Mary Welcome + Nicole Lavelle
I heard about Mary long before I met her. We had similar orbits on the DIY residency circuit and an insanely intricate web of mutual friends. “Do you know Mary?” People asked me this everywhere I went. I think it was because we have similar handwriting.
We finally met in January 2014 in Green River, Utah, which served as Mary’s home-base for four years while her housing in Palouse was heartbreakingly precarious. I was back in Utah for my fourth annual visit, to make a project with my friend Sarah Baugh and Epicenter. We all proceeded to fall in love with each other. (I have the commemorative stick-and-poke to prove it.)
I wonder sometimes why my deepest friends come from the same network of itinerant visiting artists whose practices engage place and community. I guess it’s because we find it easy to relate. You haven’t been home for four months either? You want to talk about the ethics of narrative extraction, too? Lucy Lippard is also your favorite? You also want to take the longest possible route to get to where we’re going? Okay. Friends forever.
In the five years since we met in the winter desert, Mary and I have found ourselves together in Maine, California, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and probably somewhere else. Only this year did we visit each other’s homes. We are each other’s favorite houseguests because all we want to do is work.
We’re working together on a project about, for, and with visiting artists that still has no name, and whose form is morphing as we add pieces to it. We’re both maximalists, we both just want more, more, more. We relate in that our creative strategies are accumulative.
We’ve thought so hard about what it means to be a visitor, a local, a guest, a host. We’re trying to put it all to words, and this interview is the latest layer of that thinking.
Our correspondence took place inside our favorite in-browser collaborative note-making product from a file-sharing company, because we support each other in the goal for less email. —Nicole
Nicole: You identify as a citizen artist. What does that mean?
Mary: I think the term citizen implies a greater accountability to the place and the people. I did a project in Minnesota a few years ago about celebrating citizenship and wielding community force by taking ownership of the term “citizen” on a neighbor-to-neighbor level rather than as dictated by people in power. I think that citizenship is something earned and awarded through care and stewardship of place, and something we should generously bestow upon one another. Feelings of belonging, you know? The power of belonging that begets great care. This is a pledge I wrote for community citizenship, it applies very directly to my practice and process as an artist as well.
AS A CARD-CARRYING CITIZEN, I PLEDGE TO:
• Nurture the strengths of my community and work to alleviate the weaknesses
• Treat my neighbors (human and environmental) with compassion, cooperation, and respect
• Communicate about problems with a willingness to take an active role in finding solutions
• Donate my time and my talents to improving quality of life in my neighborhood
• Set healthy boundaries and be aware of my limitations
• Enjoy and celebrate this unique place I call my home
• Take care of one another
Tell me about your encounters with difference in your work. Is it a necessary part of the work? Is tension required? Do you have specific strategies for navigating tensions of difference? I’m thinking specifically about tensions like urban/rural, insider/outsider, local/visitor, past/future…
I’m not sure about the terms of difference or tension. But I do think that variables, unknowns, autonomous zones, and in-betweens play an important role in my process. Undefined spaces in places and in relationships often are the most productive ground for creative thinking, problem-solving, digging deep, and transformation. I spend a lot of my relational practice working to draw community members together in new ways/venues, in order to establish veins of solidarity that relationships can grow out of. So maybe it’s more about water-witching for compassion points, rallying moments, and unity energy—and knowing that I can lean hard on those powerful hot spots in order to navigate difficult differences.
So much of being a good artist is being a good listener. Because of this, I often feel tasked as translator—visually, linguistically, intuitively, creatively. I spend a lot of time in communities with my ears open, repeating back what I am hearing in order to better understand and to illustrate. I think the best way to respect difference is to model not only good listening practices, but also soft confrontational practices. Empathetic inquiry, conversational research, casual didactics. When we can have our conversations with an emphasis on our shared human-ness, we can be more sensitive to one another’s life experiences. I’ve learned so much from folks who were willing to meet me somewhere in the middle and walk me to their side of a story. What’s the difference anyways between a long walk and a long talk? Slow strides. Soft power.
You and I write and talk a lot about the dispersed network of place-based, itinerant, engaged citizen artists that we’re a part of. You’ve also called it a “network of accountability” and described “resources that exist across time and space.” Can you describe this network? Who’s in it, what do they do? How is its dispersed nature part of its intrinsic value?
I do a lot of pretending to be a Luddite, but the truth is I’m pretty grateful to live in our twisted high tech connected world. So much of my work wouldn’t be possible without online documents and video calls and eternal email inboxes. The ability to keep communicating with the people in places I’ve worked—no matter the weather and time zone and mileage (and in spite of my slow rural broadband internet speed)—is integral to doing the work that I do. That being said, I’m a big believer in slow-talk too, and do plenty of letter-writing and postcard sending.
I think more than anything that being able to work remotely (on the internet) and on-site (real life person-to-person hanging out) has helped with the persistent lonesomeness that comes from the kind of live/work migratory practice that I have. I’ve got to be ON and FRESH and STOKED in every place I go to, I’m constantly a newcomer, I am almost always tired. There’s so much of fatigue that sets in from going it alone and working at getting people together. If there’s one thing the internet has taught me, it’s that there’s more of us than I thought. We’re out here in the hinterlands, hauling across the country, sending emails in dawn’s first light from mobile car offices, meeting folks for beers at the VFW—and we can reach out, touch base, check in with one another. I’ve met so many practitioners that can relate to the delights and complexities of an itinerant locational creative practice; heck, I’m in more collectives than I can count, for sake of working harder with more people power and better conversational critique and counsel.
I meet people in the places I work in, I meet people at conferences and convenings, I meet people on the internet. (Nicole and I know each other from the internet, first. Letters later.) We stay in touch. It’s a proactive long-range slow motion game of catch. In the same way that I need this dispersed digital community to help keep me critical and transparent, woke and stoked—I rely on that same community to do mutual lookaftering, remind each other to drink water and stretch, offer perspectives from their distant time and places. The shared experience of SHARING EXPERIENCE is one of the best tools in the network toolbox, by staying in touch (with work, with life, with projects, with feelings), I can constantly reframe, gain new perspective, connect people and places to more people and places. Grow the circle of friends.
Speaking of dispersed networks, let’s talk about the U.S.PS. Tell me about God Bless the U.S.PS. Why is the United States Postal Service so important? What values does it represent to you? I get it: I also have an active correspondence practice; you and I have sent mail back and forth for years. You exhibited a correspondence project between us at a solo show in Calgary. Recently we each dropped $100 on deadstock stamps at a barn sale in Idaho. What were we thinking?! What’s the draw? Why postage, why letters, why postcards? Is it nostalgia? Is it a physical embodiment of connection?
The U.S.PS is so important. Simply put, it’s the last shred of a communications commons that we have as a nation. I’m everyday blown away by the fact that you can send a message, a protected private message, hand-to-hand across this entire country, for fifty cents. What a world we live in. It’s an accessible, noble, romantic, highly functional, ready-steady miracle of an institution. Don’t be fooled; email doesn’t belong to you. It’s not private and you need an expensive machine to make it work. Your words written and sent on paper though, that’s yours and ours and worth fighting for. We need to work together to protect our right to communication.
It’s a risky and generous thing, to sit down and put pen to paper, and give it to a stranger, who will give it to another stranger, and another and another and another, until it reaches someone you care about. Sometimes that’s the most comforting part. I spend time daydreaming about how my letters end up in the homes of my friends; it makes me feel real and glad and alive. And a little bit magical.
You live and breathe in Palouse, Washington, but your work takes you far and away. Is leaving a necessary part of feeling at home? Do you feel like a multi-centered person? (Shout out to Lucy Lippard.) Has your attitude towards multiple centers changed throughout your life?
I don’t know if leaving is a necessary part of feeling at home, but leaving sure keeps me nimble and humble and happy to be home when I am so. Home in Palouse, that is. I grew up with a really fluid definition of home, home as an action, a making of a safe space, a together place. Homing as verb has always rung truest for me. I’ve recently re-acquired a book of stories I wrote between kindergarten and second grade and I carry this poem around in my heart when I am on the road and feeling homesick.
Last spring we drove from Lagunitas to New Cuyama, and what is typically a four-hour drive took us 16 hours of driving over two days. We stopped in Monterey to visit the army house you lived in with your family for a few years and you wondered to me about the impact of your itinerant childhood on your art practice. You said something about the feeling of living on base, how there was always a process whereby you felt welcomed. Can you remember some of that? Can you re-explain?
Living on military bases, you’re surrounded by people who are moving around all the time. There’s a sympathy for strangers, rather than suspicion; people tend to be really gentle with one another about the leaving and the going and being the new kid over and over again. I remember so many welcome loops, ways to reach out and say hello to neighbors, how to see and be seen, how to create feelings of belonging for one another. It’s the simple stuff that my practice is built on—potlucks, block parties, dropping in, taking walks, returning phone calls, writing thank you notes, babysitting at the last minute. There’s a sort of radical hospitality of open invitations and pitching in and following through that’s just the day-to-day ethos of living on base. Everybody’s from everywhere, everyone is homesick for somewhere, and we’re all buying the same groceries from the same commissary; we all felt a responsibility to build healthy community in our temporary neighborhoods.
It’s definitely been influential in my practice, and a reason I spend so much time thinking about how to be a good visitor, a good houseguest, a good artist-in-residence. In a strange way, being a visiting artist feels a lot like moving around in a military family—figuring out how to make earnest, thoughtful, helpful actions in a new place, often on a tight timeline and a shoestring budget. How to tread both lightly and diligently. How to be careful with community. How to feel familiar and familial.
What is challenging about living rurally? What stereotypes are true? What do you hope will change over time, and what are you working to change?
Something that is really difficult about living rurally is visibility. I live very publicly in a very small community of 900 people on the Idaho/Washington border. There’s no public transportation to where I live, it is very far from any interstates, it is nowhere near Seattle. I live there on purpose for lots of reasons, but an especially important one is that I’m not interested in working autonomously as an artist. I like to work deeply and reliably and I chose a place that holds me accountable and models intentional community practices while at the same time accepting me at face value as the growing, changing, flawed human person that I am. I moved to Palouse about 13 years ago (when I was 22!)—I’ve moved through so many different versions of myself during that time, with the gentle affirmation and counsel of an entire intergenerational town, made up of a spectrum of folks I never would have had the opportunity to befriend if I lived in a city. Palouse is a promised land to me, a place I won’t grow out of, a place that wears me in instead of wears me out. It is nice to be seen and looked after and cared for and challenged and included. So much more is possible when your humanity is validated in an everyday way.
On the flipside of that, choosing to intentionally live and work in rural communities across the country excludes me from “the scene”—that ever-changing urban-normative network of funding and opportunities that thrives in and near metro areas. Outside of my direct network of itinerant rural cultural workers, I often feel totally invisible, especially as an artist. Most days, I’m frustrated and scheming on a shoestring for how to continue to do my work in the kind of places that matter to me. I believe that artists belong everywhere, within the entire rural-urban continuum! Every community has a right to cultural resources and creative vision and everyone ought to be able to choose to live in the kind of environment that they thrive in. I used to say “You gotta live in a place that loves you back.”