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An interview with Harrell Fletcher

Merging art, functionality and education

Part 2 - A vocabulary of possibilities

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
Whitesburg, Kentucky

The following interview with Harrell Fletcher (part 2) is part of a series of interviews with some of the members of a group of 25 artists from around the U.S. and Canada who went to Kentucky and Virginia to participate in the initial stages of a multi-year, multi-site community art project sponsored by the American Festival Project. The American Festival Project is based in Whitesburg, Kentucky with Appalshop, a regional community arts center. Also see: Fred Campbell, Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Shannon Hummel, Stephanie Juno, Suzanne Lacy, John Malpede, Robbie McCauley, Nobuko Miyamoto.

Allowing voices to become more audible

In Motion Magazine: What have you been doing? What are you learning?

Harrell Fletcher: There have been both the scheduled stops and the un-scheduled stops. We've gone around and met people and learned about whatever their interest was, whether it was re-cycling and environmental issues with Mike or straight pipe water systems ...

In Motion Magazine: What's a straight pipe water system?

Harrell Fletcher: When the plumbing system goes straight from a toilet to the river or to a stream without any kind of septic in between.

That was one thing I didn't know. I was hoping, coming here, that I would be able to do a lot of swimming. When you look around you see all these creeks and they look really appealing. But everyone is saying, not only don't swim there, don't even touch it. It's pretty devastating to realize that in a place that is so beautiful, all the foliage, the mountains, the creeks -- it's all in a very fragile contaminated state. It's a real sad thing.

I don't know exactly what we as artists are going to be able to do about that - getting on to your other question. We asked the Gishes, the people who run the newspaper in Whitesburg, what they thought about how art could contribute, and they said that they didn't think that it could. Maybe thinking traditionally about what art is maybe it wouldn't. Maybe we need to come up with a different way of working.

Of course, on the other hand, I fear dilettantism. I don't want to pretend that I'm some sort of scientist or politician that would be able to make some kind of change or know what the change should be - because I don't really. I don't know if that can be my role. More, what I'm capable of doing is allowing voices that are already here to become more audible. If that's what they want to say then that's what they will say. I'm not going to determine issues and then find the sound bites to fit into that. That's not the way that I work or the thing that I find interesting or enjoyable to do. I have difficulty thinking, "Let's try to tackle this issue and as artists fix this thing". I don't know if that's really the way that I can function.

In Motion Magazine: How did you relate to the person you met in the store? What was the context for that meeting?

Harrell Fletcher: We just wandered in there because we walked by. This was an informal, unscheduled stop. We were on our way to another place. John and I walked by and looked in and saw these faded safety orange vests and thought, "What is this place?" It looks like a store that has gone out of business. But when we walked by the door it said, "Open".

We walked in and in the back of the store was this older woman sitting there, reading, not really paying any attention to us. We walked up and said, "Hello". She turned around and introduced herself and started talking and asking us who we were and where we came from. It seemed like we had been the only visitors who had come through there in a long time.

She's been in the process, as she says, of going out of business for the last five years. She's not buying any new stock. She's just selling things off that are in the store. It's pretty depleted. But there's all these strange little products that are still around on the shelves. It's all dusty and faded. Her husband died a few years ago and she had owned the store with him for fifty-nine years. It's her place. We found her really fascinating and endearing and witty. She was able to do some of the things I've been talking about. In telling the story of her own life, various other issues come up. She was talking about welfare checks and things like that. She seems like a really interesting person to make more visible. She had been a very prominent part of the community but at this time is getting more and more forgotten.

Since our first visit, we have gone back two more times. Sometimes the sign will say, "Out to lunch". Sometimes it's open and sometimes it's closed. Whenever we wander by and it's open we step in again and have another conversation.

Risking their lives

In Motion Magazine: So this person and Mike, the various people that you met, there was no separation between them and the community? As far as you could tell, this was the community. What did you think was the relationship between them and the rest of the town?

A coal tipple in eastern Kentucky.
A coal tipple in eastern Kentucky. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Harrell Fletcher: That is a little hard to distinguish since we have mostly been lined up with certain individuals to talk to. I don't really know how representative they are of the rest of the community. We've met with outstanding, amazing people that seem as unlikely to be here as Appalshop does.

It is an amazing and great thing that Appalshop is here and doing all the things that they are doing. And then to find Carol Smith, the county judge who is this radical grassroots politician. It's amazing to find Mike and some of the political activists that we have met as well. It's great that they're here but I don't know how representative they are of the rest of the population. I've only met others when we step into a hardware store or go to a tire store and talk to people. Or meet somebody in a restaurant.

In Motion Magazine: So why do you think it's amazing?

Harrell Fletcher: That they are here?

In Motion Magazine: Yes.

Harrell Fletcher: They are engaged with the community and feel responsible for it, in some ways almost risking their lives. Some of these activists and politicians have had death threats because of what they are doing in attempting to create change, having to do with strip mining, water issues. Not that I had any pre-conceived idea of what was going to be here, but more based on my experience of people everywhere, there is a lot of apathy. Partly, I'm so amazed by how lacking in apathy so many people are here. They really are engaged in taking action. In running for office. Putting together a protest. Having a newspaper that puts out views that are opposed to the coal companies.

In Motion Magazine: Do you think that's because the problems are so severe?

Harrell Fletcher: I don't really know what the cause of it is. I like to feel in a hopeful way that this isn't unique and that I have in the cities experienced such a vast population that it's harder to get to those individuals who are less apathetic. Of course, I've definitely encountered amazing people in the cities too, but that's within a really large population. Here it seems more concentrated somehow.

In Motion Magazine: Looking at the cities and rural areas, have you noticed any difference in the way art is perceived or done, or is that just a silly difference?

Harrell Fletcher: Having not actually produced anything here yet I don't exactly know what the difference is going to be between here and a city where I have produced things in the past. So far, people have been really open to talking and potentially working on things. But I've found that most places where I've gone.

Vincent (Thomas) did a dance workshop with kids ranging from seven years old to eighteen years old and I was happily surprised at how willing they were to start dancing, to do dance movements. I've worked with middle school students in Oakland and I think they wouldn't have been as open to doing that. I'm not exactly sure why. But I've heard that before, about working in rural communities, as opposed to working in urban ones. The kids are much more open to doing stuff. There's not so much fear of not being cool. That's a great thing to encounter.

As for funding structures, for the first four or five years outside of graduate school I didn't do any projects in San Francisco. I did them all in the outlying areas. They were more like suburbs that were on the one hand lacking art activities, but on the other hand had funding available. There would be a regional gallery and that gallery was much better funded than alternate spaces in San Francisco so I could go there and do a project and get decent funding to do it. It was like a strategy, although, of course, I was also interested in working with people outside of that urban area anyway. As much as going to a lower economic urban area and saying these people need representation and need art activities, I think there's a lot of people in suburban areas and in office buildings that need that too and are generally overlooked because they are not considered the right population to work with.

This place probably falls under the "right population to work with" so it probably does have access to funding sources although from a different point of view. But it's not necessarily fine art, whatever that's supposed to mean, or commercial art, but more community-based art projects. Which is the same thing that happens to lower economic communities in urban areas too. I always play in between those two things and try to not make any distinctions so that I'll do a piece in a museum and it will still be working with community, and I'll do a piece in a community that doesn't look like typical community art. It doesn't fall into the structures of community art of being a mural or being whatever that might be more typically thought of as community art. I'm interested in bridging all those things anyway.

A sense, a vocabulary of possibilities

In Motion Magazine: Have you learned anything in talking to the local folks about what's art got to do with it?

Harrell Fletcher: I've asked that a few different times and largely people that I've encountered have been open but a little bit mystified as to what exactly that's going to be.

Sometimes, they will have some very specific idea of, "It would be great if you guys could do a mural" or something like that. And the same goes with the artists, we are not quite sure what it has to do with this, at this point, or how we are going to make it make sense.

If I had a criticism of the way that this week has gone, it is we should have started the week by showing the work we've already done. Not only to the other artists but to the community so they would have a sense, a vocabulary, of what possibilities might be outside of more typical things like murals. We've come in and been educated by the community. But, it could would have been an opportunity to share what we've already done and potentially educate them about the possibilities for this community, based on the things that we have done in the past. I think that was a missed opportunity. It's also been hard when everyone keeps asking what I do, and I have to keep trying to explain it with words. If I'd just had that slide show in the beginning.

In Motion Magazine: So what have you thought about the process? You mentioned that when you got here you really didn't know what you were doing. As it developed, how did you figure out what you were doing? Or did you?

Harrell Fletcher: I figured out that there wasn't a lot of structure and gave up thinking that there might be. Which is fine, I'm just used to working with some outline of what I'm going to do. There's going to be a show and it's going to be in this space. There's going to be a public art project. it's got this budget, and it needs to be in this area. Something. Here it's so wide open.

On the one hand, it's great and once I realized that it's been enjoyable to think of things. On the other hand, I don't want to waste my time thinking of things that are unrealistic, and since I don't know what is realistic I prevent myself from thinking about what is possible just because I don't know what is not possible. Maybe there is nothing that is not possible. Maybe that's what the point of the whole thing is.

I'm dealing with the reality of past experiences and knowing that there are limits to things and budgets and scheduling and resources. Generally, my first questions are about those things because that helps me imagine what the capacity of the thing is that I'm going to do. Although it's been really fun and I have no regrets about the week, it's been great, enjoyable and informative - as far as becoming more productive at some point I need a certain amount of structure imposed.

I will come up with some ideas and present those and see if they are possible and we will go from there.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 31, 2000