For many small towns across America – manufacturing and agriculture keep their economic engines running. But in the face of automation and consolidation, some believe innovation will become the true driving force.
CGTN’s Mark Niu introduces us to this week’s inspirer – who believes art, local talent and some old technologies can transform communities.
In Washington’s Yakima Valley, a two-hour drive southeast of Seattle, lies the town of Tieton. Population: 1200.
Seattle resident and artist Ed Marquand stopped on his bike ride to fix a flat tire in the city park 13 years ago. He remembers the view.
“This one was hardly doing anything at all,” he said. “That building was empty. That building was empty. So obvious that things were just barely holding on.”
Marquand began buying properties and brainstorming with friends on what he could do here that couldn’t be done in Seattle.
“Tieton has a population of about 65% Latino. They came here because of the agriculture industry, the orchards, the fruit orchards that surround Tieton,” he explained.
“Most of the Latinos who have ended up here, come from countries where things are made by hand. So the appreciation for the hand-made artisan business is something that we’ve kind of lost in this country. If you can’t buy it at Costco, what good is it? That’s a common attitude. But in Mexico or other Central American countries, you know the guy who made the furniture, you know the potter who threw the pots, you know woman who made the tortillas.”
At Marquand’s Paper Hammer Studios, you’ll find workers like Maria Solorio, who used to sell food in the orchards.
She did much of the work to create a book that celebrates the lone surviving tree in a village in Costa Rica. She also made a retrospective of the work of Japenese textile designer Reiko Sudo.
“We are able to attract people like Maria and they work on this kind of work for a decade, a decade and a half, they become better at it than anyone I could imagine getting in Seattle to do this work,” said Ed.
And just down the road is the warehouse and headquarters of Mighty Tieton – an artisan incubator founded by Marquand.
Inside, machines date back to the 1950’s – some even further.
Years ago, welder Steve Morgan was laid off, but he’d taken art classes decades earlier that made him perfect for this job.
“It’s nice to know that something I did enjoy, that I can actually do again. Make money at it now,” Steve said, now a letter pressman at Paper Hammer Studios. “My family thinks it’s great, well this is what you always wanted to do. Yeah. Like, the books go all around world. We’ve had a couple of books presented to the Pope and are now in the Vatican archives.”
The book he’s helping make is for horse enthusiasts and will sell for at least $5,000 a copy. The precision, texure and artistry are all things that can’t be replicated with a laser printer.
Ed Marquand explained that, “One of our mottos here is isn’t it nice when something has outlived its obsolescence? And much of the equipment we use here, much of the techniques we use here are from a hundred years ago. And as we become more and more digital, and more and more electronic, I think there’s a human desire to be attracted to things that are more tactile, handmade, and to appreciate that craft.”
Inside the Mighty Tieton warehouse, you’ll find some artistic suprises. In this room, it’s the Trimpin Sound space, which houses the work of German American musician and artist Trimpin.
Right next door, Marquand shows us the gallery space, where artworks are exhibited for an annual contest.
“We have 920 submissions this year,” he said. “They are submitted online, juried online. And the 169 pieces that were accepted, could then be shipped to Tieton.”
“The only restriction with the art work is that no piece can be larger than 10 inches in any dimension.”
Mighty Tieton has positioned itself as an incubator for artisan business aiming to break the mold of the stereotypical image of the starving artist.
Marquand believes that, “If they’ve been able to survive for decades on their artwork, they are much more resourceful than a banker working a 40-hour week in a bank. That banker isn’t using a lot of imagination to solve problems.”
“But,” he added, “if you ask a designer, if you ask an architect, you ask a graphic designer, you ask a painter into a problem to help come up with a solution, the perspectives you are going to get from those individuals will be fresh. They’ll be different.”
One of Mighty Tieton’s fresh ideas is creating seven, two-and-a-half meter wide glass mosaics to be placed all around the city square.
The designs are based on vintage fruit box labels from the 1930’s to 1960’s; an homage to the area’s farm families and packing companies that helped make Tieton what it is today.
Elizabeth Magana, the studio Supervisor, said that, “I have seen like people, their faces, surprised. Emotions they have. Wow, what we find out in here like a little town, you cannot imagine it can be. Cause a lot of the orchards that you have around – just think about apple or pears around here, not thinking it’s like a little treasure you find in here.”
Magana said she feels like she’s really part of the town, and, “it’s gonna be here after I die, still going to be there, some part of me in there.”
Mighty Tieton has, so far, secured funding for three of the murals. A fourth is raising money on Kickstarter.
It hopes visitors will stop off the highway to see the beautiful 10,000 tile work of arts and then spend money while in town.
Marquand says the good ‘ol days can never come back. That’s why he keeps searching for ideas that make both commercial and cultural sense as a model and inspiration for farm communities across the country.