Remaking a Jail in Rural America

When Calvin Phelps first met Nik Nerburn at the inaugural Artists Working in Community Intensive training in Fergus Falls, Minnesota in September 2018, he knew immediately that he wanted to bring him down to Mississippi to work with him.

“Nik comes at everything from a mentality of abundance instead of a mentality of scarcity. [I felt that we really need a person like that working in rural communities] because a lot of rural communities come from a mentality of scarcity because of everything that has been lost,” says Phelps. “As soon as we started talking I knew I needed to find a way to get him down here.”

“Here” is McComb, Mississippi, a rural community of 12,000 people about an hour north of New Orleans. Like so many other rural communities, it is an area that was once rich with industries—rail, timber, dairy, textiles—that have all but completely disappeared over the last half-century. It is where Phelps was born and grew up until age 10, and where he returned to as an adult after spending decades away living in major cities across the U.S.

Phelps is an artist-turned-arts administrator. He completed his undergraduate work at the Art Institute of Chicago, then moved to L.A. for his graduate work. Though he was studying painting, he found himself gravitating more towards multi-media installation and performance work.

“I became interested in relational aesthetics and got into organizing projects that just brought people together in interesting ways,” he says.

Calvin Phelps.

Once he was in L.A., he started doing even more to bring people together—hosting monthly supper club events in his home, then opening a gallery in Downtown L.A. inside his apartment building. He transitioned into the nonprofit world, working for organizations like the Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND), where he learned about curating site-specific public installations in often-unexpected locations (including highway billboards), and the Armory Center for the Arts, where he was inspired by their interdisciplinary approach that included exhibitions, studio programs, community art programs, and school education programs, and integrated those things as much as possible.

After 15 years in L.A., Phelps got word from his mom that the house left to him by his grandmother in his hometown of McComb was vacant and in need of attention. He had to figure out what to do with this house, and joked with his partner—a consultant who had just wrapped up a few projects and didn’t yet have anything new lined up—about moving there.

“I said to him, ‘We could always move to Mississippi, I have a house there.’ And at first we laughed, like, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ but then it became, ‘Why not?’ Why pay $3,000 a month in rent when you could pay nothing? I think a lot of people move back to rural communities because of how cheap it is and because there’s a lot more space. There are a lot of things about rural communities that are interesting.”

He knew he wanted to keep doing the creative work he had been doing in L.A. after returning to McComb. He took the models of LAND and the Armory and combined elements of both to create something entirely new for Mississippi, the Pike School of Art – Mississippi (PSA-MS).

“There is nothing like this in Mississippi,” he says. Much like the Armory, PSA-MS hosts exhibitions as well as community programs. Like LAND, PSA-MS has been almost entirely nomadic since its inception. Unlike either, PSA-MS also offers an artist residency program, which was very important to Phelps when he first moved back.

“Even before I came back out to Mississippi knew I wanted to start an arts organization,” he says. “I wanted to have art in the community and studio space and classes, but also an artist residency program. That was for selfish reasons, because I wanted to stay connected to all the artists that I knew and bring them out to Mississippi so there could be this cross-cultural understanding between urban and rural communities. This was in 2015. Then, right after the 2016 election, it became clearer that urban centers didn’t understand the rural community as much; there were many misconceptions, and [this cross-cultural dialogue became even more important].”

Pike School of Art – Mississippi.

PSA-MS has hosted two-week-long artist residencies in rented cabins in Percy Quin State Park since 2015. Phelps says that artists are interested in coming to rural Mississippi for a number of reasons, and for some, it is precisely because of some of the area’s problematic history that they’re drawn to it. Some artists, hailing from Choctaw or Chickasaw ancestry and interested in issues of indigeneity, want to come to Southwestern Mississippi to connect more with their original tribal land and their Nations, which were largely forcibly relocated to Oklahoma in the 1800s along the Trail of Tears. Other artists are interested in McComb specifically because it was a hotbed of Civil Rights activity, and a number of Civil Rights leaders, like Brenda Travis, are still alive, still live in the community, and are accessible to folks who want to talk to them.

Since moving back to McComb and launching PSA-MS, Phelps has become very invested in his rural community, and in understanding rural communities better in general. He’s participated in the Rural Generation Summit and the Rural Arts and Culture Summit. McComb was also one of 20 communities nationwide to host Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design workshops in 2019.

“There is a huge network of people out there doing this work, and I’m really interested in connecting with those people,” Phelps said. “There is not one ‘rural;’ there are many different rurals, and I’m trying to figure out Southwestern Mississippi. It is the Deep South; that is a thing that exists, and artists who have come here have really felt it and experimented with concepts of the Deep South.”

Phelps has been working with the City of McComb on developing an arts and entertainment district, and is also trying to get an asset map created for Southwestern Mississippi. In the meantime, he has been developing PSA-MS’s programming, which includes the residencies as well as nomadic workshops and exhibitions hosted by community venues all throughout town, including the local mall.

Most of the exhibitions that PSA-MS has hosted have been “pre-made and fairly simple,” according to Phelps. They’ve worked a lot with the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) on poster exhibitions, like the City of Hope: Resurrection City & the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign exhibition on the 1968 civil rights movement that put poverty at the forefront, organized by SITES in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This was held inside the McComb School District Tiger Space at Edgewood Mall.

PSA-MS has also worked with the Independent Curators International out of New York, which had done curatorial projects all over the U.S. but had never done one in Mississippi. As part of a series called do it Pike County, a presentation of the open-ended exhibition do it that has toured all over the world, they presented a work created by Theaster Gates called “How to Catch the Holy Ghost or Get Arrested in a Shopping Mall” in, naturally, the mall. “I don’t think this project has been done many times, and to present a Theaster Gates piece in McComb, Mississippi was amazing,” Phelps said. They’ve also hosted exhibitions in other community venues in the area, but Phelps enjoys bringing shows to the mall where potentially more people will experience the art; his goal has always been to bring art more out into the public where the public actually is.

The “Truth Booth.”

Another exhibition presented by PSA-MS was “In Search of the Truth” by Cause Collective, a participatory art project involving a 15-foot inflatable booth shaped like a comic book speech bubble into which people step to record their own truths, starting with the prompt, “The truth is…” They programmed an entire day of community engagement around it, which ended with a screening of the classic film Rashomon, a famous examination of the concept of “truth.” This was the first event Phelps ever held inside the former Pike County Juvenile Detention Center, a building that had previously been the McComb city jail and had sat vacant for years until Phelps managed to secure a 10-year lease on the property. He hopes to make the lease more permanent or even buy the building outright in the future.

“We were really trying to figure out what people want to see in there,” he explains. “There’s graffiti in the jail from people who are alive and living in McComb right now. When taking a space like this that has this troubled history and trying to make it something else, you have to be very careful and do it right, so we’ve been taking it very slow. Part of the process of figuring it out has been people who had been in the jail coming by and saying they think it’s great to be taking something so negative and make it a positive thing for the community, but they also want us to leave some of the history—like the graffiti—and not cover it up [as if to erase it].”

Just over a week after hosting this first public event inside the former detention center, Phelps went to Fergus Falls for the Artists Working in Community Intensive where he met Nik Nerburn, an artist based in Duluth, Minnesota. Nerburn’s work is about engaging with the community through stories and documentary arts, including photography and filmmaking.

“The training was sort of a formal way of engaging with some of these ideas I’d been working with and around for some time,” Nerburn says. “It was great because it was an opportunity for me to see the work from a community organizer’s perspective rather than as an artist.”

As an artist, he says, his work is about working with people out in the public, primarily through documentary photography and film—so, him going out with camera. Engaging with his work from the perspective of an organizer was a whole different perspective for him.

“After attending that workshop, part of what I think about with my work now is, ‘What is the problem I’m trying to solve?'” Nerburn says. “Before I do a project I think about how I can be useful as an artist in solving a specific problem, which is not an approach I’ve taken before.”

Nik Nerburn.

Nerburn says that for him, his work is really about the “neighborhood narrative”—people might have an overly negative perception of a particular city or neighborhood, such as McComb, or they forcibly over-correct the narrative to make it more positive in a way that isn’t accurate, either. “It’s either all about drugs and crime or the success of a couple of breweries and coffee shops; there’s no middle ground,” he says. “Neither story is totally true; the truth is a bit of both, but there is this wide, ambiguous area of what the truth really is.”

The problem he is trying to solve now, he says, is finding ways to complicate those narratives and show that a particular city or neighborhood is not quite a resounding success story, nor is it a crime-infested hellscape.

“The politics of representation are at the core of an ethical documentary approach—understanding how and why you would represent a person in the community in a certain way is very important to consider,” he says. “I think about the way I’m making the work about the community rather than my own interests. What is the narrative I want to push back on? What is the representation missing from that narrative that should be included?”

He jokes that because his work was already political and about community, stories, narratives, and people, that he was “primed for this type of training.” The Fergus Falls intensive showed him not just how he can be helpful in his community, but how other artists are helpful in their own communities.

PSA-MS “Yes Sign.” Photo by Nik Nerburn.

Which brings us back to Calvin Phelps and his work in McComb. With Nerburn’s passions for seeing a community in terms of its assets and thoughtful, ethical representation, as well as his personal values and beliefs regarding the American prison system, Phelps knew immediately that Nerburn was the right person to bring down to McComb and work with him. Nerburn was equally as impressed with Phelps, for that matter.

“Calvin has an amazing ability to cross boundaries. He’s good at code switching,” Nerburn says. “He is an openly gay man in town of 12,000 people in rural Mississippi. He’s from this town; he grew up there. He has an ability to walk into any space and make it special, and people trust him and like him—white and Black spaces, [traditional and progressive]. He’s a very special organizer who doesn’t even know how good he is at doing it.”

Phelps was able to secure some funding to be able to bring Nerburn down to Mississippi where he documented the space—all the graffiti, the bars, the jail cells—and the two of them together led a day of community engagement, putting into practice a lot of what they had learned in Fergus Falls.

“We took that model of the workshop we both attended at Springboard and modified it for the community in McComb,” Nerburn says. “Calvin wants to use this former youth detention center and create a new narrative for it as a youth arts facility, so we took some of the things we learned at the training and used that to create a workshop for the people in town to come in and envision different uses of the jail with us.”

PSA-MS “Yes Sign.” Photo by Nik Nerburn.

Nerburn said that before even entering the building there had been a large sign on the outer wall that listed all the items banned from the facility. One of the first things they did was rip that sign down. They brought it inside and used it as a launching point for discussion with community members, encouraging them to share their stories of the jail and asking, “Instead of saying ‘no,’ what are some things we can say ‘yes’ to? Instead of what you can’t have inside, what are some things you can have?”

They also had people write down their greatest fears on pieces of paper and throw them across the room, another exercise they had learned from the intensive training.

“It was a really productive exercise for the people down there,” Nerburn said. “It’s a really amazing opportunity to take the work Springboard taught us and directly use it in the community. It’s something I probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise; I don’t design community charettes.”

Nerburn says he is a prison abolitionist at his core, and would like to develop a prison diversion program for Pike County next. Another activity they had during the day of community engagement involved a sign on which Nerburn had written, “Each year Pike County spends up to $1,700,122 on its jail system. What else is possible?” They then prompted community members to write down their thoughts on ways that money could be spent instead of on prisons, and how those alternatives could have the potential to keep people out of prisons.

“We asked, ‘If you were to give that much money to your community, what would you spend it on? What if we spent that same amount of money but instead of incarcerating people, we actually invested in them?’ That’s the next step in that work is to take this building [and turn it into something that can keep people out of jail]. People love the idea of taking a former detention facility and turning it into a youth art center that can be used as a diversion from incarcerating youth. We can do art programming with youth instead, and off-ramp them into something useful,” Nerburn explained.

While PSA-MS has been moving slowly on programming inside the building up to this point, Phelps says they’re ready to start speeding things up this year. They got some money to start on some minor renovations and worked with the city to be able to use the working restrooms in a back building behind the facility, so now they will be able to start holding events there more regularly—simpler events like workshops and film screenings with audiences of about 20-30 people.

PSA-MS “Yes Sign.” Photo by Nik Nerburn.

Phelps is in the process of securing large-scale funding for a whole renovation and conversion of the jail, after which they’ll have workshop and maker spaces, possibly a printmaking studio, and ideally—if Phelps can figure out how to make it work—a digital media lab where he will teach Adobe Creative Cloud applications like Photoshop and web design. “Those skills aren’t taught here, even at the community college level,” he says, “and those are valuable skills to have that people can make a living with.”

The fully renovated space will also have a full commercial kitchen that can be used as a commissary by community members, and apartments for the artist residencies which will allow them to stay for up to two months (though the state park cabins will still be an option for those who want to be out in nature and have more solitude).

The project, in full, is going to cost about $375,000, though Phelps is hoping to get a lot of work done in-kind and bring the budget down to $250,000. He says that PSA-MS has been very fortunate so far to receive multiple grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Mississippi Humanities Council, South Arts, and the Mississippi Development Authority Office of Tourism, but now he’s really looking at corporate and large-scale institutional support. Ideally, he would love to have the work completed and do a kick-off even in January 2021, in conjunction with the closing of Prospect New OrleansP.5 (do it Pike County was a satellite event for P.4 and Phelps is looking to host another satellite for P.5) as well as the re-opening of the old Palace Theater as a new performing arts and events center in McComb.

“If we can kick these off at the same time, it would be a really big boost for McComb,” he says. “It would be transformational.”

Nik Nerburn preparing an exhibit of his West Duluth photos. Photo credit: Clint Austin.

Phelps also wants to bring Nerburn back down to Mississippi to do more work with PSA-MS. In the meantime, Nerburn is continuing his own work, a long-term documentary project about West Duluth.

“This neighborhood has got a lot of fawning coverage in state media [for all of the new businesses in the re-branded Lincoln Park Craft District],” he explains. “This has been a historically working-class neighborhood of deficit that is now rapidly gentrifying into a place of abundance, but with that comes a lot of loss.”

For the past four years, he documented one specific pay-by-the-week apartment building, the Seaway Hotel. It closed last November after over 100 years of being a place for dockworkers and transient workers. It was one of the last single-room occupancy buildings in Duluth. Nerburn spent a lot of time photographing people around West Duluth as well as people in their rooms at the Seaway Hotel, and plans on creating a book of his photography.

His documentation of gentrification in a blue-collar town has a lot of parallels to the loss of industries that have ravaged rural communities, and those parallels aren’t lost on Phelps.

“Rural communities have lost so many of their industries,” he says. “In McComb, trade killed the textile industry. Timber is still around a little, but dairy and agriculture have been dwindling for a very long time. We’ve gone from small family-owned farms to large corporate farms. Now all of the products Walmart sells that are dairy-based are made from milk from Walmart farms. They don’t aggregate that from local and small farms anymore. Walmart is coming in and creating a massive shift in retail and agriculture at the rural level. There are parallels between gentrification in urban communities and the Walmartification of America.”

There is, of course, a massive Walmart Supercenter in McComb.

“I once sat in on a session on gentrification in Detroit and realized a lot of the things were very similar to what has happened in rural America—who gets pushed out when someone else moves in? Walmart moving into McComb pushes out a certain type of business and really changes the dynamic in a lot of ways.”

PSA-MS “Yes Sign.” Photo by Nik Nerburn.

Phelps is very much aware of the “decline of rural America” narrative popular in national media and how the dominant national narrative, particularly from those outside of rural communities, tends to be that someone from the outside needs to come in and “save” these rural communities. Even people who work in economic development in rural communities seem to think the solution is “just to get that one industry to come and save us.” But he isn’t looking for an outside savior; he believes rural communities have the power and ability to “save” themselves.

“I’m more about asset-based community development,” he says. “We already have all the assets that we need; we just need to use them. That’s what a lot of rural arts leaders are all about. There are people like us who are here and are trying to do it for ourselves.”