Grin City Collective Shifts Focus

Jonathan Vatner
From the March/April 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

As it approaches its tenth anniversary, Grin City Collective, a public-art nonprofit and residency program in Grinnell, Iowa, is shaking things up. Founder and codirector Joe Lacina is stepping down, and the organization—which over the past decade has provided residencies for nearly two hundred writers and artists on a 320-acre farm just outside the small Iowa city—will close its residency program this summer to focus on expanding its public-art presence. The collective may continue to offer occasional residencies nearby, but its tenure on the farm is coming to an end. “The funding for unrestricted time for artists to spend in the studio and make work is hard to come by,” Lacina explains. “It’s been much easier for us to find grants and donors that will fund a specific project or activity.”

Grin City Collective began informally in 2006 as the Grinnell Artist Residency when Lacina, a visual artist, invited some college friends to his family’s soy farm for a summer of intensive art making. In 2011, the Lacina family hired writer Molly Rideout as codirector to help develop the residency. She and Lacina also began to organize public-art projects throughout central Iowa, and changed the name of their project to Grin City Collective, borrowing a tongue-in-cheek nickname for Grinnell. They purposely chose the word collective to promote a sense of collaboration. “We’re not ‘exposing’ people to art,” says Rideout, who was recently promoted to executive director. “That word has the feeling that there’s no consent from the viewer. We’re creating art with the community.”

The projects Grin City residents have produced include Alexander Hanson and Anthony Zappa’s “Landlocked Melancholy,” a thirty-foot dock in the middle of a field—“It’s a little apocalyptic,” Lacina notes; “you’re waiting for the ocean to come”; and Molly Rideout’s project called “The Love Shack,” a house built of nine hundred discarded romance novels, which was subsequently set on fire via flaming arrows. The collective also hosts the Rurally Good Festival, an annual event featuring music, readings, and art installations, which will take place at the farm this year on June 4.

But it’s the writing projects that are closest to Rideout’s heart. In 2014 she installed a children’s story she had written on the windows of Drake Community Library in Grinnell, applying large vinyl letters to the glass by hand. “As writers, we spend so much time staring at a screen and pushing buttons,” Rideout says. “Actually having to deal with each individual letter, making sure it’s lined up and the spacing is correct, harks back to the letterpress. The physical making process is something I miss in my writing practice.”

From this project, the collective developed its Public Writing, Public Libraries program, which last year expanded to twelve libraries throughout Iowa and enlisted four more writers to create similar texts. Brooklyn, New York–based poet Purvi Shah interviewed people she met at each library and wrote site-specific, community-inspired poems. Kevin Haworth of Athens, Ohio, excerpted an essay about the Holocaust and his son learning to play the cello that he wrote while in residence at the farm. And Rideout herself installed an essay at the Cedar Rapids Public Library; she recalls how a retired man watched with interest as she and two others painstakingly applied the sheets of vinyl letters to more than ninety-five library windows. “He confessed that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d read a book,” Rideout says. “By the time it was done he said, ‘I don’t understand all of it right now, but I’m going to come back again and reread it, and I’m going to keep reading it until I do understand it.’”

This kind of openness and social inclusivity is part of the Grin City Collective ethos. Douglas Caulkins, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Grinnell College who helps fund the collective, sees public art as a crucial way to promote understanding beyond the ivory tower. “An article of faith for me is that art is for everyone and it can help bridge differences,” Caulkins says. “How can we support expansion of art into places where it’s not necessarily recognized, while avoiding the idea of art as an elite activity?”

As part of its social mission, Grin City also works with local schools. In September 2015, Rideout and three artists conducted a writing and art project to raise awareness of bullying at Davis Elementary School in Grinnell. They asked third- and fourth-grade students to write about a time when they were mean to a sibling or friend, or when they were teased or bullied themselves, and to identify the emotions they felt about it. The students then attached those stories to piñatas and destroyed them to show that the bad habits that cause bullying can be broken.

As Grin City Collective prepares to move off the family farm, Lacina says he is relieved to be done with the day-to-day upkeep of running a residency. “It often amounts to a lot of janitorial activities,” he says. “I know way more about plumbing than I ever wanted to.” He will continue to live on the farmstead, renting out the extra rooms and studios to artists and volunteer farmers, while he pursues an MFA in sculpture at the University of Iowa. He hopes to use his newfound free time to teach and create—and maybe even go on a retreat himself, which he admits he’s never done.

Grin City, meanwhile, will continue to stay rooted in the local community. The collective kicked off 2016 by teaming up with the Grinnell Area Arts Council to fund three to five new works of public art, to be installed in downtown Grinnell in June. Rideout is determined to keep storytelling at the organization’s core, through writing and other art forms that invigorate the local community. “We want to focus on place making, and what is place making but telling a story about a place?”  

Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Brooklyn, New York. He is the staff writer for Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology.