Nicole Lavelle is an artist and designer who lives in California. Her research-driven, project-based social practice yields experimental essays, visual narratives, and platforms for participation. She has an MFA in Social Practice from the California College of the Arts, a BA in Graphic Design from Portland State University, and is a 2016-2017 Graduate Fellow at the Headlands Center for the Arts. She works at IDEO in San Francisco. Following her Frontier Fellowship in 2011, Lavelle would partner with Sarah Baugh (Sincerely Interested) to create multiple publications (The Green River Newspaper in 2013, The Green River Magazine in 2014, and Interstate Works in 2016) and return as a visiting artist for HDTS: Epicenter in 2015.
Hello. I am in Green River, Utah and it’s the beginning of November and it’s very cold.
It’s also sunny, and in the mornings the sun hits the bevel on the glass door at the Epicenter and refracts a rainbow across the old wood floor. I am warm in here because I have coffee in a borrowed thermos, and I am warm out there because I have a blue jacket I found at a thrift store in a Colorado mountain town last week.
I’ve been here for two days and it already feels like home. I suspect that’s because I’ve been moving around a lot lately, making my place wherever I can, and sleeping in the same place two nights in a row instantly makes a home for me.
Now I live in a house on Long Street, and now I receive mail at that post office, and yesterday I helped work on the Habitat house, and now I sit at a desk in the Epicenter, watching that rainbow stream across that floor. I’m looking forward to a month of focus, of productivity and of responding to my experiences in this place. It’s interesting to be stationary after months and months of mobility, and I suspect the quiet and calm of this place will allow me to both process my recent travels and maintain an acute awareness of this place and time. Maria is on the phone right now, explaining to someone on the other end how the Epicenter came to be, and it’s really inspiring to hear the whole story explained. I am really proud to be here.
- Jack Forinash giving me a town tour in a big blue van called “True Blue”
My first day here, I jumped into a handful of graphic design projects for the Epicenter. It’s been nice to apply my existing skills to worthwhile projects that will be useful to these guys. I’ve been painting a lot of letters with ink and talking with the local newspaper about making some beautiful print projects happen. Having Epicenter work to do immediately was a blessing in that it alleviated any panic on my part of scrambling for ideas of how to fill my time. In the meantime, I’ve been doing a fair amount of wandering around Green River.
I’ve become increasingly interested in how places can define the characteristics of a community, and how people define themselves by the places they live. That’s “regional identity,” I suppose, and that’s what draws me to places that are not my home. My logic is that there’s no better way to understand a place than to be in it. And so here I am.
This summer I read Outside Lies Magic, a book by a landscape scholar named John Stilgoe. It’s good. I’d recommend it for anyone. Stilgoe posits that with an acute awareness of one’s surroundings, and with a critical and curious eye, we can all see the history of everyday places in the physical makeup of the environment. This place certainly embodies that premise.
I walked to the west end of town, past past billboards in use and billboards out of use. The sidewalk ended at some point, and I walked in the shoulder, and then in the dirt on the side of the road. The end of town is the interstate, where there are two gas stations and an onramp. I walked home on the railroad tracks, past the Epicenter and straight to my house, where I can see the Union Pacific engines idling from my bedroom window.
I rode my trusty crap mountain bike to Elgin on the east side of Green River. At a certain point, everything on the west side of the river was called Blake, and everything on the east side of the river was called Elgin. Then, it all became Greenriver (alloneword) and eventually, because the illegible cursive script of letter-writers-of-olde became confusing for the post office (it looked like “Gunnison”), it became Green River (two words.) In Elgin there are some crumbly houses and some regular houses, a derelict playground that may still be in use, and lots of barking dogs. There is also an old uranium mill on the hill, which was the source of Green River’s boom in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Now, the mill is closed, the uranium mines are barren, and the town has shrunk to half its former population. It’s hard for me not to be distracted by ruins. I think they require attention in the sense that they tell stories and are tangible evidence of man’s history on the landscape. But I know I need to expand my focus to the buildings with roofs and the roads with sidewalks and the people who use those buildings and sidewalks. Less ghosts, more conversations.
I walked to the Crystal Geyser and back. On the way there, I walked along the river, where I crawled through many barbed-wire fences and thickets of overgrown tamarisk. On the way home, I walked into the dusk along nine miles of dirt and gravel roads. I was approached by a number of people in cars asking me if I was okay. A smiley lady with a daschund in a blue van from New Mexico said, “I promise we’re not crazy, we can give you a ride.” I replied, “I’m not crazy either, I promise, and I’m alright.” I think I walked because it was Black Friday. Or maybe because the weekend felt eternal and taking ten hours to “do nothing” wasn’t silly. Or maybe it’s because my visit has a duration, and I’m frantically trying to spend time outside before I take a train out of here. Ultimately, I walk to better acquaint myself with my surroundings, to meditate on my environment a bit and to gain an awareness and understanding that is impossible to achieve from behind the glass windshield of a car or even from the seat of a bicycle. Friday felt like a field trip for a self-directed study on how to get to know a place. Or something. Either way. It was long, and difficult, and fun. The geyser didn’t go off though.
Nicole's suggested reading list:
Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe
A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time by John Brinckerhoff Jackson
Desert solitaire: a season in the wilderness by Edward Abbey
Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit.