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.

When I was in college, I lived in an apartment downstairs from three women who were widely considered to be some of the most talented, interesting people on campus. Two were into performance art, one was a dancer. The weekend we all moved in was unbearably hot and humid, and we were taking a break on the stoop chatting. I’d been repainting my bathroom, and they’d been painting their respective rooms, but while I was wearing generic gym shorts and an oversized shirt from some long forgotten high school event, they were wearing interesting graphic t-shirts, cut-offs with patches they’d sewn themselves, and the kind of swag that I didn’t even know existed because I had not yet discovered thrifting. 

We were all sweating and disheveled, but they still looked really cool, and I remember thinking, “Wow, really cool people are really cool ALL the time, not just when they are making an effort to be…” 

I didn’t know Amber Hansen in college, but she’s that kind of cool now, and I’m willing to bet has always been really cool. Like my neighbors from college, she 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 aesticitics, 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.

Backdrop

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 she did with fellow muralist David Lowenstein on 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 whose stories the film tells. 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, Lowenstein 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 Lowenstein, Hansen, as one of the filmmaker and artists involved, is not setting out to tell a simple story. As with the best poems, the film offers the simultaneous feelings of getting lost and being found, a quality inherent in a lot of Hansen’s work. Which, incidentally, is exactly how I think true coolness is often presents too.

POR UNA VIDA DIGNA
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 Lowenstein invited her to be part of a community-based mural project, a format she hadn’t been introduced to in her formal education. 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 integrated her own beginning in rural Iowa with the formal art education she had just completed. 

“Growing up in 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 ‘life’ was completely 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 completely from scratch, inviting people to gather and tell stories, write poems, draw pictures about what it means to be part of that place. Right away it breaks down the stigma that ‘I’m not an artist.’ It’s the antithesis of branding because it draws 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 positive experience in the place they live and work, they are 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] becomes about the people at the table at that time.”

How it’s going

This summer Hansen will be working on several new community-based murals with her regular collaborator, Reyna Hernandez.  Hernandez was first Hansen’s student and then assistant, but has now become a cherished partner. In fact, Hernandez now often takes the lead. “Reyna is amazing,” Hansen says. “Creating community-based murals [requires] a lot of hard work mentally and organizationally. It’s not just about being a good artist. Reyna is good at all of it.”

Together they’ve worked on numerous murals around the state of South Dakota. They are currently trying to decide if they are going to name the loose collection of artists that have also sprung up as collaborators to become an “official” collective. For now, their work is viewable on 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 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 and then the place,” says Hansen. “Every time they go past it, they can see what they helped make.”

An Unexpected Twist

“When I lived in Lawrence, Kansas and was teaching drawing,” Hansen tells me, “I saw vulnerability in my students every day.” She was moved and inspired by that vulnerability and she wondered, what could she do to tap into those same feelings? How could she create out of a place of vulnerability too? 

Dancing Road
30” x 40”, acrylic on canvas, 2021.

She’d also studied feminist texts like Joining the Resistance by Carol Gilligan, which discusses the ways young girls silence themselves. She decided confronting a fear and putting herself in the public eye DOING art, was a way to “have an impact on the visual environment.” 

So she started writing songs and performing them even though, as she says, laughing, “I am not good at it!” Thus her folk band The OverEasies was born. 

“We would dress up in crazy costumes. We had so much fun.” she says. Collaborative music making continues to this day, and includes making music with fellow Rural Regenerator Sandra Mollman, with whom she also collaborates on an eclectic variety of community-building arts initiatives. Some of what they create is political, some of it is challenging, some of it is gleeful, but the defining characteristic of all of it is an integrity that points not to morality, but an expansive honesty. 

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.