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From Washington to Virginia: Chatting About Rural Art Residencies

Written by Jon Henry & Peter Christenson

From McBee Hill looking towards Richland, WA (USA), home of the Guest House Cultural Capital Residency

Harrisonburg, Virginia (USA), site of the Old Furnace Artist Residency

The following is a transcript of an interview exchange between artists Jon Henry, founder of Old Furnace Artist Residency (OFAR), a rural residency in Henry’s home in Harrisonburg, VA, and Peter Christenson, catalyst behind the Guest House Cultural Capital Residency (GHCC Res), a unique residency for cultural scholars in a student dormitory of Washington State University in Richland, WA.

PC: So, I was thinking it might make the most sense to first give some background about the places where we started our “rural” residencies, and then we can maybe talk further about why we elected to build programs in these regions, or why their trajectories and missions are unique because of their locations.

JH: Sure, that works for me. Should I start?

PC: Yeah, please, especially seeing as my program was partly influenced by OFAR and its mission and what you’ve been doing out in Harrisonburg.

JH: Well, I might start way back then; I grew up in Virginia’s Rappahannock County, which is one of the least populated and rural communities in the region. I was used to there being no TV signal, traffic lights, cell phone coverage, or chain stores. After drifting towards urban environments like New York City, Dubai, and Richmond, I found myself back in the Shenandoah Valley, which is very agrarian. I think it left me wondering about what ‘rural-­‐ness’ might be. Is it just population density, Internet speeds, tree counts, or social diversity demographics? I think we can all agree what urban is, but not the anti-­‐urban.

PC: That’s an interesting point, that “rural” is somehow often mistakenly defined only in relation to “urban,” or maybe it’s even a misconception that “rural” is somehow the antithesis of “urban”. I don’t know, somehow that seems awfully pejorative to me, like positioning “rural” as secondary, or even labeling “urban” as the hero, while rural is, what then—the “anti-­‐hero”? I will say, that in all honesty, being born and raised in and around Detroit and customarily living in major cities for most of my life, it’s been hard for me to not be city-­‐centric, to not always prioritize the urban. I have to check myself, I guess. Like when I’m talking about Richland (home of the GHCC Residency), I immediately compare it to Seattle, the largest city in the state (of Washington). And maybe that’s not right, to define something through comparison? I mean, Richland is more “small town” than city to me, surrounded by farms and big lots of land and countryside in the southeastern part of the state, it’s rural then, right? Its history is certainly linked to farming, and agriculture no doubt still remains an integral part of the community today. It has no clearly defined urban center, very limited infrastructure and architecture that one might find in a larger city; its politics tend to correlate with other rural areas. (Laughing) I’m defining through comparisons right now, aren’t I?

JH: Right! I find myself sometimes in a rural race to the bottom. Seeing what place might have more cows, fewer stoplights, more trees, less people, etc. I think it might be hard to define the urban or rural, especially between people: so post-­‐modern.

PC: Truth. (Laughing) Are we already post-­‐structuralizing this interview?

JH: (laughing)

PC: I mean, honestly though, I tend to have a much easier time defining urban, but I imagine it’s because of my experiences and exposure and being raised in and around cities—urban characteristics and attributes represent “the familiar” to me. But no city is the same, just like no rural setting is the same. Which is of course part of the reason why I started the GHCC Res, to challenge all of our ideas about this binary-­‐-­‐to give exposure and experience of “the rural” to the visiting residents, and to give the local region exposure to a broad spectrum of diverse folks from all over the world. At least that’s the hope.

JH: Exactly. And of course we have biases and our own interpretations of rural and urban, but you must be able to point to a particular moment during your drive from Seattle to Richland when you realize that you’ve just left the urban?

PC: (laughing) Of course, but it’s mostly based on geography, I guess. The switch from the built environment of Seattle, traffic and cranes and infrastructure, to the natural landscape—it feels immediate and jolting, really, like jumping from a trampoline to rock—urban to rural. I’d say the switch happens like just east of Issaquah, like, High Point area. You can actually see the transition pretty clearly via satellite imagery—it’s like gray buildings and then you cross a line and everything turns to green. Trees and foothills, and it’s pretty rural all the way through the Cascades to the Yakima valley, which is a big wine region, and farther east in Richland where the GHCC Res is located—and it stays pretty rural all the way to Idaho, actually. So (laughing), I guess most of Washington is arguably rural.

JH: (laughing) Arguably rural? Richland has close to 70,000 people, right? That’s not exactly a low population.

PC: Nah, you’re right; the Tri-­‐Cities, which includes Richland and 2 other mid-­‐sized towns, totals around 200,000 people, actually. (laughing) Might say that Richland is actually more “rural adjacent” than rural.

JH: (laughing) I hear you. Folks are always confused why I say OFAR is rural yet located in the city of Harrisonburg; but you go two blocks from the back door and you are in a 100 acre corn field!

PC: Right? Honestly, I’d like to believe, and maybe this is idealized nonsense, that the community itself has some say in defining its own label and cultural trajectory— sometimes I’m afraid that the “rural” brand tends to come with a lot of unwanted baggage that might not always apply to the place and its constituents. Am I being overly sensitive here? Maybe it’s totally not an issue or maybe I’m misreading? But isn’t that in part why we started these residency programs, to not only bring people from elsewhere to these communities, but to bring residents that can be of service to our community, helping to empower, and helping to define and ultimately enhance the cultural brand and collective identity of our locale? Or at least help figure this stuff out. I don’t know, don’t you think of this as culture building, or better yet, like cultural archiving, in a way?

JH: It seems like some places embrace a rural idea of isolation and tie that into some form of relaxing or escapist economic industry. Others folks on an agricultural identity and focus on developing out a brand for certain products like Halifax Cantaloupes, Shenandoah Apples, etc. I’ve been trying to be more conscious at OFAR to think about cultivating audiences; we really have developed a loyal attendance base.

PC: What do you mean, “cultivating audiences”?

JH: We know the audience isn’t a monolithic construct but a descriptor lacking a strong center. OFAR’s public events draw a diverse array of folks from our community: racial, sexually, gender, class, profession, etc. It’s been common to talk about connecting with our audience but we need to work to go beyond just having better outreach or co-­‐building programs with the audience; we need to also have accountability. I can host a queer performance artist and organize a show for the queer community; but I also want to check with my local comrades when they claim there just “isn’t anything ever happening;” then why weren’t you at the exhibition last week or the film festival the week before? If an audience-­‐community member has been asking for a specific program or event, and then doesn’t show up, there is a conversation. We co-­‐build the network but also ask the folks to bring their own networks into the work. It’s something ‘new’ that I’m thinking about in general: empathetic accountability. I think art folks sometimes get too timid when thinking about pleasing their audience, especially in socially engaged projects.

PC: But considering all of this, then why’d you elect to start it (OFAR) in Harrisonburg? You could have stayed in New York and done something similar; why rural Virginia? What were the goals and objectives? They must’ve been site specific then, right?

JH: After undergrad and grad school, I became tired with the pay-­‐for place model within our American Arts System. It seemed like everything cost money, attending a museum opening, going to a residency, applying for an exhibition, receiving a copy of your own exhibition catalogue, attending a class, etc. I wanted to counter that through OFAR by creating a free space for folks to live, imagine, work, and create. This foundation of freeness is important because it doesn’t just apply to our economic system but social. I wanted to be a place where folks could be free to be themselves. I think this is what has separated OFAR from other residencies where we are part of the local landscape and don’t treat it as a bucolic backdrop.

Harrisonburg, Virginia (USA), site of the Old Furnace Artist Residency

PC: I’m totally on board here. I absolutely wanted to incorporate the notion of “freeness” into the GHCC Res as well. It’s integral to the success of my program and mission—the idea of opening a home for someone, hosting, being hospitable. There are actually a couple of vanity galleries and pay-­‐for place spots that popped up recently around here, and it’s so counterproductive, in my mind. It doesn’t feel like a sustainable model for culture building; seems more like marginalizing and using artists and their wallets as opposed to working to support them in their pursuits. I really want the GHCC Res to represent an alternative to the money-­‐first, model of development; we really need it here in Richland, especially as a more rural community: a truly free, social arts program for researchers to come from all over and create and collaborate and grow.

JH: From your lips to god’s ears (laughing)

PC: (laughing) Does god have ears?

JH: (laughing)

PC: Maybe god is an ear. (Laughing). Given what you said though, regarding your mission with OFAR, does this influence the residents that you select to participate in the program? Do you, for example, seek out certain type of practices or research skillsets from the prospective artists?

JH: I often get asked what our curation guidelines are; I don't really have many because it seems that our way-­‐of-­‐being leads to a bit of self-­‐selection or curating. I (usually) work with everyone who applies to get them a few days at OFAR. I think that openness has lead to some amazing work, connections, and impact. We’ve had folks who are models of socially engaged practices or museum exhibitions and others who’ve just left undergrad or never had a public presentation of their work. It’s lead to an interesting formation of visiting artists.

PC: Right on, that seems like a collaborative and equal-­‐playing forum for exchange. I’m working to do the same at GHCC: cultivate open and democratic processes and engagement. And I think this is related—but something I try to be extra cautious of is working hard to avoid that “cultural colonialist” ugly dictator thing. These programs, or at least the research and creative output that happens at residencies, are reflections of the world, right, so they should support diverse paradigms and ways of thinking in a truly equitable and open way. All voices. But as a director or curator, selection of certain residents in respect to our “way-­‐of-­‐being”, can be somewhat tricky. I mean, it’s my way of being, right? So as an artist with a background in social work and having worked as a licensed psychotherapist for a number of years, I guess, for me, how best to serve as an agent of change, or how to best organize community art programs in a—you know—truly positive, healthy and sustainable kind of way, continues to be a real concern. Like I seriously don’t want to fuck it up. (laughing). And although I kind of operate within this “do no harm” model, I’m constantly aware of the lingering ass of imperialism as I do community-­‐ based work; especially as a white heterosexual American. (laughing) I just vomited a bit in my mouth.

JH: (laughing) I always wondered about doing a socially engaged project that went bad that the community rose up to squash it and rectify the problem on their own: without the artist.

PC: Like intentionally? (laughing) Seriously though, is this something you give a lot of thought to with OFAR and its curation and trajectory? How do you work to stay on the “right side” of history with a residency program? To truly be an advocate and supporter and inclusive of all communities during this process?

JH: I’ve rooted myself into a few community groups like Better Together and Southerners On New Ground. I think I spend a lot of my time listening; it’s part of the research for the work. It might be lofty but overthrowing capitalism and gender binaries seem like reasonable mission goals for OFAR. I think the ‘art’ of OFAR comes from imagining the process to the overthrow and the post-­‐overthrow moments. How might a fee-­‐free art system work? How might we share our housing resources? How can we hold ourselves accountable outside of political systems?

PC: I love this notion, the residency as revolution. I started an artist collective in Detroit with my brother a long time ago that was, in part, focused on rethinking or destabilizing capitalist paradigms in the art world, and we loved abusing Marxist rhetoric whenever possible: “artists of the world, unite!” was a common culture jam for us. I think this theme still applies to the GHCC Res as well; I’m still focused on a new order—something that’s free, open, accessible, community-­‐based, and truly social—especially in response to the current hegemonic art system that seems to marginalize and exclude, and respond only to money and celebrity. But I digress (laughing). And so like given the local art scene in Harrisonburg—wait, sorry, but what’s the art scene in Harrisonburg like right now? Has it changed since OFAR started?

JH: I think the art scene in Harrisonburg is tiring out; this isn’t just a guess but based upon dialogue from the recent Shenandoah Valley Arts Summit that OFAR co-­‐hosted back in the spring. There are a multitude of reasons such as time, resources, etc. But, it is also a structural issue from how the scene developed and was nurtured via a Richard Florida’s Creative Class model. The City was the first in the Commonwealth to formalize its arts district yet it was YEARS before there was even a public mural in that spot. There is LOTS of making and exhibiting yet it doesn’t seem like a lot of BUYING. It seems like every bar and restaurant is open to freely hanging art yet they stipulate a bit on content. The curation isn’t based upon the ‘value of content’ but the ‘adverse affects’ on sandwich or coffee sales. I believe you actually updated the city’s “cultural history” on Wikipedia during your stay?

PC: I did indeed do some “cultural capital” updating during my OFAR stay. I’ve always thought it’s important to make cultural archives, if you can call them that, available and accessible for all folks. Museums do this with collections-­‐-­‐several even going online, right? Why not do this with a community’s cultural archive, especially in smaller towns where there’s no museum or organization publicizing this stuff? Wikipedia is a fun and democratic tool to disseminate data. And I also think that the community should have a say in the development and presentation of these archives and this is a pretty easy way to champion some cultural elements of a community and get a broad continuum of participants involved and engaged. And to address some of your comments about Harrisonburg’s scene—in my opinion, making and exhibiting are good signs, but not always the sole indicators of sustainable arts development—long term sustainability seems clearly linked to long term funding, the economics of art, right? I don’t know, but it seems, and it’s unfortunate and sad maybe, but cultural and symbolic capital of a community almost always seem positioned in relation to monetary value. Will your art sell more sandwiches at my café, is like, Bourdieu 101, right? (laughing). But do you—I mean—given all of this—is there still a place and need for OFAR there?

JH: When I started OFAR, I openly stated that it would only last three years from 2013-­‐16 to emphasize its temporary nature hoping to catalyze energy and ensure folks didn’t feel betrayed when it closed. It’s still ongoing and folks still come to our programs. I will be moving it to a new town, New Market, about 30 minutes north of Harrisonburg. I am sure we’ll still stay entangled in Harrisonburg but I'm curious to see the new networks that form up in Shenandoah County. I want to approach it with an open mind. Do you have any jitters about your residency starting?

PC: (laughing) Yeah, a bit nervous, but mostly excited and optimistic. Which I think our community really needs, a sense of optimism and energy, especially related to cultural archiving and sustainable creative development. So yeah, I’m pumped to see these new ideas and approaches to making in our community, and I’m excited for our region to respond to these folks and programs. My first resident is on her way, coming from Canada, and she’s planning on hosting a series of community meetings and sessions around the communicative experiences of “touch;” seems like a lovely metaphor for the start of a residency program aimed at making an impact.

Peter Christenson is a multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker, and educator originally from Metro Detroit. He is co-­‐founder of Left of Centre, a guerrilla-­‐marketing firm and artist collective, and he is the catalyst behind the interventionist magazine and collaborative outfit Null Set. Christenson has lectured, exhibited, and screened his work across the United States and internationally. He currently works as an Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Washington State University. (Website:

Jon Henry :  "I seek to develop new connections, visions, communities, and economies in my work. My practice is rooted in sculpture; I am particularly interested in space’s social, relational, and communal forms. Since moving back to Virginia, I have become more interested in creating works based in and on the land. Part of this project includes the development of an artist residency, Old Furnace Artist Residency, which offers (free) creative spaces to encourage emerging, community based, and/or politically motivated art. The project services as the overarching title and ‘institution’ for a variety of my community and land based projects. (Website:

Images courtesy of  Jon Henry and Peter Christenson

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