Winter in Green River is typically a time to hunker down by the fire at home. You can rarely find residents venturing outdoors in the Winter at night, except maybe en route to a Green River basketball game. (Go Pirates!) This year was a different story, though, as Epicenter in partnership with the City of Green River, hosted the first annual “Ignite the Night” on South Broadway in Green River to bring people together and celebrate the unveiling of new lighted signs on Main Street.
The evening got started with a bang! Quite a few bangs, actually: a custom fireworks display by Marisa Frantz and Lisa Ward. The display began as a slow-burning fuse that set off a highly-anticipated series of events that could best be described as a pyrotechnic Rube Goldberg machine. Though the fireworks were seen and heard for miles, up-close was the real show. The team had rigged up an elaborate “ladder” of sparkling fuses hung over the street that led to an unlit bonfire in front of the Green River Fire Department.
Once the bonfire erupted into flames, the team celebrated the successful chain reaction alongside an audience of over 60 spectators. The bonfire lighting signaled that it was time for s’mores, chili, hot cocoa, and a live music performance by Clive Romney and friends at the Green River Firehouse. Clive Romney, Executive Director of Utah Pioneer Heritage Arts, was joined by Hank Mason and Jana Wells of Grand Junction, Colorado. They sang original songs of Utah’s rural heritage, pioneers, and folktales. Armed with glow-bracelets and LED accessories, the all-ages audience swelled to over 80 participants who danced and sang along with the musicians.
Those in attendance hope this celebration can become an annual tradition. Epicenter Principal Maria Sykes explains, “We held this event in the dead of winter to bring people together during a time when we tend to be kind of reclusive in our homes. I love that we can do this sort of thing in Green River. To adapt a Phil Conners quote, ‘Standing amongst the people of Green River and basking in the warmth of their hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.’ Sure, Ignite the Night will never be something as big as Groundhog Day, but it’s in the same spirit.”
Mayor Pat Brady shares, “I was not sure what to expect at Ignite the Nite. My expectations were greatly exceeded. The artists hired for the neon lights, the new welcome sign, and the fireworks were absolutely the right people to have done it. Clive Romney and his two vocalists were a perfect fit for the evening. Great lights, great music, great food, and a great crowd. Hopefully, next year even more of the community will participate.”
During the week leading up to the event, a team of designers and builders led by artist Lisa Ward had been busy completing the reason for the Ignite the Night celebrations: the creation and refurbishing of lighted signs on Main Street in a project called Green River Lights. Made possible through the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Program, Epicenter created a new neon welcome sign for Green River (located on the South side of Main Street just West of the Green River Medical Center) and a new neon sign on the Green River Coffee Company, and partially refurbished the La Veracruzana sign, formerly the Ben’s Cafe sign. Clive Romney also held music and storytelling workshops throughout the week for the youth of Green River at the High School, Book Cliff Elementary, Pyramid Youth Programs (PACT), and the Green River Library.
Also unveiled at Ignite the Night was [light], a prototype for a lighted-bench designed in partnership with the University of Utah College of Architecture + Planning. [light] is currently on display in front of Epicenter (180 South Broadway, Green River, Utah), but will move to Main Street once more benches are fabricated and installed.
This project and event was made possible with support from: AmeriCorps VISTA, Ryan Baxter, Bryan Brooks, Erin Carraher, City of Green River, Alison Jean Cole, Steph Crabtree, Phil Engleman, Marisa Frantz, Amber Furrer, Mike Goode, The Green River Coffee Company, Green River EMS, Green River Fire Department, Jarod Hamm, Christopher Henderson, Mary Holyoke, La Veracruzana restaurant, Chris Lezama, Lite Brite Neon, Juan Lovato, Kitty Marshall, Hank Mason, Oregon Arts Commission, PACT, Gwen Peck, P&L Electrical, Sara Polito, Waly Pont, Justin Queen, The River Terrace Inn, Robber’s Roost Motel, Clive Romney, Sorenson Legacy Foundation, Nate Stapley, Maria Sykes, Steve & Juanita Sykes, University of Utah: College of Architecture + Planning, Utah Pioneer Heritage Arts, Lisa Ward, Lesa Weihing-Madsen, Jana Wells, Amy Wilmarth, Colin Zaug, and the Green River community.
Please visit our blog in the near future for a film by Ryan Baxter documenting the Green River Lights project and Ignite the Night event.
As we wrap up multiple projects during these winter months our organization becomes faced with a low cash flow as we wait for new grants to start and reimbursements to be filed. We graciously ask for your help with any monetary donations you can contribute and we’re ready to offer some great items as a thank you for your support.
Epicenter exists because of you and we thank you for all your support.
Donate here and view the swag below.
$20+ – A Rural And Proud tote bag
$25+ – A copy of Interstate Works
$50+ – A tee or tank
$75+ – A Green River Flag
$100+ – A copy of A Call to Place
$200+ – 3 nights stay at the Frontier House
$250+ – A Frontiersmen subscription
$500+ – A week-long stay at the Frontier House
Most of these items are limited in availability, so act fast!
A Call to Place: the first five years of the Frontier Fellowship is a publication created in tandem with the exhibition of the same name at the Rio Gallery in downtown Salt Lake City, March 18 – May 13, 2016. A Call to Place features 50 visiting artists and collaboratives who have each spent up to a month in residence generating place-based work in Green River, alongside the community. Curated by Maria Sykes, Bryan Brooks, and Corbin LaMont; design by Corbin LaMont; featuring essays by Nicole Lavelle, Miles Mattison, Cyrus Smith, and Charlotte XC Sullivan.
Interstate Works by Sarah Baugh & Nicole Lavelle: Completed in 2015 and 2016, this series of gestures, inquiries, and small projects looks at Green River through the interstate. This document is a catalog of works that build upon and follow their collaborative Green River work from 2011–2014, notably community publications The Green River Newspaper (2012) and The Green River Magazine (2013).
Rural And Proud Bags: Our most popular item, these bags are printed in-house and were designed by Frontier Fellow Nicole Lavelle. We’ve sold hundreds of these; won’t you join the rural revolution?
Stay at the Frontier House: We recently completed our first Frontier House, a prototype for affordable housing in the high desert of Utah, and you can stay in it. The house will be furnished with a kitchen and free wifi. You will be able to join the Epicenter staff in dinner, sunset viewing, and beach days! Since this house will also be used to house volunteers, there will be some blackout dates. Once you donate, we’ll work with you to get you the date that works best for everyone.
Tees and tanks: Now you can proudly let the world know what you love most about Green River by wearing these fabulous T-shirts featuring the best of the desert. Sunset Club, Swasey’s Beach, or Black Pyramid. All shirts are screen-printed by hand in our workshop in Green River on 100% cotton Bella & Canvas shirts. Designed by Geoffrey Holstad, 2015 Frontier Fellow. Quantities are limited and colors may vary, but we’ll do our best to give you the design of your choosing.
A Green River Flag: Through an extensive community-engagement process, Frontier Fellow Ashley Ross and AmeriCorps VISTA Jarod Hamm designed a community flag for Green River. Buy one and fly it high even (especially?!) if you’re not in Green River.
Frontiersmen subscription: Can’t decide on what you want, but want to donate over $250? Become a Frontiersman! Frontiersmen receive physical mailings every other month. Mailings may include apparel, chapbooks, zines, newspapers, film prints, Green River delicacies, music CDs, or DVDs!
—For immediate release:
Green River, Utah – The National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu has approved more than $30 million in grants as part of the NEA’s first major funding announcement for fiscal year 2017. Included in this announcement is an Art Works grant of $20,000 to Epicenter to support community engagement activities celebrating oral histories, folklore, and narrative traditions of Green River. This project will engage artists, musicians, filmmakers, archivists, storytellers, and/or designers to discern and celebrate Green River’s rural pride and pioneering spirit. These artists will express and disseminate various stories and narratives through their preferred artistic media to create a well-designed and thoughtful way of engaging these narratives. Planned activities include interviews of local residents, the design of publications, recording of local stories and music, performances of new work, production of short films, and community gatherings.
The Art Works category focuses on the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts, and the strengthening of communities through the arts.
“The arts are for all of us, and by supporting organizations such as Epicenter, the National Endowment for the Arts is providing more opportunities for the public to engage with the arts,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “Whether in a theater, a town square, a museum, or a hospital, the arts are everywhere and make our lives richer.”
“Our visiting artist program, the Frontier Fellowship, has a seven-year history of discerning and celebrating the local culture of Green River. I can’t wait to for community members to be engaged in these artists’ processes. I, personally, look forward to witnessing the innovative interpretations and contemporary presentations of the stories of my neighbors and fellow community-members by our visiting artists,” says Epicenter Principal of Arts & Culture Maria Sykes. “Our list for potential artist participants includes Caitlin Denney (digital media archivist), Clive Romney (composer/musician), Ryann Savino (writer), and Tristan Wheelock (photographer/filmmaker).”
For more information on projects included in the NEA grant announcement, visit arts.gov/news.
While a city logo provides a face for the local government and marketing campaigns work to attract outsiders, a flag gives the community itself a symbol to rally behind and a tangible way to show civic pride. Green River has had banners and flag proposals in the past, but no community flag has ever existed until now.
Frontier Fellow Ashley Ross and AmeriCorps VISTA Jarod Hamm worked together with the community to create a flag for Green River. They began by surveying residents and researching town history, learning what symbols, colors, and shapes were representative of Green River’s past, present, and future. With this information in mind they sketched, refined, sketched some more, and presented 20 rough options to community members at a design workshop for the city’s downtown plan.
From the community feedback, three finalists were designed and a voting booth was created to determine the winner during the week of Melon Days, an over 100-year festival celebrating the melon harvest. One option was the overwhelming favorite among Green River locals and visitors to Melon Days with over 60% of the vote.
Also in September, Jarod visited two of Mrs. Suarez’ Green River High School sewing classes to teach about flag symbolism, design, and history. Students designed flags to represent each of their respective families based on the principles outlined in class. They then made the flags by hand as an introduction to basic sewing, and displayed them next to the voting booth at Melon Days.
When consulting with the community, it was very clear that their flag should include watermelon which has a longstanding tradition in Green River’s agricultural history, and the Book Cliffs that define the town landscape. The flag begins with a meandering green stripe to represent the titular river and also pay homage to the famous Green River melons. It flows below a dusty red-orange silhouette of the iconic Book Cliffs. When we look above, big blue skies are represent not only Green River’s climate, but also its outlook. The star is split by the crossroads of river, rail, and road, referencing the town’s identity as a waypoint, and the sections radiating from the center also give tribute the missile base of the past. It is rotated at an 18.83° angle for the year that “Greenriver” got its name.
This is just the beginning of the journey for our flag, and we hope that residents of Green River will be proud to fly it high.
To order a flag: Fill out this form or stop by Epicenter. To decrease cost, there will be one large order once enough individual orders have been submitted. We will contact you to collect the payment.
—An essay by Epicenter Principal Jack Forinash.
Housing Security and Affordability as a Critical Component of Addressing Intergenerational Poverty
Coming to Green River eight years ago, I had some (albeit not much) experience in the development of single-family affordable homes. I naively thought I’d build a house in my year as an AmeriCorps member and that would serve as a replicable model that could address the lack of affordable, durable housing that I was seeing as a newcomer to town both as I was welcomed into the homes of my new neighbors and as I researched the data from local and national sources that tracked housing affordability. For this replicable model, I looked for a family and found one; I worked with those kids each day in an after-school program and got to know them and slowly got to know the larger community. I realized quickly that one house was not going to be a game changer in Green River. This place, like any other place, had embedded within it well-rooted systems, biases, and preclusions.
Low-income populations are especially vulnerable to instability and cost burdens in housing, with children most at risk. In Green River, 48% of children (age 0-18) are living in households in poverty. To make that point clear, nearly 1 in 2 kids in Green River are living in households earning a gross annual income of $24,300 or less (this income threshold is for a family of 4; the value changes annually and is based on household size: view here). These “extremely low-income households” (a defined term, not just hyperbole) are much more likely to be housing cost-burdened. It makes sense that as a household earns more money, it is able to afford housing costs more easily, as housing costs are not directly proportional to household income levels. According to the US Census Bureau’s 2015/2014 American Community Survey, 83% of all households in the US with annual incomes of less than $20,000 are spending more than 30% of their income on essential housing costs (rent, water, sewer, electricity, and heat/AC). In Green River, that number is 96%. For households between $20,000 and $34,999, 60% of Green River households are cost-burdened. Green River’s median household income is $38,906 (meaning, half the households in town earn under $38,906 and half earn above that amount). To simplify this train of thought (and in case you got confused by all the numbers), it’s safe to say simply this: regardless of renter-occupied or owner-occupied housing, regardless of race and ethnicity, regardless of family composition, over 1 out of every 2 households in Green River are housing cost-burdened. If that’s a household earning under $20,000 in Green River, you can be right nearly every time that that household is cost-burdened. Comparatively, looking at the other side of that median household income, 31% of Green River households earn over $50,000. Of those households, no households (0%) are spending over 30% of their income on housing.
In my opinion, the home (not the house, but the “home”) is the smallest unit of measure of a community. Its stability or instability affects the most vulnerable populations (children, the elderly, the disabled) the highest. I’ll focus on children, as they have the least choice in the matter of their home. A typical low-income family in Green River has both heads of household working. And typically these moms and dads work multiple jobs simultaneously. Jobs here are often minimum or below-minimum wage (minimum wage in Utah is already at the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour; hotels and restaurants are lawfully permitted to pay even less than that). Jobs here are also seasonally affected, with hours cut or layoffs made during the slow winter time from late October to early May. This coincidentally is the most expensive time to live in Green River, with high utility costs for heat (Green River has no natural gas; most families use propane that incurs dramatic price increases in winter) and nighttime lighting due to our latitude where the sun sets before 5 PM.
Should a family be cost-burdened, decisions are made that attempt to keep the household afloat. Rent/mortgage is paid first so that there is no eviction. Essential utilities next. Transportation to work is also a priority. Often that’s a car here, so there’s also state-required insurance, annual inspections, and passing safety inspections that may require repairs such as new tires or windshield replacement. Oh, there’s also food, of course. And clothes. These essential human needs (shelter, water, food, and clothing) can easily exceed what is available in a household that is spending well over 30% of their income on housing. This leaves parents to have to make inhumane decisions. Lower quality food (more preservative-based items, cheaper items high in sugar and fillers) becomes a requirement so that kids are not hungry. This poisons the metabolism and internal health of kids, affecting their lifelong health, making them sick more often as kids and setting them up for permanent health conditions.
Should families not be able to afford utilities and balanced meals, stress placed on the kids by being cold and underfed with poor diets leads to sleep-burdened nights and reduced mental activity that directly leads to poor educational achievement during the day at school. Compound that by our place, where there is one class per grade, and kids get left behind when they are not able to keep up. Now the child is poorly performing to the point that they do not have the grades to get into a quality higher education institution. They lose confidence as other kids tell them they are dumb and they start to believe it. Their potential job opportunities are narrowed to low-paying service jobs or high-risk positions.
When I attended Rural Studio in 2004, I had to spend a week helping repairing a past project, as was the requirement for each student. It taught us to be stewards of the projects of Rural Studio and inherently spoke to the idea that things change in a home and we need to better predict that inevitable change. I helped on the Haybale House in Mason’s Bend, Alabama, Rural Studio’s first house. Since its completion ten years prior, the home’s owner had since had both legs removed due to diabetes (a disease directly related to poor diet). I worked with a fellow student and a Rural Studio staff member to take out the tub in the one-bathroom house and lay low-profile tile so she could roll into the shower. As we worked one day, a visitor arrived that turned out to be a grandson of the matriarch. I remember he drove a new model crimson Ford Mustang. On the front porch (in what he probably saw as small talk but I still recall vividly), he told me that this house had been important to him. One of the iconic “wagon wheel” sleeping nooks had been built specifically for him. For the first time, he told me, he had a place to come home to each day, the same place each day. Prior to that, he’d not be sure where he was to get dropped off at, his mom’s, his aunt’s, his grandparents’, his other aunt’s. There at this house, as a young boy, he had his space. He had a place he could do his homework (the nook consisted of a small twin bed and a desk). He told me that he had graduated from the University of Alabama and and was now finishing his law degree from the same university (even though it’s Alabama [I know the jokes], I’ll point out the law school at Alabama is currently ranked #28 in the nation). He said, directly and succinctly, that the reason, the reason, he was able to succeed was because of this house and how it was designed to provide for him a place to come home to each day after school.
I’ve heard, growing up, about the American Dream, the idea that everyone has the opportunity to be whatever they want if they just try, and about “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.” What I have come to understand through working here with this community is that yes, in America, you can often improve your life and the life of your children. However, the opportunity for the “rags to riches” fairy tale is just that, a fairy tale. It happens rarely. More commonly, poverty begets poverty. Our American system today does not start everyone on the same playing field. I think we all agree on that. I don’t know, though, that everyone admits the cycle of intergenerational poverty is being predicted at birth. This prediction is possible to overcome, with diligence and, honestly, luck. But it’s a very steep hill.
A professor of mine at Auburn once said to me, “As you learn more, you’ll see that poverty is less a factor of an individual’s work ethic and more a result of circumstance.” We don’t choose for ourselves our ancestry, race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, country of birth, familial religion, or any identifier that becomes either an impediment or advantage in our world. By chance, I was born to a loving, stable family in the suburban American South. My family, led by my small business-owning parents, were able to provide all that was needed and much that was wanted. By no choice of mine, I was born white, middle-class, and to a family that expected educational achievement. On my first day alive, I was far ahead other babies born on the same day to a different family and place, and by no effort of my own. As we all have, I’ve had hurdles to overcome. I made something of myself, from my advantage and from the stoic support of my family and community. I never had to be uncertain that my home would be there; I never was hungry. I took this all for granted. We all often accept as a default something that was in fact mere chance. Now, as we recognize and acknowledge this, we must do all we can to help level the playing field for our neighbors. My passion, where I see I can be most helpful, is in doing all I can to improve access to affordable housing for the most vulnerable populations. I work to eliminate substandard housing in Green River, my home that has been a place where I’ve built programming alongside the mayor, postmaster, grocery store worker, Chow Hound employee, West Winds waitress, hotel housekeeper, and hardware store staff member; I’ve been encouraged by them and they have taught me what works best to get things done in this unique place with our specific idiosyncrasies. We’ve developed together, as a community, a belief that affordable, decent, and even noble shelter should be a birthright in America, regardless of place, being, and circumstance.
Your passion and your role is different that mine, coming from your life experience and your place in your community. I look for your support in what I take on, and I hope to be a source of ardent encouragement for what you are able to do to positively affect the lives of your own neighbors. After all, we’re all stuck here together for a little bit, no one of us can do much alone, and in general we’re all willing to give of our time when we’re asked; we might as well learn more about each other, find out where each one’s passion lies, and together do something more than the status quo.
—An informal interview by Epicenter Principal Jack Forinash and incoming Citizen Designer AmeriCorps VISTA Jarod Hamm.
Video: “Instead of using matboard and paper to show my work, I coded my website to be run using the portfolio case itself.” – Jarod Hamm
Jack Forinash: How does this Epicenter Citizen Designer AmeriCorps VISTA position in Green River, Utah, fit into your life?
Jarod Hamm: I’m from a small rural town in Kansas and as I’ve lived in and visited other places I’ve come to realize how special it is to have a thriving community in the “middle of nowhere.” I want to be a part of creating and maintaining that environment for the next generation, and I’m interested in seeing how I can do that with design. Hopefully I can use what I learn in Green River to benefit my own rural hometown in the future.
JF: Who are you named after? If not anyone in particular, why did you parents chose this specific name?
JH: I don’t think the name has any significance, but the odd spelling is after my Dad, Rodney. My older brother makes passive aggressive jokes about not being the namesake.
JF: Do you have any siblings? If so, where are you in birth order and how has that affected your view of the world?
JH: I have one brother who is six years older. We were far enough apart that our lives were somewhat separate, and we half-joke that we’re both only children. But I always wanted to do the things he was doing, so I would try to act more mature than I actually was. As we’ve gotten older we’ve become disconcertingly similar, but so far it’s been a good thing.
JF: What about the natural landscape around Green River excites you most?
JH: I really haven’t been west of the Rockies before, so I’m excited to see something totally new and unfamiliar. I’m imagining a Wile E. Coyote sort of vibe. I’m also a big fan of river floating.
JF: What book, movie, or person is significant to your work/process/life, and why?
JH: Candide, especially the final chapter. He decides that the only bearable way to live is to cultivate the garden and “work without speculation.” It’s a reminder to me not to get caught up in theory at the expense of actually making something and being useful.
JF: What were you for the last Halloween? What were you for the first Halloween you remember?
JH: It sounds really sad, but I had just moved to Romania and didn’t really know anyone, so last Halloween I was “Alone.” The first Halloween I remember, I was Hall of Fame halfback, Barry Sanders. I imagine my Dad had some influence on my choice.
JF: You’re an Aries. Do you invest any credit into the typical attributes of an Aries?
JH: This is the first I’m hearing of it, so I guess I can’t say. After reading a bit, I hope it’s not totally true because they sound kind of abrasive.
JF: Your Myers-Briggs Typology is ISTP. Do you feel it’s accurate?
JH: This seems a lot closer than the Zodiac did. I especially liked the phrase “uncomplicated in their desires,” or at least I hope that’s true of me. Also “interested in how and why things work” I think is pretty accurate. But I don’t know where my “risk-taking/extreme sports” side is. I like having both feet on flat ground usually. I also have no idea how anything mechanical works, and I hope I’m not “detached”…
JF: What would be (or what is) your superpower?
JH: I can sleep just about anywhere, at any time.
JF: What’s your favorite card or board game, and why?
JH: I think it has to be Dutch Blitz. I grew up playing with my family, but we never played by the real rules (I think to compensate for me being younger). I’ve also been workshopping a 21+ version called Dutch Schlitz. I’ll be bringing a deck!
Photo: Dutch Blitz, Kansas Edition by Hamm
JF: Finally, tell us about the work you’ve been doing with Hope Dies Last.
JH: Last summer, I helped Hope Dies Last in Budapest, Hungary, design a book for victims of sex trafficking to show love and encouragement as well as provide information on human rights and ways to get help. They’ve started printing and distributing 14,000 copies across six languages. People can learn more about what they do and see the book here.
Since then, I worked for Eliberare Design a non-profit agency in Bucharest, Romania, that sells design and web development to fund anti-trafficking campaigns and prevention work.
JF: We’re ecstatic for you to hop on a plane in Romania, fly across the ocean, and join the Epicenter team for a full year, Jarod! See you soon!
We have a unique opportunity for an exceptional individual with a wide and varied skill-set: a chance to live and work in a small town in Utah. To help citizens of this rural community lead better lives. To demonstrate the value of design in community problem solving. To gain a one-of-a-kind experience in an alternative model of professional practice. To learn new skills. To improve our non-profit. To improve yourself.
We believe this desert town can bloom, but there is work to be done. We’d like to work with you to do it. We’re hiring for the full-time position of Housing Specialist. This unique individual will lead the award-winning Fix It First home repair program, assist in the design and construction of Frontier Houses, and more. Download the details here.
Applications are due July 22nd, noon MST, emailed to email@example.com. Submit a cover letter, resume/CV with 2 professional references, and portfolio of relevant work not to exceed 8 pages and 5 MB, all as PDFs.
Epicenter has just received a $45,000 grant from American Express to fully fund the design, construction, and performance monitoring for the Frontier House!
At 650 SF and $36,000 (not including land and fees), the Frontier House is designed to be a housing prototype to address the overuse of mobile homes (“trailers”) in rural places, specifically in Green River where 28% of the housing units are trailers. These 133 Green River trailers house 49% of our population. Most of these homes (2 in 3) were built before 1976, before the federal government dictated minimum standard building codes. This means these homes are over forty years old, built with 2×2 very thin walls, and suffer from a lack of efficiency and durability. This prevalent issue has come to light as our Fix It First program began offering assistance to homeowners living in trailers by making critical home repairs. We soon discovered these old trailers were requiring more costs in repairs than the home was even worth, yet there were limited to no other housing options for these families that were affordable.
This new housing prototype seeks to bring homeownership within reach for our low-income populations. As a stick-built home, the Frontier House will serve as an asset for a family, rather than a depreciating “vehicle” as trailers are treated across the country. In this way, we hope to build a family’s wealth and home security so that they can escape intergenerational poverty and have an asset to borrow against for such things as higher education and entrepreneurship.
—A report from the field by Kirsten Southwell, Frontier Fellow.
When asked, “So what are you going to do in Utah?,” my response was, “Something about rocks.”
The vagueness was both a blessing and a curse. This was my first artist residency, and the lack of a plan left me worried that I wouldn’t be able to perform. In reality, I could not have ever premeditated the project that organically grew out of my time in Green River.
I started my learning about the raw materials native to the area, specifically in the context of the mining history of the region concerning coal, uranium, salt, gypsum, and potash. I was obsessed with how mines and tailing ponds looked from above—open wounds and unnaturally colored geometric ponds. I can’t fully articulate the source of my fantastical interest in mining, but I appreciate how Lucy R. Lippard explains her preoccupation with gravel pits:
“Like archaeology, which is time read backwards, gravel mines are metaphorically cities turned upside down, though urban culture is unaware of its origins and rural birthplaces… Their emptiness, their nakedness, and their rawness suggest an alienation of land and culture, a loss of nothing we care about.”
— Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West
The story of mining is the story of civilization. In modern times, the imagination for what is below continues to encourage the industry to thrive, both shaping and being shaped by the geological constraints and cultural demands of our world. This is especially true in the Colorado Plateau of Utah—where Green River sits—as a region of exceptionally rich natural history and diverse human interest. Here, we can see the triumphs and failures of the impact of mining in both the people and environment.
I visited mines to take pictures and collect specimens. I tried using different natural materials I collected to manipulate textiles: finding rusted metal for shibori, dissolving potash into mordant, applying salt crystals to wet dyed fabrics. While my experimentation veered into abstraction, I grounded myself by visiting the local John Wesley Powell museum archives, the Utah Natural History Museum, and a trip to the Western Railroad and Mining Museum in the neighboring town of Helper to attempt to understand what natural forces make the Colorado Plateau so rich and how what is underneath has shaped life above ground.
Pulling from my own professional background in the museum world, I decided that my project would be a digital museum exhibit called The Romance of Mining. It blends fact, fiction, and narrative to explore the financial and interpersonal value of natural resources, the lure of the mine, and our thirst to control our surrounding landscapes. All of my experiments and specimens are artifacts in my exhibition, including a quilt, a dress, a portrait series, and select pieces from local’s personal rock collections.
The work I made is only half the story. The project was very ambitious for just one month, and I felt endlessly exhausted. My sanity, positive attitude, and do-it-to-it spirit would have been completely impossible if not for the social backbone and community warmth from the people of Green River.
The people of Green River, and especially the Epicenter staff, are very generous. It’s one thing to move to a small town for a month, it’s another to move to a small town with an awesome group of thoughtful and hilarious people that will endlessly entertain and engage you. I have a tinge of sadness knowing that I won’t be here to tailgate for the next City Council meeting or scarf the ‘za with you all of you again soon, but am humbled to have met people so incredibly dedicated to their community.
On that note, I was also impressed with the respect that Epicenter has garnered here, and that respect seemed to be reflected onto myself by extension. The people that participated in my project were bringing me into their homes without question, sometimes without even meeting me in person. These were some of my favorite moments, watching people light up while talking about the rocks they decided to pick up a rock—out of an endless world of rocks—and bring home.
Life after this residency is a bit of a mystery to me. I have a little peace knowing I will get to continue wrapping up this project from home, and I hope that the emotional and mental effort I put into developing my artistic practice will continue. I look forward to following the work that is continues to happen here in Green River, and am so excited for all of the future fellows to fearlessly dive in and get weird. I’ll be leaving behind some rocks for you, and a cheat sheet of all the best mines.
Today, we bid farewell to a great collaborator and friend. Armando Rios, who first joined Epicenter as an AmeriCorps VISTA in 2012, will be leaving us for new opportunities in the great state of Michigan. Over his four years in Green River, Armando has helped Epicenter achieve momentous things, including:
– the completion of the first Green River Habitat for Humanity House,
– raising $70,500 in grants for Habitat for Humanity and serving a year-and-a-half on their Board of Directors,
– starting and developing Fix It First, recipient of the Utah Housing Coalitions’s 2014 Rural Project of the Year,
– 37 Fix It First project completed, affecting 100 Green River Residents and repairing 25% of the 146 homes identified by the Green River Housing Plan as in need of repairs, and
– raising $93,000 in grants for Epicenter, and self-generating $40,305 for the Fix It First program through client repayments that sustain the program perpetually.
We will miss his service, unparalleled work ethic, drumming abilities, and mirthful excitement. Below are some of our fondest memories of Armando and Green River.
5. (Almost) Every Taco Tuesday: Taco Tuesday has been a tradition since Epicenter’s inception: every Tuesday at 11:30 AM the staff goes to a local Mexican eatery (cue the never-ending La Veracruzana v. La Pasadita debate) and eat lunch (sometimes actual tacos) together. Regardless of the potential for slow service or mixed-up orders, Armando is always down for Taco Tuesday, and I love that about him.
4. Church Camp (circa July 2014): During Armando’s time in Green River, he’s always been the drummer for the house band. Of all the times they played, my favorite night was actually just a random Church Camp practice. It had been a +100-degree July day, but we had just been blessed with a late-afternoon rainstorm. With the garage doors open, a cool breeze, and the multi-colored Christmas lights reflecting off the wet concrete driveway, Chris Lezama and Armando played to an audience of me and a few others. Everything felt just right.
3. The Battle of Westwater (July 21, 2014): Every summer in July, Epicenter goes on a Westwater rafting trip. On the second day of the 2014 trip, a great naval battle was waged. I don’t recall the details of the battle, as much of it was a blur, but I could guess that while Chris was attempting to water-board me, Justin Queen was probably Hulk-smashing Armando into the river. Or maybe he was just peacefully hiding under the shade of the raft. You never quite know with Armando.
2. GRHS Basketball: I love going to sports games of all kinds, I always know that I could count on Armando to join me in cheering on the Green River High basketball team. The DJ G. Riches jams and semi-warm nachos just won’t be the same without Armando’s nervous panicking during the last few minutes of the closest rivalry games.
1. Grand Canyon: Epicenter has a tradition of road trip staff retreats, and the 2013 trip to the Grand Canyon puts all other road trips to shame: swimming in cold Lake Powell on the hottest day of our lives, sleeping on the edge of the Grand Canyon without another soul for miles, finding scorpions by blacklight at night, learning how (not) to dribble an Australian rugby ball. I worry that we’ll never have as good a trip as that one.
None of these memories are directly work-related. That’s not to say that Armando wasn’t an incredibly valuable asset to Epicenter’s work; he built the Fix It First program up from the ground! He will be missed in the office, but he will especially be missed as a contributor to the culture of Epicenter after-hours and to the community of Green River at large. He’s our ambassador of good times, sultan of summer, bringer of beats, dancer to Pony, lover to all, and the most fashionable longboarder/cyclist for over 100 miles.
You’ve left your mark on this place, Armando, and you won’t soon be forgotten.
– Maria Sykes, Principal of Arts and Culture, 2009-present
Despite his self-infatuation as a Leo, Armando is quick to speak of his love for each of us: those here now, those in the past. The “I love you”‘s he throws out to everyone can come across as flippant, but in quieter moments we’ve had one-on-one, I can honestly say he’s actually very genuine in his care for us all, noting specific reasons and lengthy stories that he holds on to. For years he served as the Volunteer House on-site manager, often the first to welcome the hundreds of people that have visited with a hand-written note, local tips, and an invitation to watch the sunset. It’s not uncommon that people recall a story with Armando as a key component of their time here in Green River, no matter the length of their visit. It’s Armando’s everyone’s-always-invited attitude that I hope we find a way to maintain after he leaves.
Beyond that, he simply gets shit done. He has been at the bad end of plumbing, in tiny crawlspaces and attics, installed drywall overhead, renovated a dog kennel, and pulled weeds alongside volunteers he recruited, doing all these things in what most would determine inclement weather. Armando’s also the one making sure there is music and beer for the beach, to which I can’t recall one instance where he declined going.
– Jack Forinash, Principal of Housing, 2009-present
There are too many great Armando memories—we all know this. But one of my favorite first memories was Melon Days 2012. It was the first time Armando and I had been on a float in a parade. Thrilled to be nuzzled up next to itchy hay bales, a half-dozen excited children, and buckets of candy to throw at the parade watchers, it was quite the introduction to our new home in Green River. This was only the beginning of our time in the wild, wild, West—packed with new adventures and endless happy moments.
Armando’s love for Green River and the people that live here is intoxicating. I truly admire his commitment to the work he has done, and this all attests to Armando’s quality of loyal friendship. He is a true friend: trustworthy, honest, and incredibly fun. I feel very lucky to have had time to work with and get to know the one and only Armando Rios Verde.
– Ashley Ross, AmeriCorps VISTA, 2012-2013
Armando was the first person I really got to know at Epicenter. Just a few days into my internship last summer, he and I left Green River to drive a group of design students from Japan around the Mountain West and then to Design Build Bluff where they worked on some small design-build projects. We acted as chauffeurs and advisors, radio DJs and cultural ambassadors. Many of the stories gathered here highlight Armando’s insatiable desire for fun and entertainment, but what I remember most from that trip is his equally strong sense of caring and responsibility. He remained protective of those students (whether hiking on a cliff edge or preparing for a night on the Las Vegas strip) and a diligent teacher. Looking at what Armando has accomplished over his four years at Epicenter, it is obvious that those qualities—his sense of responsibility and his care for others—have allowed him to foster great relationships with volunteers and grow the Fix It First program into an award-winning precedent. I saw all of that immediately within him. Over a year later, that trip with those Japanese students and Armando is still my fondest memory of my time at Epicenter.
– Bryan Brooks, AmeriCorps VISTA, 2015-present
1. 8-8-88 Celebration: Armando’s 27th birthday including tattoos by Mary, a dance party, and an amazing time.
2. Melon Days: Matching watermelon shirts for the parade, the watermelon eating contest, volunteering at the kid’s art booth, and everything in between.
3. Swamp Cooler: Although it was freezing, Armando eagerly helped remove a swamp cooler off a roof for a home repair. We enjoyed throwing it off the roof so much that, for a second, we considered carrying it back up to be able to throw it back down again.
4. Sardines Champ: Ten of us searched for Armando for a good half hour while playing Sardines. Turns out he was hiding under the couch. Luckily no one sat down.
5. Disc Golf: Armando’s sense of style is unsurpassed in almost all situations. The outfit he wore while playing disc golf further confirmed this.
6. Backyard Pool Parties: Armando: the pool inflator, filler, and DJ.
7. Utilikilt: The first day Armando wore his homemade Utilikilt working on site… only to spill Horchata on it during lunch at the taco truck.
8. Swasey’s Beach: Armando was always at the beach, but the most memorable moment was probably his impersonation of Baywatch last summer. Unfortunately, this resulted in losing another pair of his glasses to the mighty Green River.
Thank you Armando for playing such a large part in making Green River great and unforgettable. You were always willing to hang out—whether it was Sunset Club (I always look east now because of you), binge watching Netflix on cold winter weekends, or just sitting around the fire telling awesome stories. Green River is going to miss you, but Grand Rapids is going to be great. In all sincerity, ‘preciate ya!
– Katie Anderson, AmeriCorps VISTA, 2015-present