About 50 miles northeast of the city of Austin there is a small town called Bartlett. Situated in both Williamson and Bell counties — a line that bisects part of downtown — Bartlett sits in the rolling and wide expanses of green landscape and endless blue sky of central Texas, and between its sky and its land is its foundational relationship with cotton.
Bartlett’s heyday in the turn of the last century was fully reliant on the cotton industry, which experienced a rapid and disconsolate decline in the 1930s. This is the story of many small Texas towns, but Bartlett is a special case that’s currently undergoing a major turning point in its story — an unexpected twist that is also the impetus for my intersection and relationship with it.
In early 2020, Jonas Criscoe of Austin’s ICOSA Collective presented me with a unique opportunity to be involved in the revitalization of a small town. Initially the idea was to create an artist-in-residence program in one of the abandoned buildings in the downtown area of Bartlett, which is lined with an impressive number of well-preserved buildings. Most of these buildings had been recently purchased by Robert Zalkin, an entrepreneur from a small town in New York state, who envisions a future for the town that focuses on community engagement through arts and culture. Long story short: the Bartlett Project was born.
Covid-19 had other plans.
After almost an entire year of false starts, we finally shifted our idea from a residency to an experimental exhibition and activation of one of the historical buildings that Robert offered to us. The exhibition is to be an experimental introduction, a ‘taking of the temperature’ so to speak — a conduit for Bartlett’s past and present to be introduced to its potential future.
The revitalization of a small town is no small feat. We’ve all heard the stories of artists coming in to revitalize neighborhoods, or communities, which is often followed by aggressive gentrification, and if anyone reading this is from Austin, then you’ve seen the problems this ‘revitalization’ can cause.
And walking into any community, no matter the circumstances under which I am invited, comes with responsibility. In the case of Bartlett, this responsibility is compounded by the many histories of representation, the difficulty of community engagement during a pandemic, and the weight of the history of a place. However, with all the setbacks and new challenges we face collectively — the organizers and artists, and locals who support us — the story of Bartlett has lodged itself in my heart. The unfolding story has become an active and endearing one.
I feel an urgency to tell the story of Bartlett as it continues to evolve before me. For this project, I’ve brought in four artists: Aimee Everett, Emmy Laursen, Jade Walker, and Mark Menjivar, all of whom share concerns around art and civic engagement in their unique ways, and who feel the same weight of responsibility to Bartlett’s shared stories and collective histories (or lack thereof in some cases).
Over the next few months, our stories and findings will unfold, and what we learn will be shared here as we move forward together as a team — myself, four artists, an entrepreneur, and the face of a collective — to be a part of a pivotal moment in the history of a unique, beautiful, and slightly disquieted town. This series will be a document of the journey as we move toward building an exhibition that is both relevant to the residents of the town, and a marker of the town’s possible future.
Look for Part 2 of this series on April 27. To learn more about Bartlett, please follow @downtownbartlett. For information about the artists follow: @aimeemeverettart,@laursen_art, @jadewalker_studio, @mjmenjivar, @LeslieMoodyCastro