Last August Stuart Chittenden traversed Neb. to test drive the idea that interpersonal communication is intrinsic to building community.
He called the project "A Couple of 830 Mile Long Conversations." With support from Humanities Nebraska, the Nebraska Cultural Endowment, the Omaha Creative Institute, plus Indie GoGo funding, he set out to meet Nebraskans where they are. He communed in bars, bakeries, cafes, outside storefronts, at campsites, farms, ranches, fairgrounds.
The Omaha resident intentionally went to the great wide open spaces that make up Nebraska to find the connective thread of community running through cities and towns, the Sand Hills, the Panhandle, the Bohemian Alps and the Platte River Valley.
Wherever he pitched his talking tent, people happened by and conversation ensued. He was both facilitator and participant. The photographs and audio recordings he made of these meet-ups, including the stories people told about their lives and communities, plus the trials, joys and lessons bound up in them, comprise a new interactive exhibition at the W. Dale Clark Library.
Simply titled 830 Nebraska, the exhibit is curated by Alex Priest.
It features 20 8” x 10” photographs of the people and places documented. Viewers can also listen to audio excerpts from the conversations, thereby putting voices and words to faces.
Hitting the highway in search of something has a nomadic romance about it. But this was no existential On the Road personal freedom ride fueled by sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll. No, this was a buttoned-down ex-pat Brit in an RV following a pre-determined path, albeit open to some detours along the way. Some of the folks he documented were encountered in the natural flow things and others pre-selected.
That's not to say Chittenden, whose day job is Chief Curiosity Officer at Omaha branding company David Day Associates, doesn't harbor a bohemian soul. In terms of exploring conversation, he's both creative entrepreneur and mad amateur social scientist. He's fascinated by the power of dialogue. So much so he and his wife Amy hosted conversation salons in their mid-town home. The salons begat a business, Squishtalks, that sees him package conversation programs for clients. Through guided talk sessions he helps organizations navigate public and community concerns.
The exhibit culled from his 830 Nebraska experiment follows a series of statewide talks he's given in which he's shared his takeaways from the project, The Reader recently caught up with Chittenden to get a fresh take on what he found out there, what he brought back and how it's all part of his own quixotic journey of self-discovery.
This serial daydreamer's youth in Great Britain was preoccupied by flights of fancy, his reveries often revolving around the very American archetypes he tapped decades later.
The pull of the American West once led him to live in Colorado. Though he's resided in Neb. several years, living in Omaha made him feel isolated from much of the state. His travels for the project confirmed the divide between Omaha-Lincoln and the greater rural reaches. If his urban origins and British accent put off folks, he didn't sense it. Indeed, he found he received the same good vibrations he put out. Call it the law of attraction
"If you approach any environment with a sincere openness and willingness to appreciate someone else's voice, if you're open to them, then it is door opening," he says.
In that same communal spirit he found no doors closed, but rather heaping doses of hospitality and conviviality, though some folks politely declined going on the record. Whether shooting the bull with the boys at the bakery or chewing the fat with the guys at the barbershop, he was welcomed as a friend, not a stranger, and people expressed appreciation for his interest and invitation to just talk.
"That affirmation has buttressed my belief that conversation is not only something of benefit to communities and individuals but that this is my calling."
By intent and intuition, he got people to say what's on their hearts and minds in regards to what makes community.
"The more people talked the more other elements started to come out that suggested to me that community is a paradox. From the outside, if you try to create it, that is a very difficult thing to do. Community instead is a deliberate individual choice to behave and do things in ways that invest in something that is not directly related to you."
Chittenden found a mix of rural communities, ranging from vibrant cultural enclaves such as Dannebrog to robust Western outposts such as Chadron, and bedraggled hamlets in between.
"I had this expectation that rural life would be decimated and somewhat tired and there are those towns that do appear to be in a position of uncertainty," he says. "You can feel they're in stasis. They don't know what circumstances are going to do to them and so they feel in flux, tired a little bit.
"Then there are those other towns that aren't allowing circumstances to dictate what happens, they are looking at the available resources they have – people or place or history or whatever – and managing those things in ways that make them sustainable."
He says residents in remote places like Scottsbluff or Valentine "don't have any other choice but to fix things or make things – you do it for yourself or it doesn't get done," adding, "Several people demonstrated this zest for self-determination, for sustaining themselves and coming together as they need to as people. They credit that spirit to the legacy of the pioneers."
For Chittenden, there are larger implications for what conversation and community can mean to certain underserved and underrepresented populations. In Wayne, Neb., for example, he spoke with an openly gay couple who run a business in town. They told Chittenden they find more acceptance there than they do among young professionals in Omaha, where they get the feeling they're not taken seriously because of the stigma that paints rural denizens as unsophisticated. More pernicious yet, Chittenden says, are the silos erected by different groups to talk over each other, not to each other.
"The more I look around me in our community in Omaha and in communities across the nation I see increasing division and inequality and I am morally outraged by that situation. As offended as I am by all the various types of inequality I see, wrapped up in very casual stereotypes and bigotry to those people on the other side of the fence, I've begun to see that my contribution to the better health of our society is just to increase understanding of the other. And the way to do that is to engage people in conversation.
"You don't have to like them, you don't have to agree with them but if you can do anything to increase rapport and understanding, you've already taken very bold steps to a more cohesive society."
He says as he's come to accept his role as conversation starter or convener, he's reminded of an old saying he once heard that goes, "the point about conversation is that it has no point." Thus, he'll tell you, the real fruits of an exchange only come when the parties forget ego or agenda and genuinely listen to each other. In a world starved for rich authentic content, it doesn't get any richer or truer than that.
The exhibit, which runs through February 29, is in the Michael Phipps Gallery on the first floor of the downtown library, 215 South 15th Street. The show is open during normal library hours. For more details, visit http://omahalibrary.org/w-dale-clark-library or call 402-444-4800.
Follow this wayfaring conversationalist at https://www.facebook.com/stuart.chittenden.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambga.com.