J Erin Hutchinson Dreams Big in the South Shore

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.

J Erin Hutchinson (she/her, the J is silent) caused a bit of a stir in her rural community of Herbster, Wisconsin when Springboard for the Arts announced she was one of the Rural Regenerator Fellows. The major point of contention? She’s not an artist. But, that is only if we use the narrow definition of artist as it typically corresponds with someone who makes work of the fine art variety – painters, sculptors, musicians, theater professionals – people who make art that correspond to the sorts of things one easily finds in museum spaces or performance auditoriums. 

And though Hutchinson doesn’t lean into the label of artist (despite her very creative inclinations) she is passionate about developing systems and structures to help advance the creative production of artists, crafters and farmers along the South Shore of Lake Superior. After learning about her drive to create economic development opportunities for the community of which she is a part, I was struck by Hutchinson’s insistence on thinking beyond the narrow boxes typically confining artists and the art they make to a narrow definition. While she may not be an artist in the traditional sense, her passion for decreasing the hierarchies between fine art and other goods that require creativity to produce, enhance opportunities for all artists to thrive which in turn, benefits us all.

Hutchinson’s passion for cultivating thriving creative economies sits at the nexus of her unique expertise, diverse skillset and the rural place that inspires her to take action. She describes herself as someone who doesn’t like to get bored, and given all of what she’s currently juggling she certainly keeps busy. One of her projects that will take center stage during her Fellowship years is further developing Authentic Superior. As Founder and current Executive Director, Hutchinson launched this non-profit organization in 2019. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues on, she’s found that the organization’s mission of celebrating the unique creativity of the region with targeted activities and programs that educate buyers and supporters of the value of creative production has moved the needle in bringing more revenue and economic stability for the South Shore of Lake Superior. 

Her willingness to meet a need points to her character as someone who gets things done. When artisans and farmers lost their ability to sell their products through the traditional in-person art fairs and farmer’s markets during the coronavirus shutdown, Hutchinson, through Authentic Superior, launched an e-commerce platform for creative producers so they could sell their products without fees or additional costs. She was able to make this happen because of her experience as a tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, and with her graphic design and marketing prowess from businesses she continues to run from her rural home. 

Committed to what lies ahead, Hutchinson sees regeneration as a vital part of the necessary economic development shifts integral for a thriving rural creative economy. She recognizes that rural communities are often struggling economically and sees regeneration as the important vehicle for rural communities to collectively create locally sustainable economies. Through the many hats Hutchinson wears, she spends time dreaming and working toward answering this question: how do we define what a thriving creative economy looks like for us? When Hutchinson answers that question she says, “I want to do what I love, I want to be able to enjoy this place, my life as I’ve chosen to live in a rural community.” 

She recognizes this is different from the typical mindset from consumer-driven economies that tend to focus on growth as a zero sum game. Messages like a strong business is one that is growing, expanding, and/or franchising doesn’t always work for smaller, rural economies. Hutchinson notes this to be especially true for rural places that purposefully inspire a relationship to the land. Questions like, “How do I sell? How do I market? How do I find my customer?” – these kinds of questions simply function differently in many rural places. Under her leadership, Authentic Superior and Hutchinson identified a problem – the lack of economic development infrastructure beyond local tourist economy – and sought innovative solutions to address it.

Hutchinson admits that a thriving creative economy will look differently for each rural place; this shouldn’t be a one size fits all approach. In the case of the greater South Shore area, Hutchinson believes their thriving future will be met when local community members are forward thinking and purposeful in looking toward their future with an eye on economic stability, having all community needs met, natural preservation, and affordable housing costs. With the Fellowship Hutchinson hopes to continue facilitating a greater sense of distinct creative community. Because the pandemic upended traditional economic models, she sees this period as the time to build on finding ways for makers to be more connected. 

She intends to do this by cultivating a stronger sense of a network of support while relying less on physical foot traffic to the area. And how exactly does she build that network of support? By bringing unlikely folks together! Hutchinson’s unique and inspiring approach builds on her values and past. In her work she uses the term “creative producers” to describe the folks she remains interested in elevating in her community. She shares that she was tired of spelling it out all the time so out of necessity came up with a term that she felt honored the creative products artists, farmers, food producers, and craftspeople make. 

When I asked her how she saw these different types of workers fitting under a common umbrella she noted that this idea comes from her personal philosophy and was particularly unique to the region where she lives. Coming from a farming family, being raised on the values of nature and respect of natural resources, Hutchinson has long witnessed the effort it takes to produce food. Skill, knowledge and creativity goes into farming and growing food, coming from a family experience with rural poverty she has a personal sensitivity around not wanting to create a hierarchy of value between the types of products we identify as creatively inspired. 

The greater South Shore area is a place where Hutchinson saw the unique opportunity for farmers, food producers, crafters and artists could come together to build community around their work that involves creative approaches. She says, “there are so many farmers who paint or painters who farm… our community has a lot of interdisciplinary crossover of people who just don’t see themselves as “artists” but they make the most amazing furniture. They do it for the joy and the outlet.”

While Hutchinson is often busy helping farmers and artists advance their artistic sales, she too appreciates the Rural Regenerators Fellowship for validating this work, in effect helping her also find joy and an outlet for her creativity. So far in the experience she has relished learning from others in the cohort and enjoyed finding similarities with her colleagues who are also navigating what it means to be selected for this unique opportunity. Ultimately, this program has served as a motivating force that is giving her permission to play with her passion. The intent and hope is to use the fellowship money to purchase a building in the area. When she’s not busy with that aspect of the project, she also hopes that the Fellowship will help free up more time for her to do the fun, creative stuff. She’s particularly eager to better practice what she offers the community – tapping into creativity that isn’t always about producing something; to create for creativity’s sake.

As Hutchinson navigates chronic illnesses, cancer and a recent debilitating disease diagnosis she also knows that this work is about seeking new skills to regenerate herself so that she can continue to do this important work. She knows this aspect of regeneration is a vital part of the personal creative process. The Fellowship is providing valuable space for Hutchinson to explore what is necessary for oneself and is optimistic that at the end of her two year program she will have renewed passions through personal regeneration. 

After a very energizing conversation with Hutchinson I have no doubt that she will meet these goals and more. While she continues to uplift all who align with the statement, “But I’m not an artist,” even as they are creative producers, Hutchinson is making a difference. She is making a positive impact where she lives. She is driven, engaged, strategically minded, bold, forward thinking and tenacious. All the qualities that make for good artists/creative producers. With her work in Herbster, Hutchinson is about sharing her skills and experience to offer her knowledge to other rural communities. “This isn’t about hoarding stuff.” As Hutchinson and the Authentic Superior spokesmodel Rupert dream big and take action, we should all be so lucky to have visionaries like J Erin Hutchinson in our communities.