When you cross the border between Western Illinois and Eastern Iowa, you suddenly find yourself in the Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area. Unlike the pristine and ranger-heavy national park system, designed to somehow both welcome huge numbers of humans and prevent them from leaving any mark on the landscape, a national heritage area is a fairly low-level congressional designation. It denotes a place in which people have made some kind of distinctive cultural mark on the local geography, or once did. Nostalgia in the face of technological and economic change is a common theme.
Silos and Smokestacks is a nod, of course, to the primary visual notes of this part of middle America—the farms that produced the goods and the train lines that shouldered those goods outward, county by county, state by state. This being the contemporary farm belt, though, there are fewer silos than before, and more subdivisions, taking root in the corners of the fields as if in direct defiance of the ancient Torah decree—the one that orders us to leave each of those corners to grow free and unpicked, so that the poor might take what they need. Instead of the gleanings of the fields, there are mortgages and driveways.
Even with the housing construction, there are still many, many open fields along both sides of the highway. At this time in May they are mostly promise rather than actual growth. An irrigation apparatus stretches across a field like the skeleton of a very long lizard. Underneath everything is brown. Across the way, a John Deere tractor plows the outer rim of a corn field, throwing thick dust on the plywood of the half-built ranch houses that sit on land the John Deere man sold away.
I had started driving at six-thirty that morning, heading from my home in Appalachian Ohio to the central part of Iowa. Once I escaped Columbus’s orbit (and its early morning traffic), the roads became so straight I steered with a single finger on the wheel. With cruise control and well-balanced tires, driving through the middle states is an act requiring little intervention. Miles passed under the car like loose thoughts. Every time I blinked, another half-hour had gone by.
I was heading to a three-week residency at Grin City, an artists’ residency on built on a farm in Grinnell, Iowa. Grinnell is a tiny town arranged around a tiny (though intellectually mighty) liberal arts college. Five minutes in any direction and the corn fields resume their hold on the landscape. Grinnell is, as one of the residency directors told me, “one hour from everything”—everything, in this case, being Iowa City, Ames and Des Moines, arranged in a lopsided triangle around the center of the state.
I was pursuing the main goals a writer has at a residency: time to write and create. But I also chose Grin City for a particular reason. This semester, I spent some time investigating and teaching notions of creativity and innovation, and what environments tend to promote them. It’s easy—too easy—to divide our country into places that are creative (East Coast, West Coast), and others (the middle states) that are not. At the same time, there is real truth to the notion that the great urban centers, with their wealth of public spaces and myriad opportunities for the collision of ideas, promote creativity. (Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From has an excellent explanation of why and how innovation increases with urban scale).
An artist’s residency has many of the core features that promote innovation: time for ideas to percolate, opportunities to see how other artists work and how they grapple with their problems, space for hunches to meet other hunches and make a good idea, as Johnson describes it. But I was curious how Grin City, as an entity, would function with relatively few places around like it. Would Grin City itself be a kind of isolated rural artist, struggling mostly alone?
An artists’ residency is a balance of both solitude and collaboration. Each has its particularities and features. Here, in connection to the local landscape, the residency doubles as a working farm. Outreach is another point of emphasis; each resident is obliged to devote time to community activities designed to make use of the artists’ skills. (Another set of hours is spent working in the sustainable garden.) Community outreach isn’t necessarily foregrounded at every residency; some lean much more toward protecting their artists’ time. But at Grin City, an effort toward visibility is particularly necessary. One of the residency directors put it simply: “Otherwise, no one will know we’re here.” But outreach has a broader benefit: it’s also a way to increase the creativity in the broader geographic space, a more urgent notion when a place is isolated.
And that creativity is happening in other places too, not nearby, exactly, but not too far, either. One night we drove the hour to Des Moines to attend the opening of the Des Moines Social Club, a remarkable space seven years in the making. Built from a former firehouse, it features a black box theater, a dance studio, classrooms with lists of arts activities for various ages, a gallery, an outdoor music space—and, in a nod to different types of foot traffic, both a fine restaurant and a comic book store.
It’s the kind of place that inspires. David Byrne (yes, David Byrne) gave the opening speech (“I just popped in on my way back to New York”), talking about the value of investing in the arts in non-major urban areas, but to tell the truth he was upstaged by a group that came before him, Movement 5, a spoken word poetry company made up of Des Moines high schoolers. “We represent the minority, the voiceless,” said a Vietnamese-American boy, who then delivered a rhythmic, impassioned piece about feeling torn between flashy sneakers and respecting his parents’ small incomes. He was followed by a young girl who narrated the process of coming out to her Christian parents. This event in her life did not go well, we understood, though her piece was beautiful. Movement 5 meets at North Central high school every Thursday afternoon. Send all your children their way.
Back in Grinnell, I had an opportunity to make my own contribution to the landscape. As part of my work at Grin City, we installed sections of one of my recent essays across three large windows in the Drake Community Library, a new and energetic building that functions as so many public libraries do—as the unheralded hub of intellectualism, civic organizations, and education for its citizens, a thinking public space of a particular kind. Just a few paragraphs took hours to put up (and I learned a lot about vinyl cutting and installation), but that only seems fair, since the work is likely to be there for decades or more, which is an idea I’m having a difficult time processing, to be honest.
It’s rare that a writer has the opportunity to contribute something so lasting to a residency or its surroundings. (I always envy the sculptors for this.) But I did the usual residency things too: wrote a lot, exchanged ideas, stayed up too late on a few occasions. I came to Grinnell with a trunk full of groceries, a couple of bottles of red wine, a few clothes and plenty of books to carry me through. I’ll be going back with fewer groceries (and certainly no wine), but plenty of new work, good artist friends, future possibilities, and much to think about as I travel the straight lines toward home.