Since she moved to Portland from rural Alaska in 2012, to attend Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, the artist, educator, and storyteller Elise Pepple has dug her hands in the local dirt. She founded HearTell, a monthly storytelling program, and launched [with Ayumi Horie] the innovative public art project Portland Brick, a place-based storytelling initiative that linked personal tales of citizens — often immigrants — with locations in Portland.
Since early 2015, Pepple has worked as a public engagement and outreach coordinator for SPACE Gallery, a position she’s leaving to run Marfa Public Radio in Marfa, Texas. It’s difficult to imagine someone coming to work so closely with Portland’s art scene in such a small window, so we Exit Interviewed her about what she discovered in the city we were fortunate enough to share with her.
Why don’t you tell me what you’re leaving Portland to do?
I’m leaving to move to Marfa, Texas, to run Marfa Public Radio. I’ll be in charge of that station, which is kind of a small, special station — Marfa’s a town of 2,000 people — but it’s the only signal in a very large area.
How did that come onto your radar?
I’m really invested in rural places and places that have a reputation or an identity that maybe doesn’t amplify the multiple narratives and complexities involved in that place. So I did that in Alaska. You know, there’s a lot of stereotypes about what Alaska is. Maine too.
Marfa is an internationally renowned art destination. The New York Times Travel section is like, Top Fifty Destinations in the World: Marfa, Texas! It’s special. The station is physically one of the most beautiful stations I’ve ever seen. It’s a super-current, super-contemporary artsy vibe, set in the middle of nowhere in west Texas. I thought it’d be cool to live there.
When I went to Salt, which is all about stories, I was like, I don’t know any stories in this town! So for years, my work has been about finding what the stories are. Now when I walk around this town, I think about all the stories I now know about this place.
Do you know anybody there?
No, which is crazy. Because I function so much on relationships.
What sort of expectations did you have when you first moved here [in 2012]?
Similarly, I knew no one. I came here to go to the Salt Institute to study radio. I’ve moved a lot, Nick. I grew up in Baltimore, went to school in Montreal and Paris, lived in Brooklyn, moved to rural Alaska, lived in the Bay Area, moved back to rural Alaska, lived in Colorado. And when I got to Maine, I was like, never again will I move (laughs). I think relocation is a form of trauma. When you start over and you’re cut off from all your relationships, it’s so strange.
It’s such a trip to think about, because I feel so humbled by the relationships I have here. I remember when I went to Salt, which is all about stories, and I was like, I don’t know any stories in this town! So for years, my work has been about finding what the stories are. Now when I walk around this town, wherever I am, I think about all the stories I now know about this place.
In the first year here, were you sharing a lot of yourself or were you listening?
I wanted to listen. Specifically after Alaska, I think a lot about being an outsider. And I would say it’s good practice to show up and listen, and not to show up and speak a lot. I’m aware of my location as a settler and a gentrifier. So yeah, I think the first year I was in Portland, I was pretty quiet.
How long have you been interested in storytelling?
Storytelling is what I love, but I didn’t know this for awhile. I was coming from a 300-person town in Alaska and listening to my neighbors’ stories and being like, Each one of these people is amazing. I was working in Brooklyn when StoryCorps first started, and I told them, you have to report stories in Alaska. And they said, You do it for us. So I started StoryCorps in Alaska. From that point on, I’ve known that storytelling is my first true love.
First of all, storytelling is really the oldest medium. Second of all, it’s a democratic one, right? A lot of arts and culture aren’t necessarily for or of everyone, but storytelling really is.
Is there something about the way Mainers or New Englanders tell stories that differs from other places?
I think that’s almost an impossible question to answer, because the people who live here that tells stories that I’ve heard aren’t necessarily New Englanders. For me, storytelling, it’s the medicine/antidote to a New England personality. I’m really into expression. The kind of staid, quiet ways that are a stereotype of New Englanders are challenging to me. Storytellers kind of bust out of that when they’re telling.
How did Portland Brick come about?
That’s a funny kismet story. When I came to Portland, I was working in Alaska on a narrative tourism project — like, what if you could take an audio tour of a town. I was doing that with the aim of making a model that any town could use, so that when you travel around our country, there’s an opportunity to get a sense of place from the people who lived there. I became friends with [Portland artist] Ayumi Horie, and she was like, I want to do a project about stories in Portland. And my Salt piece was a piece about all the stories we pass when we walk down the street. She was like, I wanna put these stories in the bricks.
Was it difficult to pull an income when you first moved here?
It was so hard! I went from having a full-time job with benefits at Planned Parenthood in Alaska. The first year I moved here, after Salt, I couldn’t even get a barista job. I don’t know why that year was so tough. Then I ended up working as a barista at Tandem. Really hustling. Then I started teaching (storytelling) at MECA and working at SPACE Gallery.
What was your life like personally before you moved here?
In Alaska, I would put on storytelling events and throw dance parties and all of that was really fun, but there were certain things that feed me that weren’t available. Leaving there was about being fed in those ways. The opportunity to go to a place like Salt or SPACE — there’s no place like SPACE in Alaska. When I had moved there from Brooklyn, I kind of said, like, fuck art.
For me, storytelling, it’s the medicine/antidote to a New England personality. I’m really into expression.
Ummm, I wasn’t sure if it mattered. I was making public art installations and writing poetry. And I was like, who cares? Like, whooooo cares? When I moved to Alaska I kind of gave up all that stuff — I was like, it doesn’t matter. But, turns out it does matter, to me. Maybe that’s self-awareness. For better or worse, that those things do inspire me.
What made you feel like Who cares?
I am not compelled by 99 percent of the art that I see in the world. When I was an artist, I felt like there’s so much potential. But when I looked at the art world in New York City and the Bay Area, I felt like it was completely disconnected from mattering. It was fun people-watching and drinking free wine, but it felt super out of touch. I did public installations and was like, yeah, cool, but how does it really contribute to anything? And I think, being someone who was raised really resourced and having gotten to go to a bunch of fancy schools, that’s nice, but does it matter if I’m dropping fall leaves from the Brooklyn Bridge so that an iteration of fall is experienced? I don’t know that it does, really!
Are you motivated by money?
Never. Which is a problem.
Do you think people care here?
I mean, I’m an idealist, so I think everybody cares all the time. But I think sometimes we have amnesia, so caring happens in ways that are a little fucked.
What’s something that you’ve found motivating since living in Portland?
The Green Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church I find inspiring. That is a part of Portland that I think is beautiful. Knowing young people like David [Thete from the youth activist group Kesho Wazo], and being around some young adults who are going for it. That’s really motivating. Because Portland is small enough to build a lot of relationships, it feels inherently motivating to care about my neighbors.
What tires you here?
Some of the ways things happen here don’t feel au courant. Some ways of thinking feel outdated, not just around arts and culture and social justice. I don’t always feel like Portland is in 2016, sometimes it’s like 1992.
Is there a time you’ve felt that in particular?
The aesthetics of some places feel very literally like the ’90s. Like, Local 188 feels like the set of Friends to me. But a lot of this is tricky, because it relates to nonprofit work, and I don’t know if Portland has been resourced in thinking about equity, white supremacy, and how to change that.
When did you start working at SPACE?
A year and a half ago, as a volunteer coordinator. By the time I left, it evolved to public engagement and outreach coordinator.
What’s your assessment of the arts community here, do you see any holes?
The thing I often wonder with places like Portland — as so many restaurants or coffee shops open — is how many arts spaces can this town sustain? If there were a baby version of SPACE, how would that work? Is there an audience? I do feel like there are engaging artistic practices that I don’t see in the landscape here. But there have also been a number of initiatives like New Fruit, the Apohadion, or Kinonik. There’s a bunch of new things happening with a younger energy and smaller scale.
What do you think the challenges are for SPACE Gallery?
With any place, the questions are: Are you real? Are you relevant? And who are you engaging with? I think there’s an opportunity right now to dig in there, to engage and connect with more people. There’s opportunities for programming that could be more innovative or weird or popular or excellent. I think our new curator at SPACE [Gibson Fay-LeBlanc took over the position when Nat May stepped down in October] has some amazing ideas. Whenever you’re providing programming and evaluating how it’s doing, I always have the question, Is what we’re doing what people want to see? I don’t have the answer to that. Everybody in this town has the answer to that.