Rural and Proud
Epicenter Director Maria Sykes
discusses working in the
rural American West
Green River, a community of fewer than 1,000 residents that straddles the eponymous waterway and sits alongside Interstate 70 in eastern Utah, is home to Epicenter, a non-profit design practice with a hyper-local mission. Founded in 2009, the organization aims to build Green River’s local leadership, increase local housing options, increase town vibrancy through a beautifully built environment, and develop a replicable model for other rural communities. The team, led by Executive Director Maria Sykes, are amidst a reassessment and relaunch of the program following the pandemic, including the Frontier Fellowship residency and an ambitious project on four acres of donated land called Canal Commons.
Dovetail interviewed Sykes via Zoom, discussing how the idea for Epicenter emerged, why earning trust in rural communities is a never-ending learning process, and what kinds of projects are on the horizon.
What brought you to Utah? How did you find Green River?
I had a colleague from architecture school who came out here to do an AmeriCorps position with the local community center. I came out to visit and was instantly hooked. At the time, I was back in Atlanta, and that work was fun, but also not satisfying. I graduated from architecture school when the 2008 recession was happening, so no one was building, and I had always been a community service-oriented person.
The next thing I knew, we were renovating an entire building and starting to talk about things like, what are the needs of this community? And realizing that a lot of those needs weren’t being met. There were a lot of programs that were supposed to be serving this community, and we were finding those to be falling short, underfunded, or under-resourced. So we were like, okay, I guess we’re going to make a non-profit, create our own jobs, and start an alternative practice out here.
You’re still a practicing designer or an architect?
I think of Epicenter as a contextually engaged design practice. It’s a combination of creativity, community service, and experimentation, but hopefully not in a negative sort of way, so with a pragmatic approach as well. I think in that way, it is an architectural practice because we are trying to figure this stuff out.
You’re building and connecting these dots to facilitate a program or an opportunity or to structure physically whatever’s needed. How would you describe what Epicenter does?
We like to think of ourselves as stewards of local creative initiatives. It’s local people who have these ideas, so we like to push those ideas forward. And we like to use art and architecture to do that with a specific focus on rural investment.
We specifically use the term rural investment instead of rural development because “development” implies something maybe lacking or wrong with the place. So we like to use that term with the goal to maintain what is resilient or equitable or vibrant, or to build on that. In the simplest terms, I think, Epicenter is a community design studio. It’s practical but also creative.
What draws you to like the rural specifically? You mentioned you were an Atlanta before, but was it a new experience for you to live and work in a really rural area?
I’ve always lived, for the most part, in rural places, in Missouri and the South predominantly. I grew up going to visit my great grandparents, and all those folks lived on farms in the South. So rural was a space that I was pretty comfortable with. And all the family stories that I heard growing up were always in rural places. That being said, I grew up in suburbia and always thought of myself as someone who was probably going to move to a big city because I had been told that’s where architecture and design happens—in my mind, that’s what I believed.
Then I went to school at Auburn University, where they have the Rural Studio program, which I didn’t participate in that program specifically, but that’s based around the idea that art and architecture doesn’t have to be used only for the people who can afford it; it can be for everyone. Learning that set me on a different path. So, yeah, even though I’d never lived in a town of a thousand people—and I’m still here, where I’ve now lived for 14 years, longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere—I think there are a lot of rural values that exist in the small-town atmosphere, like knowing your neighbor, that also exist in churches or schools. So I kind of understood some of that from the American South. But what I didn’t understand was the rural West, which is totally different. There are the issues around water or land use—that sort of stuff is what I’ve had to learn over the past decade-plus.
What kinds of challenges came up in terms of building the whole project up that you were just like, “Was not expecting to have to deal with this!” or that maybe led you in a different direction?
Yes, every day! I have a million answers for this question. One thing I had assumed is that in rural places there is less red tape or no bureaucracy. But it’s just mostly different. There is still some bureaucracy, but there is more transparency in a lot of cases here because you know everybody—like you know everybody on the city council. They’re your neighbors, right? Just like in the city, it still takes a really long time to get things done, and it’s less about the red tape and bureaucracy and more that you have to fight for every resource.
I think that was a lesson—one that I just keep having to learn over because I think of rural places as being abundant… as landscape, relationships, and beauty, and intimacy, and all those sorts of things… but there are resources that are lacking here, such as housing or readily available and obvious career opportunities.
Then the unexpected turns. One thing that does come to mind is the Frontier Fellowship. It’s something that started really organically. When we first came out here, there was just a group of us young artists and designers, but we kept having friends wanting to come out and contribute in some sort of way. They were usually designers between jobs, or they just got laid off because of the recession, and they were like, “Can I come help?” Absolutely! So we would have them come out, and it would usually be for about a month.
A month made sense. Anybody who stayed longer didn’t quite work out, and anybody who was here for a shorter amount of time didn’t quite get it done. We decided we had to set some standards and think about the ethics of this as well, so that program became a little more formalized. We’re able to receive funding for it, and we’ve done significant projects with our Frontier Fellows.
When I look back on it, at the time, I thought, oh, this is really great that we’re generating this work. We’re helping the community. But what I didn’t realize, and now I’m reflecting on, is that work—as little as the project may have been, like a community mural or whatever it was—can be kind of small and seemingly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but community arts and design projects were actually the best tool that we had for understanding our community. It was research. Those art projects informed our future design work.
We were able to reflect back on the Fellowship during COVID while we weren’t having Fellows, and we thought, what can we do right now? Let’s look back on the work and think about what the future of that artist residency looks like. How does it best serve our organization and our community? How can we best serve artists? We don’t want to be exploitative, and we don’t want to be extractive in any way, so it was good to be able to reflect on that. We’re working on a publication right now that explores some of that.
Because you transplanted into the area, and now you’ve been there for a long time, did you feel like you hit any roadblocks in terms of trust with people who wondered what you were doing there?
Oh yeah, that was an uphill battle from the beginning, even though technically we were invited to be here by the community center, an existing nonprofit. That nonprofit didn’t have the best reputation, which we didn’t know coming into it, so you’re stuck with who you’re working with. There were some people who immediately were like, yes, please help. Those would be people who had been in the mayor’s seat for a while, and they realized that they just needed somebody to do something. But it took years and years of going to high school basketball games, substitute teaching at the high school, going to everything that you’re invited to, and just letting people get to know you and obviously actually getting to know people.
We made mistakes all the time. One time, we were doing an assessment of the housing and we were like, this will be easy if we just photograph the houses. Looking back on it, it was so dumb. I was like, 24 years old, and I was photographing strangers’ houses. That’s a good way to get shot. So yeah, I had to apologize for that. Nobody really trusts anybody new here. I think there’s just a lot of suspicion, regardless of how long you’ve been here. Rural communities in the West have an attitude of like, I need to provide for my family. There’s generosity, but then there’s also a lot of skepticism.
Kind of being on alert all the time, in a way?
Exactly. I think there’s a lot more trust now, mostly because I’ve stuck around. There’s a lot of people coming through, whether it’s board members or staff, visiting artists… but I think they’re like okay, well, Maria’s still there, and she’s from the original leadership and still saying she’s going to do what she promised, which was to build houses and try to help develop downtown. That duration, I think, is really important.
Going back to that word you used, investment: from that standpoint of personal investment, you know that you’re in it. You’re not just doing a project and then taking off. Over the past three years, have there been any massive shifts in terms of reevaluating how or what you were doing?
Yeah, the organization had to dramatically slim down. We had to get rid of leadership positions. We had to restructure our board to get some new energy in and just help us figure things out. The first year of the pandemic, we were able to find tons of resources, like all those American Rescue Plan Act funds and all kinds of things. The second year was really tough in terms of finding funding.
We’re working on a project called Canal Commons, an affordable housing development and park and green spaces, so everything we do is in service to that. For the most part, if we have a visiting artist, they’re going to work in the park. If we are getting any sort of grant, it’s going towards paying ourselves to work on that. In the past, I think we could be a little more experimental or have a couple of things that we were working on, and I could have had a couple more staff members, but right now, we are laser-focused on that project. That was partly because the city donated four acres, and that was a huge show of like, we believe in you.
For Frontier Fellowship, do artists apply with a specific proposal, or do they see what you’re moving on at the moment and figure it out when they get to Utah, based on Epicenter and Green River’s needs?
We intentionally don’t accept proposals just because it’s a bit presumptuous if artists think that they know what a community needs. We only accept proposals from people who have spent significant time here or spent significant time working with us.
The first week of the residency is literally just getting up to speed, learning about what’s going on in the community. We introduce the partners that are interested in working with us right now because we have to make sure that we address community fatigue.
The second week is for the artist to decide, this what I’m going to do. And then week three through four is doing the work, plus the documentation and reflection. It’s pretty rapid. Until you’re here, you don’t understand how open it is, how many buildings are vacant, or what the people are like, so it takes a couple of days to be like, okay, I think I’m starting to understand a little bit about this place.
Through Epicenter, do you work in collaboration with other rural organizations or artists that are outside of the area?
Yes! There’s Art of the Rural, and we collaborated with them ages ago. A lot of it’s about having conversations with other rural organizations, or one or two of us will go work with an organization, usually as a learning opportunity. I’ve done work in rural Iceland. We’ve had staff head to the Navajo Nation to work with Design Build Bluff. We’ve worked with High Desert Test Sites on a major event here in Green River. We worked with Granary Arts on our most recent summit. We also have a piece right now at UMOCA that’s part of their Haimaz, Heimr, Hjem, Heem, Hām, Home exhibition. We’ve also worked with the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on a rural-focused exhibit called Our Futures a few years ago.
The Canal Commons project is a central focus. Is there anything else on the radar?
Everything is pretty hyper-focused on Canal Commons. Something that’s further on the horizon is that, for years, the city and community have been talking about having a small event space or a community center where you can have gatherings. Our town doesn’t really have that space. Like a lot of rural places, we have a lot of spaces where you can gather, like a high school gym or a church, but they’re associated with an institution. There’s not necessarily a neutral meeting house or a place where you could have a small conference or something like that. Green River has more hotel rooms than people at this point, but there’s no central indoor public gathering space.
Another thing right now is we just had Elpthia Tsoutsounakis joined our board, and she is an incredible artist and designer who also teaches at the University of Utah, so we’re reconnecting with the university after the pandemic. It’s great having her design students come and work with work in the community, so we’re inviting students back here. It’s been a while, partly because of the pandemic, but partly because student work in rural communities has to be done in the right way. Often students will come in and just propose all these ideas and get people excited, but then there’s no follow-through, so we have to be really specific on how we craft that project.
In this case, they’re going to help out with a museum exhibit called Rural Crossroads through the Smithsonian with a local component. The students are also going to make a float for the Melon Days parade, which is a tradition more than 110 years old in Green River.
We like inviting groups back, and we’ve got some more volunteer groups who are thinking about coming here and doing some community service projects, like AmeriCorps. We very much need strong hands and sharp minds to help get stuff done.
All images © Katie Hargrave and Meredith Laura Lynn.
Header: Inside Eureka (detail). Photo by John Dooley.
Side-by-side Images: From the series Cataloguing. Photos by John Dooley