What is the political role of art education in rural communities?



Kate Baird is a museum educator at the Springfield Art Museum in Springfield, Missouri. She is also a founder of Placeworks, which offers art residencies and field trips at no cost to participating rural schools. Placeworks is a partnership of the Springfield Art Museum and the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, which is funded by the Louis L and Julia Dorothy Coover Charitable Foundation with Commerce Trust.

A few months ago, Kate wrote to me to say that through her work with Placeworks, she sees:

Amazing work being done by rural teachers and students, as well as some of the significant challenges they face…. Several of the teaching artists who work with Placeworks grew up in very small towns and/or with precarious economic circumstances. The election sparked some conversations which revealed that although all of us have what I would term liberal/progressive political views and values, they are not precisely same, and we arrived at them very differently.  I’d love to pursue those conversations a little more.

With these ideas in mind, Kate arranged a conference call with three Missouri-based art educators:


Lillian Fitzpatrick is a sculptor who works in metal. She and her husband own a blacksmith shop in Highlandville, Missouri, and she lives outside of Springfield on a farm. Lillian’s family have lived in Highlandville since the 1950s.




Brian Fickett is an artist and a museum educator at the Springfield Art Museum. He works in metals, and also dabbles in clay. Brian is from Golden, in Southwest Missouri, although he lived near Chicago as a child, until the age of twelve.


Karen Craigo is from an Appalaichain region of Ohio she describes as a “poor river town which had no arts anywhere; the nearest mall was 45 minutes away.” Karen is a poet, and now lives in Springfield, Missouri.

We spoke on January 19, 2017.

Kate: Will you share an early arts or museum experience that had a lasting impact on you personally?

Brian: I lived in the Chicago area until I was twelve, and remember going to the Art Institute when I was 3 or 4 and seeing a work, I think by John Chamberlain, in which the artist had taken car parts, crumpled them up, and assembled them into a sculpture. As a child it blew me away because here was a car, something I was familiar with, that had been completely destroyed and transformed. I don’t remember it being beautiful (although it probably was), but it had a huge impact on me. I went home to our tool workbench and glued together nuts and bolts into an abstract paperweight-type thing.

Karen: I lived remotely – in Gallipolis, Ohio, two hours to Columbus and an hour to Charleston, West Virginia. I knew of no art museums, and I didn’t get a visual arts experience until I went to college. But my class we went to a reading at Ohio University, where we listened to a ridiculous man with a braid reading about his dog. My response was, “have you ever heard of anything sillier than a man with a braid reading about a dog? And it doesn’t even rhyme!”


Gallipolis, Ohio

Lillian: My family didn’t really do fun, leisurely activities together very often, but I do remember my mother taking us to the Springfield Art Museum once when I was in 4th or 5th grade – the only time I visited until I was out of high school. We went to see the work of a friend of hers, who my mother knew through an AA meeting. I remember being really impressed by old things – a chair made in the 1400s; Durer prints.

My elementary school art teacher, Sandi Baker, saw that I was interested in art, and she knew what my family life was like, so every time we had a project that I seemed really interested in she would send extra art supplies home with me so I could carry on at home.

Kate: What examples of tolerance or intolerance did you see in your community, growing up or now?

Brian: There was… I don’t want to call it ignorance, because it’s not, but a different kind of folk knowledge that people in this area have. A sense that they know everything they need to know and don’t need to know more. That stuck with me – I am a sponge, always about learning more, experiencing more, making my world bigger. That was my push-back toward the atmosphere / culture shock of moving from one area to another.

Karen: Appalachia is a place where the landscape is physically closed off. I didn’t know Black people, Jewish people – didn’t grow up around a diverse body of people. Where I am from people are less likely to accept outsiders, especially outsiders who have anything significantly different about how they look.

My mother once said in a bar, “Karen has never had any prejudice about anyone.” She was so proud of me. The fact that she was proud of that but found it hard to say in that culture…

It’s the artist’s spirit that makes you appreciate and embrace difference, and when you meet someone with a different upbringing, try to learn something. Whether or not you make anything, someone with an artist’s spirit continually expands their world views, so you don’t become atrophied.

Brian:I see art as a voice for the underdog. There is a weirdness that comes from needing to express the emotional roller coaster they are going through. The lucky ones are those who can focus that into artistic expression. What Karen just said about tolerance goes hand in hand with an artist’s sense that we can all be weird together. Someone predisposed to be an artist will be more empathetic, saying, I’m not going to hate on them because I know what it’s like to be hated on.


Holly Wilson, Can You Hear Me Now (detail)

Karen: Artists model a different way of existing. They make it desirable to have a new take on things. You get exposed to the art, to a different way of seeing, hone that in yourself, and discover it’s in you.

Lillian: When I was growing up I didn’t realize that that there was an atmosphere of intolerance in the community. My family was just totally different from most people that I knew. My mother did a good job of trying to raise us with open minds about other cultures, other ethnic groups, people outside Highlandville.

As I grew older I learned about terrible things that happened when I was growing up. For example, once in a while we had a black teacher at our school. I always thought this was very interesting because I wasn’t around black people often. But these teachers didn’t stay for long, and I found out later that it was because there were people trying to get rid of them. When I found that out I was horrified.

It’s very important to give people the opportunity to have experiences with people who are different. A few years ago I had a friend from Taiwan visiting, and we went to visit my father on his cattle ranch. My dad had never been around Asian people. After we left I spoke with my dad and he felt a sense of concern for my friend, just like he does for me, and that surprised him because he had never been around someone from a foreign country. That’s an example of someone learning empathy, and the importance of those experiences. It’s even better if you can have those experiences as a child, and carry that into your adult life.

Artists are people who are often living and thinking differently from those in their community. Because of this you might say something through your art that no one else has said before, or at least said to your community.

Kate: How can museums, arts educators, or artists better serve, reach, and respond to needs in rural communities?

Karen: I have seen people tour the Springfield Art Museum, and they will go up to a piece and there will be a moment of shock, like I had with my braided poet. After the moment of shock you get into it and try to figure it out. But you have to see it to have that moment of shock. That’s the biggest value of a museum – it allows you to witness weird things that become part of your catalog of reference points, and help you to grow.


Julie Blackmon, Before the Storm, 2007, c-print. © Julie Blackmon. Collection of the Springfield Art Museum.

Lillian: It is also very important to bring art to children, to go to their schools and offer experiences there. Through different projects we expose kids to things they have never seen before. For many students, these projects offer them their first opportunity to feel capable of making something worth looking at, to create something new.

Brian: The museum is important as a cultural hub, but not everyone has access to that space. By going to schools and teaching art there we smash barriers down. Objects on the wall are important, but we show individuals that they are perfectly capable of making things themselves.

It’s really amazing is that a child from contemporary Southwestern Missouri can experience a commonality with an artist from 1920s New York. Art is where we can make a connection. I don’t believe there is that much difference between someone living in Bolivar, Missouri – a town of 10,000 – and someone in New York City who has never left their 10 block area.

Rebecca: Why do they vote differently?

Brian: I think that gets back into this sense of identity. People don’t think they can step outside of themselves to even raise up their heads and say “wait a minute.” They don’t want to have to make a choice that requires them to say, “Maybe I am actually different.”

Kate: People in rural areas might have a pretty fixed idea of who they are, and a world view they feel strongly about. The distance from where they are to a different point of view, or a connection with art, may not be far, but people perceive it to be far.

Lillian: Art is just as important in big cities as in rural areas, helping both sides of the divide to understanding each other and not view each other as inherently different.

Kate: I have been wondering: What might help someone from an urban area appreciate the difficulties or joys of a rural person’s life? 

Lillian: The movie and book Winter’s Bone. My childhood shared some similarities with that of the main character, and I have met people whose lives were very much like the protagonist’s in that story. There are so many people in Southwestern Missouri, children, who really have to deal with those things. Those struggles are not all that different – people in cities need to deal with where their food comes from, or drugs or gang violence. Kids are experiencing the same types of stress, it just looks different on the surface.


Still from the movie “Winter’s Bone”

The participants in this conversation left with a sense that we want to offer urban and suburban dwellers the opportunity to view art that helps them understand people who live in rural areas. However, we could not find many works that achieve this. Below is a short list, and we call on readers to help by adding to it.

Recommended viewing:

Photography by Birney Imes

The New Yorker, First Time Voters

Paintings by Emily Wood

Sculpture by Holly Wilson


One thought on “What is the political role of art education in rural communities?

  1. Pingback: How can museums help us (re)learn the art of conversation? | Museum Questions

Please add your thoughts to the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s