Now, looking back, I'm not. That experience and others in Kentucky are the reasons why I believe that the arts are alive anywhere.

In 1998, I decided to attend my first community theater performance since moving to Morehead, Kentucky. That summer's big show was Annie. (I didn't know it then, but I was watching my future husband play Drake the butler.) I remember being, frankly, surprised at the talent and the scale of the production. A full-fledged musical requires multiple people with pipes, scads of costumes (All those orphans, people!), many hours of practice, and at least a wee bit of money. All I can say was that I was impressed at what they pulled off in front of a good crowd in a medium-sized auditorium in a small town. I've seen many shows since then, right here in our little town, that have made me laugh and cry just as much as some heavily produced Broadway touring shows or well done movies out of the metropoli. I should have remembered that some of the good stuff is in the hinterlands. Unfortunately, I tend to learn many lessons over and over again.

Then there's our church. The organist is a world class jazz musician who has played with Count Basie, won more than one Daytime Emmy for writing music for soap operas, and thought up a few jingles for national advertising campaigns. Our choir, with a little university student help, has sung the Messiah--a big work for any size group--three times since I've been there.

In fact, since moving to Kentucky, I've seen and been a part of more plays and other arts events, and met more artists than I ever did living in a city. I know that creative outlets abound in cities, but that doesn't mean I was ever led to find them. Residence in a cultural mecca isn't a guarantee of attendance. It can all get lost in the anonymous shuffle. In a small town, artistic endeavors stand out, often because your friends, family, or neighbors are the cast or artists. You find yourself supporting the arts because of connection, not out of generic, high-minded attraction to the arts as a concept.

Now back to my point about rural artists having to make their own outlets. If you live in a city and want to sing, dance, paint, etc., there are venues in place into which you can insert yourself. If you're in a small town and want to do those aforementioned fine things, you may find yourself founding your town's own community theater or art guild or writer's group. Frankly, I admire the pluck of locals who make a small town audience of sixty weep a little more than I do a major theater company's downtown show for 400. The latter's flawlessness is expected. The former's effectiveness is a delightful surprise that goes against the mold. Extra points are always awarded to the underdog.

I must admit here that a nearby institution of higher learning helps local culture. Fine things in my own current area are boosted by the presence of a state university, which attracts all those faculty and aspiring students who need to do their thing for a grade or a learning opportunity, and Toketee Falls, Oregon had a junior college in the nearest town, an hour and a half away. But success always comes down to the work and devotion of a few dedicated souls, for whom the journey is still uphill, with a smaller pool to tap.

The general principal behind this little rant is disagreement with the idea that bigger and more are better. I find myself eschewing big in all kinds of things now--house and car size to name two. The cultural dichotomy of city plenty and rural poverty is just another facet of my beef with this conventional wisdom. I say in the most positive way that enough is enough. I don't need forty offerings a week. The regularity we have is sufficient and more appreciated, like strawberries eaten only in season.

The scattered cultural gems in the countryside remind me of something I read years ago. A print maker, whose name I unfortunately don't remember, made the assertion that talent is as common as house dust. What makes the difference between success and failure is disciplined daily work at one's art or craft. At the time, I found that statement surprising. As I have carried his words with me and opened my eyes to what is around me and within me, I have come to believe them wholeheartedly. Whether you are in a city bustling with artistic outlets or in a hamlet with homemade venues, art and talent are everywhere. The only barrier to finding them and growing them is in our minds, as I found at the TANO art show and my local production of Annie. As the great sages En Vogue sang, "Free your mind, and the rest will follow." You just might find talent, art, and beauty everywhere.

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