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The art of neighboring

Mary Welcome, née Mary Rothlisberger, is a citizen artist based in Palouse, Washington, a tiny rural town with a population of 998. While Welcome’s numerous and diverse artistic involvements take her all around the country, she keeps coming back to Palouse, an adopted home that she has fully embraced — and which in turn has fully embraced her — as her own.

“As an artist I enjoy making things. I have a lot of multi-disciplinary outputs, but I realized I was not interested in a more traditional gallery-oriented, commercial path,” Welcome says. “I also had people tell me that to be a successful artist I had to move to a big city, so I said, ‘Oh yeah? I’ll show you. I’ll do it my way.'”

She knew that artists live everywhere, not just in New York and Los Angeles, and that people who live in all kinds of different places have different ways of being artists. She wanted to push that idea in new directions, as well as challenge the stereotype that culture only exists in urban places.

“Culture is everywhere. It exists everywhere. We need to celebrate it everywhere. I learned that directly from living in Palouse for so long,” she explains. “The thing that is most important to me about the work I do is the relationships I build, and making work that is in service to a community, in collaboration with the community, is where I get all my energy and momentum in this continual learning process.”

outside movie theater in the snow Year of Play: Frozen Cinema. As part of the Year of Play in Fergus Falls, the Department of Public Perks hosted a free sub-zero double-feature movie theatre on frozen Lake Alice complete with hay bale seats and free popsicles. (Photo: Mary Welcome)

She started small: trying to find calls for artists outside of the typical residency structure and community projects that would allow her to hone her practice. She hadn’t set out for anything in particular; she was just trying to find ways to make a living as an artist that didn’t involve a gallery or studio.

Welcome remembers that one of her first residencies about ten years ago was at a “living museum” called Elsewhere, located in a former thrift store in Greensboro, North Carolina.

“It is a one-woman collection of things where I learned how to dig into materials and place,” she recalls. “There is this very holistic way of living in this collection and working in it. It is this very fluid, multi-disciplinary ‘art place’ that encourages interpretation and a lot of interesting critical dialogue around the work being made. That was the moment in my world where my mind was blown open to the idea that you can be an artist in so many different ways.”

She found her fit in what she calls “radical alternative practice” and “radical community practice,” particularly in small and rural towns, for which she professes a deep love. Palouse has been her home now for 12 years, and having grown up in a military family that moved around a lot, it is the place of her deepest experience of “home,” a place she says chose her as much as she chose it.

artist studio in house Studio of the Upper Bunk, a domestic artist-in-residence program run by Mary out of her apartment in downtown Palouse. (Photo: Springboard for the Arts)

For three years she ran an artist residency program out of her apartment in Palouse, which was her way of bringing artists to her to engage with her local community. Through that a kind of citizen artist exchange developed — she would bring artists to her place, and then she would go to their places, and thus grow her network of friends and fellow citizen artists and organizations.

“I think it’s really important to reach out to people whose practices you like and dialogue with one another on how to share resources and stories,” Welcome says, and this is all part of her creative ethos that “neighboring” is an important practice in itself.

“Growing up in a military family and living on base in a military community, they’re very small and transient but very neighborly. Those are the people you rely on and need,” she explains. “This practice of neighboring is also alive and well in rural communities. They see each other and work together in ways they wouldn’t if they were in a larger space."

"I also knew those were the kinds of places I wanted to work to get face-to-face time with the mayor and city council, teachers, moms, guys who work in the lumber mill," Welcome continues. "It’s so important to learn from the diversity of age and labor and having these entrenched intergenerational relationships.”

Rural towns felt comfortable and familiar to her because of their size and the accessibility of “neighboring,” but they also proved to be excellent platforms for her practice precisely because of their small size.

“We can get things done at this scale and get them done together and feel great about it,” she says. “That’s the kind of affirmation I need to keep going in a pretty tough discipline.”

She also works with a lot of other organizations and is involved in a lot of projects around the country, in part because she is such a self-critical person.

“I like a lot of critical dialogue about my work and I get a lot of amazing dialogue where I live, but it’s important to not make work in a vacuum,” says Welcome. “I need to make sure I have a community of accountability all over the country. I want to make sure I’m doing the best work that I can and all these different communities make sure I’m not doing it alone and that I’m asking the right questions. Also, I just love my friends and that’s when we get to see each other. It’s a way of keeping a national network close to me.”

Woman holds up guide in front of painted wall From Hinge Fergus Falls: A hand-illustrated guide to bike-able picnic spots in the Fergus Falls region, featuring anecdotal directions and how to pack a the perfect mobile lunch. (Photo: Mary Welcome)

She has facilitated and been part of countless residencies in her practice, but she feels they are especially important in small and rural communities where artists are invited to work in an entrenched way.

“It’s good for artists to come into new skills and listen and learn to be generous with their skills and time,” she says. “It’s also good for the community to hear a fresh perspective. I really believe in the model of economic development through cultural tourism and cultural dialogue. The more we can infiltrate artists into our social fabric, the better it is for everybody.”

She adds that she doesn’t think small and rural towns are the answer to artist-led economic development, though: it’s still just as possible in urban areas, so long as it is taken down to a smaller scale.

“I think the answer is getting hyper-local. What I enjoy and what I grow from these small towns is something people can connect with. You can get that in one city block or in one apartment complex as long as you’re stepping out of the macro and into the micro.”

Above all else, she emphasizes the need for artists to act as neighbors and to incorporate the art of neighboring in their practices.

“I’d like to challenge practitioners to work on the practice of neighboring. That’s something lacking in our training and missing in our practice. We need to learn how to be better neighbors and how to work together," Welcome says. "Get to know your neighbors! They are the most important people in your practice. And build a community of accountability to keep you in line and keep you generous."

"I wouldn’t have this practice without my neighbors. I learned everything I know from them just by being my neighbors. I’m really grateful for that.”

A version of this story previously appeared on Springboard for the Arts' Creative Exchange platform on May 4, 2018.