A Moving Journey

Yep, it’s true. Yet another creative decamping to a small town from a large, expensive city.

After spending the past 20+ years in Austin (most of my adult life up to this point), I began to feel ready to move on a couple of years ago. I’d stopped lamenting any kind of unreclaimable Austin heydey long ago, and had accepted the city as just a place to live.

Much of this contentment with settling had to do with the comforts of home. In 2012, my husband and I bought our house near William Cannon/Manchaca in south Austin, an area I’d always wanted to put down roots in since my days as a student at St. Edward’s University in the late 90s, shopping for cheap art supplies at the Hobby Lobby that is now a Sprouts grocery store. It’s an established, homey suburban area, the type of place I’d always idolized. Growing up, my family moved around a quite a bit and we always lived way out in the country or in an aging downtown area, never anywhere “normal.”

For a few years, it was great. My husband was getting on in his teaching at Austin Community College, my freelance business was growing, but after awhile I got tired of driving over to east Austin to attend and volunteer at art events. I got tired of driving anywhere in general. When I did go out for an evening, I was always shocked the next day at how easy it was to spend $100 for casual dinner and drinks for two over the course of a couple of hours. I had a hard time accepting that food and beverage culture had taken over the city, that this was the experience people wanted to spend their money on. So perplexing… and boring. The crowds also began to get to me as well. It was difficult to go anywhere any time of day without sitting in traffic, hunting for parking, waiting in line to get in, then being squished in a noisy patio, park, pool, coffee shop, or bar with a bunch of people. So I stayed home and fluffed my nest; it was a tranquil refuge from the outside world.

My other rationale for staying in Austin was work. Most of my business is based in Austin, but in-person meetings were rare. Like many professionals, the overwhelming majority of my communication with people takes place online and over the phone. I could technically work almost anywhere, but my husband was still seriously invested in his teaching career. Since it provided a steady paycheck at the first of each month, we relied on the income (my freelance work provides a second full-time income but the monthly amount is not as reliable — feast or famine). A gifted and highly-regarded educator, he had been passed up for promotion several times and began to get more and more disillusioned with the bureaucracy of the higher education system.

Once the burnout set in, it was time to go.

Last year, we got serious about starting over somewhere new. City life was off the table, neither one of us wanted to deal with the same crowding and cost of living issues we disliked about Austin. We also didn’t want to stay in central Texas for a couple of reasons: 1) I know some artists have been moving out to smaller surrounding communities like Lockhart, Elgin, Smithville, Johnson City, etc., but I’d still feel psychically tethered to Austin, and I could see its problems following artists there in the not-too-distant future. 2) I’ve lived and traveled around the whole area my entire life (I was born in New Braunfels; my ancestral home base is near Hallettsville, Texas), and these towns just weren’t different enough for me. However cold winters were another non-starter for us, so we knew we wouldn’t be going too far.

Those are a few of the things we didn’t want. What did we want? A slower, more relaxed pace of life, not constantly bombarded with events and new restaurants to try and new clothes to buy. A small town with some interesting historic architecture, underutilized real estate, nature close at hand… a place to make a difference, to draw new visitors and residents. But how to get started? We just started checking out places online, and dreaming, dreaming, dreaming. I also took a road trip through north and west Texas last year that got me inspired.

We made visits to a couple of places that ultimately didn’t feel right, till we thought about Roswell. Our first and only visit up till then had been a day trip on our way to Colorado in 2018, but we really enjoyed everything from the kitschy alien tourist attractions to the amazing Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art. My husband then re-connected with an artist in the Roswell Artist-in-Residence (RAiR) program he’d at a residency in Maine a few years ago. He generously offered us a free apartment at the studio compound so we could spend a few days checking out the town and housing options.

From there, the decision to move went quickly. We ready to move on that we just decided to go for it. To clarify, this was not a move of desperation, but one of hope for the future. That feeling you get when you take a big step in life that feels too positive to be scary. A couple of months later, we had sold our beloved sanctuary in south Austin (I was more sad about leaving behind the trees I’d planted – as for the house, I felt it was ready to change hands over to owners who would appreciate it and build on what we’d already accomplished) and found ourselves the homeowners of a 100-year-old semi-fixer-upper in downtown Roswell. We’ve lived here for just over two months and in spite of everything that’s going wrong in the world right now, it feels just right for us.

I thought of leaving out my specific complaints about Austin in this post, but each story of artists moving to rural areas is different and I wanted to share mine. Some people have kids they want to grow up with certain experiences, some are priced out of the city, some need more space to work, some need a quieter place to focus.

I also think it takes a certain kind of artist to want to move to a small town or rural area. Just as it takes a certain kind of artist to successfully “advance” to Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, London, etc. It takes yet another kind of artist to chase residencies all over the globe. There’s room in the art world for all of these experiences.

My practice has always been rooted in some degree of activism. Not necessarily the letter-writing or phone-banking kind (respect to those who can handle that sort of thing), but between the subtleness of satire and mystery that opens the door to a questioning perspective and audacity and ridiculousness that incites and inspires. That’s probably why my day job as a graphic designer has remained gratifying for the past 20 years as I spend a great deal of time thinking of the right way to peddle influence.

I would say if your practice takes this angle, or if you are working artist looking to hunker down and focus with minimal distraction, I say do your research, find the right place for you, and make the move. While the usually conservative-leaning culture may be a shock for some folks, rural America needs artists right now. People with guts and vision who aren’t afraid to flout convention and try something new can make a big difference, much bigger than anything you could do in a large city. And I don’t think you even have to be very public about being an artist in a small town, such as starting a gallery or studio. For many artists I know, it’s a compulsion just to make your living space more interesting, and these changes stand out in a small town.

Regarding culture shock, I admit it can be an affront to the sensibilities sometimes — and I say this as someone who’s family is largely conservative and lives in deep red Texas. While the culture isn’t anything I haven’t closely encountered before, living with it day-to-day is a whole other story. But I think a big reason the U.S. is so polarized right now is because people are encountering others from different walks of life less and less, so they have little sympathy for the experiences of anyone outside their immediate social circle or culture. I’m willing to tackle this. Not on social media comment threads, but in real life through my work and involvement in the community, through building personal connections. The more creatives who move to small towns, the better we can move the needle. To me, this is an art project in itself.

However, I think you might find we have some common goals. Conservative small towns are grasping at straws to bring much-needed economic sustenance to desperate residents. It’s been shown time and time again in large and moderate-sized cities that (overwhelmingly white) artists make an economically challenged area more desirable to live, which usually draw employers and higher paying jobs in tow. However, the economic violence wrought by gentrification has largely affected established black and brown communities, another link in America’s 400-year-long chain of physical and economic oppression.

Since much of the rural U.S. is white, I believe it’s time for white artists to face our own. To provide the enticement for business development local conservative leaders say they want, while also dealing with the cultural ramifications. This is why I say it’s time to gentrify rural America.

I’ll share some of my goals and dreams for the move in future post as they have changed/are changing somewhat due to current events. But if this new chapter is showing us anything, it’s that time is fleeting. Waiting for something life-changing to happen is dull at best, depressing at worst. You just have to get out there and make an effort.

N.B. Glasstire has some great articles about artists living and working in rural areas. Be sure to read the comments. If you have other insights, experiences, articles, or resources to share, drop me a line!

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