I am a painter living in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The artist community here is a growing presence in this growing city. As an artist living in a rural location, I have found myself contemplating the relationship between place, content and practice in my own work. It has been suggested to me (by a well-known Philadelphia artist) that there is a dependent relationship between art and the city and that most great art comes from metropolitan areas. Is this true? Does history support this statement? My gut tells me that art comes down to you, your media, and your drive. For me, community is important and my family roots and job are in the country. We do not make art in a vacuum. I can’t deny the powerful influence that spending three summers in the city with artists from all over the country has had on me but the city isn’t really my PLACE.
So, I want to open this conversation to more voices. And, maybe even establish a larger artistic community. I am seeking artists living and working outside metropolitan settings to help me answer these questions,
- What does an artist’s proximity to a city mean for their practice?
- What is the effect of place on the act of making art?
- What is the Periphery? And, with the internet, does the periphery really exist?
- How does working outside the city change your work’s relationship to contemporary practices and aesthetics?
My first interview is with Ann Piper. Ann is an artist living and working in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. She is an associate professor at Susquehanna University and has lived in central Pennsylvania for ten years. Prior to that she lived for ten years in Emporia, Kansas (population ≈ 24,000) where she taught painting and drawing at Emporia State University.
JM (John Myers): What is the site of your work?
AP (Ann Piper): Essentially, my work evolves from my experiences with other people and serves to help me understand these interactions and my place within the broader scope of humanity. This excerpt from my artist’s statement describes it well, “… I use the human figure as a vehicle for creating a series of personal vignettes. Always formal, and often theatrical, each image serves as an assertion of a state of being. They are artificial moments, but are invented in support of very real sentiments. I am constantly examining human relationships through these devised images: assigning roles, removing context, arranging objects and offering it up for reinterpretation.”
JM: Does place influence your work? And, can you identify, describe or define how place influences your work?
AP: I find that I am much more influenced by the people in my community than the physical location of my home. Whether I’ve been in a big city or a small town, I’ve worked to find a group of like-minded, creative individuals with whom I can exchange ideas, present challenges and be of mutual support. For me, the relative size of this group of friends has remained about the same regardless of my physical location. I think that in my case, the structure of a university has helped me to achieve this, as I have been either a student or a teacher for the entirety of my adult life.
JM: Do you have an artist community that is connected virtually? Do you feel a need for connection that is real-time and in the flesh?
AP: I am beginning to develop a virtual network of artist friends. Whether or not that develops into something as beneficial as the real-life artist communities that I have been a part of remains to be seen.
JM: I like the idea of community as a site. The support and interaction of others that are making is important to me. Maybe that is something that the closer proximity of the population in a city affords those artists living and working there. What are some ways you foster this community for yourself?
AP: I agree. The larger population and closer proximity of artists living in a city may very well make it easier for creative people to find one another and build a community rather quickly. When I’m living in a rural area, I actively look for cultural events to attend (art exhibitions, book or poetry readings, theater performances, etc.) and seek out people who are willing to engage with me about their experience. Sometimes, I connect directly with an artist. Other times, I meet people from other walks of life who have a deep appreciation for the arts. And occasionally, I stumble upon an extant community – one that I might just tap into naturally.
JM: Do you perceive that your work is received differently when shown in a rural area, like where you currently live, than it was when you lived in a city?
AP: Certainly, I have seen differences in the experience of showing my work in a rural area vs. in a metropolitan area. The primary distinction is the turnout. You are more likely to get people who are just out and about in the city, looking for a variety of cultural experiences. In a more rural area, people will have to make an effort to travel to see an exhibition; it’s a more intentional action. I have found that the people coming to see my work outside of a metropolitan setting are more aware of my artwork in general and often come for specific reasons.
JM: There’s more public art and cultural institutions that support and promote the arts in a metropolitan area vs the rural setting. Do you have any influence on your local community that facilitates opportunities for Art?
AP: My primary contribution in this area is the development of an annual figurative art competition, held in the fall at the Lore Degenstein Gallery on the campus of Susquehanna University. When I began teaching at SU, I floated the idea to the gallery director, Daniel Olivetti, and he was very supportive. Initially, I was involved in the process of developing the structure of the show but now, in its 9th year, it is an entity in and of itself. As national exhibition, it brings an opportunity for people in our small town to see what is happening in the realm of figurative art in the United States. Many of the artists included in the show will travel to Selinsgrove to be present for the opening night, which has enabled me (and other area artists) to meet face-to-face. As a fairly well-established and well-funded exhibition, it is a great opportunity for all figurative painters, from small towns, big cities or anywhere in between, to connect.
JM: That is really great! Do you get many locals visiting that exhibition?
AP: We have gotten a good number of local people visiting this exhibition! Interestingly enough, I’ve met a lot of area artists this way. Perhaps we all seek community in the arts through events, at least initially. I’m grateful to have met visual artists, both local and otherwise, through this annual university exhibition.
JM: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. This blog helps me feel a bit more tethered to a community of working artists. I’m really glad that community is at the core of this conversation. I am hoping to meet more artists through this and hear how they are bringing art to their community. Is there anything you would like to end with?
AP: I am also excited about this blog and the opportunities it presents for dialogue. The idea of exploring “art on the periphery” – how it is made and the environment in which it thrives – is fertile ground for discussion. Thank you for inviting me to take part.
So, If you are an artist living and working on the “periphery,” please contact me.