Maria Sykes first came to Green River as an AmeriCorps member just after graduating with an architecture degree from Auburn University. Her role was to develop affordable housing in collaboration with the community center.
Green River, about an hour away from Moab, is a town of just under 1,000 people. It struggles with the same issues that other small rural towns do: crumbling infrastructure, an aging and shrinking population, and a lack of affordable housing.
“We realized that this kind of place could benefit from designers,” Sykes said. “And it was a place where we could learn and where we could put our skills to use.” In college, she took to the idea of “citizen architects,” or architects who deeply engaged with the community they were in, and let that sense of place guide their design.
In 2010, Sykes founded the non-profit Epicenter, which “stewards creative initiatives that honor the past, strengthen the present, and build the future that we envision alongside our community.” Their past projects include a “fix it first” plan, which helps elderly, disabled, and moderate to low income homeowners fix minor problems in their homes and pay back the costs at a low interest rate; the design of a 708-square foot “Frontier House” as an alternative to trailer homes; the creation of a Green River newspaper and magazine; and the “Frontier Fellowship,” an opportunity for artists to generate new work that is influenced by Green River.
Epicenter’s work is meant to mitigate population booms, and subsequent busts, in Green River. Sykes wants to help the town build in a slow, intentional way, she said, and avoid the mistakes of the past. She creates things for the people who currently live in Green River, not the people who could one day move to the town.
In 2021, the organization announced their publication, “Why This Place: A Future-Forward Perspective,” which will publish sometime in spring 2022. The publication will discuss what the organization has done in the past in order to make a plan for the future.
The idea for the publication started as “a couple of beers on my porch,” Sykes said at a recent Zoom panel about the publication. 2020 was both the first year of the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic and a year of cultural reckoning, Sykes said in an interview with the Moab Sun News, and it caused her and her organization to start questioning their role in Green River and why they were so focused on the tiny rural town. The conversations that were happening nationwide, of racial justice and of pandemic isolation, trickled down into Epicenter’s conversations.
“It just made us start rethinking about who we are in this place, and asking are we the right people to be doing this work?” Sykes said. The isolation of the pandemic gave her the “gift of time,” she said, and allowed her to properly reflect on everything her organization had done since its founding.
“And then it just became this much bigger thing when we started asking those questions,” she said.
The publication will take the form of a 6.75×9.5” book with around 250 pages, designed by Jason Dilworth. At one point, the publication was going to be an “open magazine” of loose ephemera, a boxed collection of loose and bound writings, audio, postcards, maps and other content. But as the project expanded, the team decided they wanted a small, tangible, affordable, permanent thing that could “collapse time” within its pages.
“We work in this way a lot, of being like, ‘let’s think of the weirdest thing that we could do that would get our idea across,’ and then we edit and simplify,” Sykes said.
As the publication has grown and evolved, it became more abstract but also more comprehensive, said Summer Orr, the main illustrator for the project.
“As all these pieces have come together, it is continuously becoming something different from where it started,” Orr said. Sykes brought Orr and Dilworth into the project early so that the illustration and design of the publication could feed the written content. Orr’s design influences came mostly from older Utah travel brochures and historical quarterly publications, she said—she is attempting to use her illustrations to also give the illusion of “compressing time,” by drawing scenes that depict the past, present, and future all in one.
The book’s design is meant to be spatial, Dilworth said. One section of the book contains poetry by Dasha Bulatova, a past Frontier Fellow. When asked what she wanted to include in the publication, Bulatova decided to make erasure poems out of the poetry she wrote as a fellow.
“When I was thinking about how I could contribute, it was deep 2020 and we were all experiencing a lot of loss,” Bulatova said. “I had entered into a deep isolation, I was getting ready to move across the country, so I was thinking about memory getting incomplete and hazy. I did the same thing to my poems.”
Dilworth designed the poems so the words were spread out over the wide pages of the book; he wanted the poems to feel like unstable architecture, or like cairns that are close to toppling over.
The publication will contain content from a variety of contributors—past Frontier Fellows, Green River community members, current volunteers at the Epicenter—in a variety of forms, threaded together by the common themes of the challenges of designing for a rural place, community resistance, regional tourism, and the seasonality of Green River.
So, why Green River? Why give so much attention and care to the tiny town west of the Utah-Colorado border?
“Rural matters, period,” said Jamie Horter, a rural advocate and collaborator to the publication. “We exist. We are here.” She wants to change the narrative of rural places, and shift the way that they’re viewed.
“Throw a dart and you’re going to find a really interesting place,” Sykes said. “We happened to choose this place, and it welcomed us for the most part … It’s about deciding ‘this is home.’ That’s why this place.”
The publication is expected to be finalized sometime in spring 2022.