Amber Hansen: Process and Place

The Rural Regenerator Fellowship brings together individual artists, makers, and culture bearers, grassroots organizers, community development workers, public sector workers and other rural change-makers who are committed to advancing the role of art, culture and creativity in rural development and community building. In 2022, we asked a collective of local writers to sit down with current Rural Regenerator cohort members to share more about their work.

Amber Hansen is a person who lives her art–she doesn’t compartmentalize where or how creativity shows up in her world, nor does she separate politics and activism from aesthetics, beauty, or craft. It’s all part of the wholehearted way she approaches her work, her relationships, and the presence she brings to all she does.


Visit her website and you will learn she is a “muralist and visual artist who creates socially engaged and community-based artwork throughout the middle of the US.” You will also discover she is co-director/creator of a feature documentary Called to Walls that showcases the work of fellow muralist David Lowenstein in a series of murals for a group of small towns. Further, you will see she is an assistant professor at the University of South Dakota, where she teaches painting, and the president of the board of the Community Built Association, a collection of like-minded artists and activists from across the country.  

Watch Called to Walls and you will start to get a fuller picture. The movie is filmed and edited in layers that mirror the murals featured in the film. Collages of music and moving images are scattered throughout: a murmuration of starlings against a darkening sky, broken glass scattered across broken pavement, folks singing a spontaneous love song to their town with the backdrop of a knick-knack store’s crowded shelves. 

In the intro of Called to Walls, Loewenstein narrates, describing the paradox implicit in many small towns’ aesthetics: “I love the looks of these places. The unrefurbished beauty of bricks and boards that have been colored by time…but I’m also aware that these may also be signs of the precarious economic condition that they are in…” and it is clear that like Loewenstein, Hansen, as one of the filmmakers and artists involved, is not setting out to tell a simple story. Similar to a well crafted poem, the film offers the simultaneous feelings of getting lost and being found, a quality inherent in a lot of Hansen’s work.

Lead Artist: Amber Hansen, Assistant Artists: Adriana Duarte & Guille Sanabria, Project Facilitator: Teresita Gonzalez
16’ x 60’, Varadero Neighborhood, Asuncion, PY, 2018

How it Started

The Community Built Association was Hansen’s entry to learning about community-based work. After completing her MFA, David Loewenstein invited her to be part of a community-based mural project. She quickly discovered this way of working also provided a wholeness to her process that had previously been missing. Working with folks in small towns united her own beginning in rural Iowa with the formal art education she had just completed. 

“Growing up on a small acreage, we grew all our own food,” she says. The circle of life (and death) was omnipresent in the soil, in the fields, and eventually on their plates. “Then I went to college and felt like ‘life’ was missing from the white cubes of a classroom.” 

Food production and human relationships with animals is a huge theme in her solo work, but she also found ‘life’ in the dirt and sweat of working closely with other humans, painting imagery out in the open on imperfect surfaces. Community art wasn’t the antithesis of the white-cubed classroom, but an expansion of the skill set she’d gained both through her training and a childhood spent outdoors. 

Perhaps most importantly though, community-based work allowed her to uplift stories that might not otherwise be shared. “When we build the thing, build the art, we start by inviting people to gather and tell stories, write poems, draw pictures about what it means to be part of that place. We want to break down the stigma that ‘I’m not an artist.’ We want to draw out the complexities of the communities that occupy that place,” she explains.

A key to this way of working is to invite people into a playful space to create, and then allow a theme or metaphor to emerge. This leads to surprises and unexpected twists, but the process is as important, if not more important, than the final product. “If [people] have a meaningful experience contributing to the place they live, they may be more likely to engage in other civic activities.” says Hansen.

It’s also about the relationships being created in real time. Hansen adds: “When we create a mural as evidence of our time together, artists bring their expectations as well. We are very intentional about reminding people that the muralists are not a ‘blank slate.’ All the people at the table are going to be shaping the story together. [The mural] can be a reflection of the people who come together to create it.”

How it’s Going

This summer Hansen will be working on several new community-based murals with her regular collaborator, Reyna Hernandez. Together they’ve worked on numerous murals around the state of South Dakota. Their work is viewable on their websites and the Vermillion Community Mural facebook page, as Vermillion, South Dakota is the site of several recent commissions, and is quickly becoming an epicenter for rural arts initiatives.

Some upcoming projects include a new commission in Centerville, South Dakota. This mural will be a collaboration with Hernandez, Hernandez’s sister Sonia, and two local students who applied to be part of the team. Another new work will be in Sioux City, Iowa. For this mural the team will be meeting with high school students from four different local high schools to design a mural for the Sioux City Arts Center. The mural will be housed indoors, but will be visible through a glass wall. The students will help design and paint the mural, and there will also be painting days that are open to the public–anyone can join.  

For the open painting days, lines from the design are projected onto the wall, the artists mix the colors, and then people fill in the lines. Inviting the public to join in creating this piece “allows people to connect..with the process of creating and to the place they live,” says Hansen. “Every time they go past it, they can see what they helped make.”

After we finish our interview I think: maybe getting comfortable being a little lost is exactly how you get found, and that comfort is exactly what makes people like Amber Hansen so cool.