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Creative Placemaking in Rural Communities: Putting our Toolkit to Work

Written by Carrie Geraci, Director of Jackson Hole Public Art

A string of pristine lakes and a charming downtown should make Seeley Lake (MT) a destination for visitors far and wide.

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But many people passing through this scenic patch of northeastern Montana rarely slow down, much less stop, because the main thoroughfare – Highway 83 – barely requires braking due to a speed limit of 35 mph.

And those who do stop find themselves having to choose their own adventures because of the lack of directional signage.  So many miss out on Seeley Lake’s standout sites to see.

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Enter Jackson Hole Public Art (JHPA) and its special rural-attuned approach to creative placemaking.  JHPA stepped in to address this challenge and to help residents discover their natural and community assets.

The project proved to be the perfect testing ground for the techniques detailed in POP—Places of Possibility: A Public Art & Placemaking Toolkit for Rural Communities, our new placemaking manual.  Following the formula outlined in the Toolkit, we spent months meeting with community members, listening, learning and identifying opportunities for temporary installations that could best serve them.

Deploying our Mobile Design Studio—a trailer retrofitted as a transportable placemaking hub—we spent a morning at the Seeley Lake Farmers Market, engaging locals and gathering input. Time and time again, residents spoke about the missed connection of their main street. So we set out to slow traffic with art.

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To achieve this ambitious goal, we enlisted Bland Hoke, our Public Artist-on-Staff. Ever committed to working with the local material vernacular, Bland recognized the repurposing potential of the Seeley Lake lumber mill which provided an abundance of mill ends, 3 foot-long cast off sections of milled lumber.

With the goal of providing better signage to guide visitors through the town, Bland reimagined the mill ends to serve as the appendages of a jaunty guide. Recruiting a crew of residents, he installed a trio of 16-foot-tall stick figures which were painted red, yellow, and blue.  Each silhouette serves as an artful arrow pointing to the community’s main amenities.

One figure marks the entrance to the road leading to the lake. Another one flags hiking trails, and the third one stands watch over downtown.

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“The most rewarding part of this project in Seeley Lake was that there is no single owner of this idea,” Bland said. “It’s a wonderful function of public art, in terms of bringing people together and creating stronger bonds within a community.”

Our approach, more of a creative process and less focused on a final product, resonated with the residents of Seeley Lake. “I feel like the Jackson Hole Public Art team came into our community and listened to what we felt we needed to help people slow down and take a look around Seeley Lake, Montana,” said Anne Beach, Executive Director of Seeley Lake Community Foundation.

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Our success in Seeley Lake is due, in large part, to the openness of residents like Anne. Residents participated in every step of the creative process. They welcomed our expertise, shared their experiences, and once we had collectively imagined an idea, they picked up paintbrushes and hammers to make the concept come to life.

Seeley Lake proved how creative placemaking can help a community better articulate its core character and meet a need.

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Having spent the past six years trailblazing a public art program in the Tetons, we wanted to share our hard-won wisdom with other towns of similar size and setting. Turning to our long-time partner in public art projects, the LOR Foundation—a visionary group committed to enhancing the livability of the Intermountain West through community-driven solutions—we spent 10 months developing our placemaking toolkit which is focused on the specific dynamics facing rural communities.

POP—Places of Possibility: A Public Art & Placemaking Toolkit for Rural Communities is a 37-page compendium detailing all of the steps necessary to create a successful public art program in an isolated location. Action-oriented, the Toolkit helps burgeoning projects, like the one in Seeley Lake, plot their course by starting with temporary installations and moving into permanent commissions.

“You begin by asking the community to think about all of the things that they love,” said Shawn Meisl, JHPA Project Manager. “And then we ask them to think about the opportunities – what would you change if you could? Placemaking is a way of activating an unloved or underutilized space. The making is the thing.”

And if making is the thing, then our Toolkit can serve as the spark. Free and available to all, our Toolkit can be downloaded from our website, www.JHPublicArt.org. For more information, please contact our Executive Director, Carrie Geraci (carrie@jhpublicart.org or 307-413-1474).

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