Mary Welcome is a citizen artist who has spent over a decade collaborating with rural communities in the inland west and upper Midwest regions of the country. She is based in Palouse, a town in Washington with a population of 998, and has facilitated community projects in New Cuyama, California; Grand Rapids, Michigan; St. James, Minnesota; and beyond. In 2017, she received an Artist Trust Fellowship in recognition of her long-standing dedication to serving rural communities.
Mary has a multidisciplinary artistic background from working as a freelancer throughout college and graduate school. After earning an MFA in painting, she decided to pursue an artistic practice away from the world of galleries and commercial representation. “At least for myself and my proclivities, it’s a lot about self-care,” says Mary on how she decided to work with small towns. “I don’t want to be in the city. I am very tired of the narrative that artists only live in the city and that art only exists in the city. I like to be in smaller towns, and I like to know my neighbors.”
Currently, Mary spends six months each year traveling to rural communities as a visiting artist. During these residencies, she connects with community members through conversational outreach and facilitating citizen-led projects. “A lot of [the work] is just getting to know people and getting comfortable in a place, whether that’s like ‘Oh, you can find Mary at the library [on] Tuesday afternoons’ or ‘Oh, you know you can find Mary at trivia on Wednesday evenings,’” explains Mary. “Making myself visible enough to do a lot of conversational outreach, but then also diligent enough to follow through on all the things that we come up with during that time.”
On her days spent at home, Mary serves the Palouse community in many of the same ways she assists the small towns she visits. She spends time catching up with friends, doing maintenance and creating documentation for other projects, and facilitating community projects around town, formerly including The Look Around arts space. She recently worked with artists and community members in Palouse to create a souvenir shop complete with hyper-local visually sourced bumper stickers and t-shirts, and has run a portrait project disguised as a photo booth for the city’s annual Palouse Days festival since 2009.
While collaborating with rural communities has allowed Mary to make connections with people and places across the country, she admits it can often be challenging given the lack of funding and exposure for small towns. “It’s really hard to convince organizations to invest in small towns or in communities that aren’t already making headlines,” she explains, adding that it can often be difficult to adequately quantify the impact of her work for grant applications.
Funding from Mary’s 2017 Fellowship allowed her to spend a few more weeks at home in Palouse, which she says she’d like to be able to do more often, and buy home insurance. “The gift of being able to work in my home community and the time spent here is so valuable to me, it’s hard to explain how much that means to me to be able to spend a little more time at home working on projects here as a neighbor and as a volunteer instead of having to hustle halfway across the country,” says Mary on the impact of the award.
In addition to her projects in Palouse, Mary recently curated and facilitated an artist residency in New Cuyama, California, and is currently working on several projects in Minnesota. In Fergus Falls, she is collaborating with Springboard for the Arts on the Year of Play, a year-long series of citizen-led interventions focused on healthy living and stress reduction. As part of the project, Mary and other citizen artists work with residents to create local programming, including a sub-zero movie night on Lake Alice, a pop-up splash pad, and a mini concert series. She’s also working with her collective Homeboat (a team of artists and architects) to create a community advocate program for healthy housing in St. James, Minnesota as part of an ArtPlace grant.
Asked if she has any advice for artist applying for awards like the Fellowship, Mary says “Be honest and state your needs and talk about your practice openly and honestly and clumsily. You learn so much more through that than trying to play some game that changes your work and changes your words in a way that will stress you out if you can’t back it up.”
To learn more about Mary and her work, check out her website.