Maria Sykes

The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Maria Sykes earned her architecture degree from Auburn University just as the 2008 recession paralyzed the nation. Unable to find a job right away, she decided to join a classmate who was volunteering with AmeriCorps in the small town of Green River, UT. The plan was to spend a summer in Green River before buckling down to launch her architecture career. That summer turned into her own yearlong commitment to AmeriCorps, which then turned into a second year, with Maria always thinking she’d leave when the economy turned around.

What she hadn’t planned on was falling deeply in love with the place and its people. To wit, thirteen years later, she remains not only an enthusiastic Green River resident but also an invaluable community leader. In 2009 she co-founded Epicenter, a community-service nonprofit that over the years has served Green River in a number of ways, from offering low-cost home-repair services to elderly, disabled and low-income homeowners to rehabbing abandoned community parks. Today she remains Epicenter’s executive director.

Maria’s own artistic imagination drives much of Epicenter’s work, but she has also established a pipeline that guarantees a steady influx of fresh creative visions. Through its Frontier Fellowship program, Epicenter has welcomed scores of artists from around the country and as far away as the UK to reside in Green River, develop their own work and engage with the community in creative, respectful and galvanizing ways.

This year the team at Epicenter will proudly mark the culmination of their deep investment in the community when they break ground on Canal Commons, their first multi-unit affordable-housing development, planned in close partnership with Green River stakeholders.

In this interview with Pier Carlo Talenti, Maria explains the intricacies, joys and challenges of serving a remote, rural community through artistic engagement.

Choose a question below to begin exploring the interview:

Pier Carlo: Since we’re going to talk a lot about Green River, I’d love it if you described the community to us.

Maria Sykes: Green River is about a thousand people. It does ebb and flow depending on the season because it is a community that is in service to travelers for the most part. And it’s always been that. This is the place that you cross the river because to the north, there’s canyons, and to the south, there’s even bigger canyons, the Grand Canyon. This is one of those places where if you want to get across the country, you’re coming through this area. So this community formed around that, and now that’s more like the interstate and the train and things like that coming through here. I always call Green River reluctantly hospitable [she laughs] because it kind of has to be this waypoint.

It’s mostly a white community; about 30% is Latinx. Green River is also really isolated. The nearest town is 50 miles away, so it’s really different from the rural South that I was used to, where there’s a town every 10 miles or something. The closest town is Moab, and it’s 60 miles away, so Green River feels very isolated. In a lot of ways there’s still a lot of strong connection to those other rural communities, but also a lot of animosity like [laughing], “Oh, we don’t want to be like that town.” That’s probably the gist of Green River.

I mean, obviously, like a lot of rural communities, it’s lacking in some traditional resources, but it also has a lot of incredible resources, a lot of the reasons that I stayed here: the connection to the landscape, the small-town atmosphere, all of those really wonderful things. It’s a really different place to live.

I think the reason that I stayed as long as I have is because of the community that exists here. The people are incredibly interesting. Not everyone is wonderful and kind and perfect [she chuckles] like you see in a lot of rural movies where everyone’s friendly. It’s a complicated place. I think I like a challenge in a lot of ways, so that’s part of it. But there are a lot of people who do want to see some change here in Green River or they want to see the wonderful things about the community lifted up. That’s the sort of work that really gets me excited and makes me want to put down those roots.

Pier Carlo: How did you pitch Epicenter to the community when you first created it? Did you encounter resistance or doubts?

Maria: Oh yeah. I mean, the resistance and the doubt are ongoing, including for me! I have doubt sometimes. Originally, we didn’t pitch Epicenter, in a lot of ways. When you’re in AmeriCorps, you’re invited to the community as a volunteer, and then we were kind of asked to stay longer.

Pier Carlo: Can you describe a few projects that you did in AmeriCorps?

Maria: Working at the community center, we were specifically tasked with helping people access affordable housing. We were helping them apply for different affordable-housing loan programs through USDA Rural Development. Or helping out with the kids’ summer camp. I taught basketball camp one year. It’s kind of all over the place, basically just helping out at the community center.

After doing that work and really getting to know people and starting to understand the situation, we started talking to the director of the community center, saying, “Hey, there’s a building over on Broadway that we think is really cool. What if we were able to get that and renovate it and turn it into a housing resource center, and then you guys could use that space?” We were able to get that facility, and we got it up and running. We started creating these programs, and we quickly realized, “Oh, we have to be those people to run those programs because currently there’s nobody in the community who could do this or it would’ve already existed.”

Pier Carlo: What is it about you specifically as an artist that makes you the perfect person to do this work? What qualities do you think — from your training as an artist, as an architect, as a designer — are particularly useful to you in this work?

Maria: I think probably most of it is being taught to problem-solve and see the challenges, see the assets and create some sort of a solution, usually with a team of people. Adding to or editing the built environment isn’t always the solution, but we found in Green River sometimes it is.

Pier Carlo: Can you say more about that? I’m not sure I understand.

Maria: I think often architects or artists maybe come into a situation and they’re like, “Oh, we just need to build a community center,” sort of this, “Oh, we need to clean things up and make it look better or create a space for X, Y, Z.” I think that there’s so much work that you have to do before you get to that point. For example, the affordable-housing development that we’re doing now, if someone had said, “Hey, do this affordable housing development” 10 years ago, I would’ve been like, “Oh, OK,” and I’m not really sure if I would’ve been able to make the right design decisions.

Now that I’ve known the community for as long as I have, the decisions that we’ve made about that micro-neighborhood that we’re designing, it’s completely different than how I would have done it when I’d first gotten to Green River.

Pier Carlo Talenti: How so? What do you think you would have created 10 years ago as opposed to what you’re creating now?

Maria: When you get right out of architecture school, typically there’s this modern, contemporary aesthetic that you need to be designing. It has to be something that can go in Dwell magazine. Or you need to be maximizing the site. So instead of single-family units, I probably would have proposed some sort of apartments or something like, “We need 20 units; let’s get them all on this site.”

Now it’s like I understand Green River, where somebody doesn’t necessarily want to live in a really contemporary-looking home. They want it to fit into the environment that’s already here, which is pretty traditional-looking homes, so we’ll design something that looks traditional, but we’ll be smart about the materials or the decisions that we’re making about how people can age in place or whatever it might be. And then also the choice to do single-family instead of, say, apartments. We’ve just found that people just need a little bit of elbow room here. The idea of living on top of each other is incredibly unappealing.

Pier Carlo: Right. That is not a rural experience.

Maria: No, but one of the affordable-housing solutions that was here in Green River was these apartments that were built. Out of desperation people live in them, and they’re OK with them. But they’re not accessible; you don’t have the space if you wanted to have a small garden or you want to have some friends over; it’s really tight. As we’re designing this affordable-housing development, which is called Canal Commons, we’ve been learning all this stuff over the past 10 years.

A lot of that learning has happened through bringing artists into the community and creating publications, getting to know people, all of this ongoing research that maybe we didn’t even realize was design research at the time.


"Epicenter stewards creative initiatives that honor the past, strengthen the present, and build the future that we envision alongside our community." – Epicenter

Pier Carlo:
Can you talk more about that, about how you brought in artists to do research?

Maria: Originally we started bringing in artists because we had friends of friends who were like, “Oh, the work you’re doing is really cool. How can we help? Can I come there for a few weeks and teach at the summer camp or participate in whatever’s going on?” We were like, “Yeah, absolutely. We can’t pay you — we’re barely paying ourselves — but yeah, come on! We can go camping and go to the Grand Canyon.”

Eventually that became more of a formalized program. We were like, “People obviously want to come here, and designers and artists are a huge asset to this community, even if they’re not living here full-time like we are. We can bring them in to do specific projects.” So for the past 11 years, we’ve had the Frontier Fellowship program.

We have a pretty rigorous application process and interview to make sure that we have the right person who is coming here for the right reasons and has a sensitivity to rural places and an understanding that the sort of people that live here aren’t ... . It’s very different than an urban environment. We’ve brought those artists in to do publications, to work with the community to create installations and exhibits about the community. They go directly into the classroom and help write poetry. It depends on what their practice is. We’ve had over 70 artists and residents now.

Pier Carlo: Wow!

Maria: Yeah. [She laughs.]

Pier Carlo: Do you find that the community is much more receptive to artists now than when you first started?

Maria: Oh, absolutely. I think it took us a long time to build up that trust. In some cases. The school here was always interested once we had that initial trust. They were always interested in, “Oh, you want a professional artist to come into our classroom? Absolutely!” Once we had a few that were really successful, then there was more of a request of, “Oh, when are we going to do another thing with an artist and with the kids?”

It’s always been really, really important to our practice. Like I said, we didn’t necessarily bring those artists in to do research. We didn’t really think of it in the way of like, “We’re going to use these artists to understand the community.” But as we started having these artists, we started learning more and more, and so I started being like, “We have to keep having these visiting artists come in and do these successful projects on our behalf or with Epicenter.” Because we learn so much while they’re here. There’s usually the final product of an installation or something, and those have value. But I always find that the process leading up to that final product is what’s really the most helpful for me as a practitioner.

Pier Carlo: I wonder if you can talk about an instance of something that you learned from an artist-driven process that you couldn’t have learned without that artist in the community?

Maria: “This is Green River” project. That was a project where we brought in Pete Collard, a curator from the Design Museum of London, and his filmmaker partner, Alice Masters. I was really worried because they were Europeans coming to little Green River. [She laughs.] I was like, “People are going to be like, ‘This is so pretentious. What are we doing?’” But Pete and Alice are so delightful that everybody just latched onto them immediately and just wanted to start telling their stories.

I think what I learned about the community is they are way more open to outsiders than I had previously thought, I think because I had had some resistance initially in the community: “Oh, you’re coming here to create change, and we don’t want change.” And then there are people in the community who are like, “No, we definitely do want change, and you should stay.” When we go through these projects, we realize that the community is much more complex than we maybe initially thought.  In “This Is Green River,” I think we learned that the outsiders are more welcome.

But then as we went through the process of ... . We were asking people in the community to give a personal item to tell some sort of history from their family or of the community. There were things like different hunting equipment or a basketball or pair of baby shoes or whatever it might be. I was able to learn a ton of recent history about the community and what the community was proud of.

Pier Carlo: And this was also filmed?

Maria: Oh, yeah. They made a film that focused on, I think it was like five or six of the people that participated. We had over 30 people participate in the exhibition, but the documentary “This Is Green River” focused on a few specific people, which was really lovely. When we had that opening and streaming of that film, it was the most successful thing we’ve ever done in terms of people showing up and being really excited and proud of what had been created and feeling like they were a part of it as well.

Pier Carlo: You are the executive director of organization. What’s been the steepest learning curve for you? Where do you think you might have made mistakes in the past?

Maria: [Laughing] Yeah, I never expected to be executive director of a small nonprofit in a town of less than a thousand people, but here we are. I think the steepest learning curve has been time, in terms of it takes forever for anything to happen. I think when you’re in design school or maybe even working in ... . I bet anybody working in an urban environment is going to laugh at me thinking that anything happens there quickly, but I imagine it to happen so much faster in an urban place because they have more resources or somebody’s done this thing before. Here it feels like we’re reinventing the wheel anytime we are trying to come up with a solution for something.

Pier Carlo: Why is that?

Maria: Everything just takes forever. I think it’s just the reality of getting people on board, including local community members.

Another thing that’s been the steepest learning curve is turnover, whether that’s in the local city council or in my staff or on my board or whatever it is. It’s constantly having to get people up to speed. That’s one of the hindrances, I guess, to getting things going. You get to a certain point, and then there’s a change in leadership and it feels like you have to start over or it’s just a hiccup in the process. Burnout is very real as well. You’ll have someone with a ton of enthusiasm for an initiative, and then they burn out, which is very real.

Things just take time. A lot of times it’s because we don’t know how to solve the problem yet. It feels like we’re building the ship while steering the ship, while navigating the ship. You’re doing all this stuff at the same time, in terms of creating a nonprofit organization, trying to solve solutions in the community while also retaining staff. There are all these things that I wasn’t taught in architecture school.


"Located in Green River, Utah, Epicenter is a vibrant hub for rural investment and cultural exploration of the rural West." - Epicenter

Pier Carlo:
So how do you combat burnout, not only for your staff but for yourself? It’s so common in non-profits and in service-oriented professions. You get people who are willing to work themselves to the bone, but then there’s a huge price to pay.

Maria: Some of it is bringing in those artists who are coming in for a month, so we know that they’re not going to burn out and they bring a new energy. We do have to be careful, though, that we’re not causing community fatigue by having too many artists coming in, because they’re like, “Oh my gosh, another project. What are we doing?” We have to be really thoughtful about, “OK, how much new energy can we bring in where we don’t burn out the community as well?” It’s this big balancing act.

Right now, Steph Crabtree and I are the people that have been around for multiple years now, but I’ve had codirectors who have burned out. I’ve had wonderful staff who have burned out, but they eventually come back and, “Hey, let’s do this project” or “Are you looking for board members?” They reengage when they’re able to. I never have hard feelings when someone leaves because I’m like, “Yeah, I get it, 100%.”

I think for the folks that are here, we talk a lot about our own mental health and the benefits that we need. I have some employees that are like, “You know what would make me feel better is if I had a stipend right now for my health problems.” “Great, let’s make that happen.” Or for me, I’ll take four weeks off; there’s just no question about it. I know there’s a huge trend right now for the three-day weekend; we’ve been doing that for years. You have to draw lines.

Pier Carlo: How long did it take you in your leadership to realize that’s what you needed?

Maria: It took a couple of years. But at the same time, when I became executive director, it was right after a time when I had almost all of the staff burn out and I almost quit as well. I was like, “I don’t think I can do this anymore.” When I came into the leadership position, I already recognized we have to take care of ourselves, or this is all going to crumble.

Pier Carlo: Now, certainly in urban settings the arrival of a lot of artists in a neighborhood can herald big change, gentrification. How are you resisting being gentrifiers yourselves? Because you mentioned already that property prices have gone way up, for instance.

Maria: That has nothing to do with us. That’s corporations coming in or just speculation. Right now there’s a wealthy family that is coming in and offering a lot of money for abandoned properties, so I think people are realizing, “Ooh, this is my time to cash in,” and so it’s really hard to buy a house. I think also in the world right now there’s a housing bubble, so it all kind of compounds.

When I first came to Green River, I didn’t understand gentrification because I come from a place of privilege. I kind of sort of understood it. I knew something wasn’t quite right about people coming in and cleaning up a neighborhood and pushing people out. I had seen that in the South for sure, and I knew that I didn’t like it. I didn’t know what it was yet.

Obviously rural gentrification can happen. We’ve seen it in Marfa. There are all kinds of communities where it has happened and people have been pushed out or pushed to an adjacent community. If we had come in with tremendous resources, aka a ton of money, then we could have done something like that, and it could have been really bad, I think. In a lot of ways coming in as kind of servants of the community, working as volunteers, it put the reins on us, in terms of you’re limited in what you can do. The more we started to learn about this work, we realized, “Oh, we don’t want that sort of massive change.” Once we started to learn more and more about gentrification and the impact an outsider can have on a community, we started being even more careful about what we were doing and understanding our intentions as well.

But I think there are certain things that we know need to happen. We know that there are people that are living in trailer parks here who want to own a home. That’s a place where we can work with the people who live here. That’s a huge focus for us. It’s never about attracting outsiders. It’s not about bringing artists to come live in the community. That’s never been our intention. It’s about, “How do we make our neighbors’ lives better and our own lives better, because we live here now? So let’s build a park. Let’s figure out how to build some housing that is specifically for the people who live here.” It’s been a learning curve.

Pier Carlo: Obviously cost of living would be one reason why an artist might want to relocate to someplace that’s rural. What are other reasons you think artists really ought to consider making a small rural community their artistic home?

Maria: I think especially right now a lot of people are dealing with decision fatigue. There’s just so many choices, and when you live in a rural place, a lot of things get simplified. There’s one grocery store. [She laughs.] There’s one internet company. A lot of decisions are just made for you. And when that goes away, it feels like you have more time and energy to be creative or to make other decisions for yourself. I think that’s one thing that’s really appealing about living in a rural place for me, this kind of easy, slow life.

But also at the same time, there’s still a lot to do. I feel like I’m constantly busy, like I’m going to go to the Little League game or whatever it is. There’s always something going on. If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be excited to go to a Little League game, I would have laughed at you. But it’s really fun.

I think another reason I love being a practitioner in a rural place is the transparency that exists, the immediate feedback in a lot of cases. When you screw up, you know it. Also when you do something right. You may think something is a success, but the community may not.

We just had the park opening. We’ve been focusing on Pearl Baker Park since we’ve been unable to build our houses because of supply-chain issues. We just did a soft opening for the community, and there was just this tremendous amount of positivity at that opening. It was like, “Oh, finally. OK, good. We thought it was good, but we weren’t sure if you guys would like it!” Even though the community has been involved the entire time with the cleanups and the design and everything, you just never know when you present the final product. So that was really great. I was hearing people say things that I had been thinking, and that felt really lovely.

Then I also think of the Welcome sign that we have that the artist Lisa Ward created with us. It’s this beautiful neon Welcome sign on the edge of town. There have been specific people who have come to me and said, “I wasn’t sure about Epicenter and what you guys were doing, but when you made that Welcome sign, I knew that you got what was great about Green River.” And I was like, “Fascinating!”

Because I think a lot of times, again, it’s that focus on the sort of final product of, “Is it going to be a park? Is it going to be a publication? Is it going to be a mural?” instead of focusing on the process that happens before that and making sure that you’re creating local leaders or just really thinking about the process. Maybe that is the actual art rather than the final product.

Maria Sykes

Pier Carlo: Could you describe the park that you just built and what you’ve heard from the community about it?

Maria: It was actually the original old town park that had been abandoned decades ago, so it’s been just left to grow. There are these gorgeous 50-plus-year-old cottonwood trees, and the park sits right on our historic canal. There’s a canal that goes all the way through town that’s an offshoot of the river, so there’s all this life coming out of that canal. There are beavers even and butterflies and birds. It’s so lovely.

The design work that we’ve been doing in that park, we’ve tried to keep it really natural and low-key. It’s not large plastic playgrounds, which is kind of what you find around the rest of town. Those are fine, kids love them, but we wanted to go a different route, and so it’s a lot of natural playscapes and paths that are accessible but they’re not concrete. It’s a place you could retreat to, but you could still have fun.

One of the larger components of that park is going to be an outdoor classroom. That’s something that a lot of people are excited about, having this sort of mini-amphitheater where teachers can go or an after-school program can go but also people could maybe have a small family reunion or something like that there. People were saying that it was nice as a different type of park because a lot of parks are traditionally flat with grass and a pavilion and this was a big contrast to that.

Then also the place where we decided to locate it. A lot of people were like, “Oh, it’s really nice that it’s on the south side of town,” because it seems like a lot of things are on the north side of town. There isn’t an obvious socioeconomic difference, but the majority of trailer parks are on the south side. The area towards the south wasn’t necessarily neglected, but it was kind of like, “Oh yeah, we didn’t realize that we wanted this down here until it was happening. And it makes sense because this is where the old park was, so it’s nice.”

Pier Carlo: On this podcast, I like to talk about how artists are reinventing outmoded systems, so I have a two-part question for you. One is what system or systems do you think you yourself with Epicenter are reinventing? And is there an existing system, whether in government funding or whatever, that could be completely reimagined to make your work easier?

Maria: Ooh, that’s a hard one. I’m trying to think of what system I would want to focus on. I don’t know if this is a system necessarily, but artists working with arts organizations for the sake of art. [She laughs.] That’s kind of complicated to say, but I think that system might be broken. Instead I think the arts should be integrated. This isn’t a totally novel idea obviously, but I’m just saying it out loud that artists should be placed within civic and community organizations for the sake of change or the community.

Because I think a lot of times, again, it’s that focus on the sort of final product of, “Is it going to be a park? Is it going to be a publication? Is it going to be a mural?” instead of focusing on the process that happens before that and making sure that you’re creating local leaders or just really thinking about the process. Maybe that is the actual art rather than the final product.

I think another system that might be broken is there are a lot of architects specifically who are working or trying to work in rural places but they don’t live there. Because a “normal” architect doesn’t live in a town of a thousand people; they live in a city because that’s where they find their clients and it makes a ton of sense. But then I think they get jaded in that sort of work, and they’re like, “Well, let me help this rural community.” So they come in.

I think of myself when I first came to Green River. My solution was built environment: “What can we build that will help this community?” I think a lot of artists and architects are coming in with that mindset. I think that if you want to do that work, if you want the privilege of doing work in rural places, you need to live there. You need to stick it out.

Pier Carlo: Which means that anybody who’s funding that kind of work should build in, it sounds like, at least several months’ residency.

Maria: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. I don’t even know that that is enough. Like I said, the things that I’ve learned over the years. And maybe there is a way to partner architects and artists with the local community, the people like Epicenter. We bring our visiting artists, and there’s a big orientation onboarding process of like, “Hey, you’re a guest in this community. We brought you here for these reasons.” It’s really transparent with them.

I think that system works for us. I don’t know if it would work just anywhere, but the idea of an artist or an architect just coming in, it feels predatory in a lot of ways when there’s not this sort of liaison. I just question their intentions, even when they come in with, “We just want to help, but we don’t want to get anything out of this.” I still question it. So I think that’s a system that is broken.

That also brings up this idea that architects and artists need to get involved in the project earlier, if that makes sense. A lot of us come in once someone has said, “OK, this is what the project is going to be; we’ve raised the money. Now we need an artist.” But I think being a part of where the money comes from, what the project is, is really, really critical. I think artists and designers typically have the sort of sensitivity to best understand what that should be, but for now it’s the people who have the money who make those decisions.

A lot of us come in once someone has said, “OK, this is what the project is going to be; we’ve raised the money. Now we need an artist.” But I think being a part of where the money comes from, what the project is, is really, really critical. I think artists and designers typically have the sort of sensitivity to best understand what that should be, but for now it’s the people who have the money who make those decisions.

Maria Sykes

Pier Carlo: So you’re saying the artist or architect is hired after the money’s been raised and a number of decisions have already been made.

Maria: Yeah, and so there are things that out their control. If they had been involved in the initial process, then maybe it would have gone a totally different way. Maybe they would have created a program, or who knows? We don’t know until artists are involved at that early process, but again, it’s whoever has the money or the resources to create the project that decides its structure.

Pier Carlo: Finally, I wonder if you can talk about an upcoming project, whether in the short term or long term, that you’re particularly excited about?

Maria: Ooh, I am most excited about Canal Commons. All of our efforts right now are focused on this affordable-housing development. For the past 13 years we’ve been doing home-repair projects, or we’ll build a prototype house like the Frontier House, and we’ll get something small ... . Not small; building a whole house is a huge thing. But the original reason we came to Green River was to build a bunch of houses. That was it. I think we’ve finally gotten to that point.

Unfortunately supply-chain issues have made it to where we’re having to reconfigure things, but so many things have come together, all of the research, all of the design. We were able to get the city of Green River to donate the land! If you had told me 10 years ago that the city would donate four acres to us, I would have laughed in your face, because like no way. No way is anyone ever going to just give you land for free, especially in the West. It’s just not going to happen. But we built that trust and also that sort of recognition of, “We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to build houses.”

All these things have come together, like the landscape design, building the parks. It just feels like such a culminating project in a lot of ways that we’re just so excited. It’s right around the corner. We’re going to break ground, we’re going to get those houses built, and it’s going to be awesome.

August 29, 2022