Starving artists live in New York, while The Heartland’s artists are fat and happy

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Welcome to Iowa. We have ample square dancing and corn. I live in the star between the lady’s legs. Original photo by Marxchivist. Remixed under Creative Commons license.

I never fit in in my hometown. My parents did. They were two farm folk-become schoolteachers. Probably the weirdest thing about them — at first glance, at least — was that they only had one kid.

I mean Christ almighty. Look at me, aged 16.

Even when I was small, new people quickly identified me as the weird one. First I was precocious, then a tomboy, then a smart ass, then I hit high school, cut all my hair off, dyed what was left, and got piercings (eartop cartilage piercings in Norfolk, Nebraska 1998 were like becoming a flapper in 1926). I became an art kid.

And that’s why I always always always wanted to live in a big city. But five years in college and a degree in Painting later, I live in Des Moines, Iowa — a metro of a whole half a million. It’s no cultural mecca and I’m still closer to weird on this town’s spectrum. I get a lot of questions about why a creative would want to stay in flyover country.

Every week or so I absolutely fantasize about getting on a bus to NYC. But in day-to-day life I really, really like living in Des Moines. There are ticks under the “pros” side of living in a smaller city. It helps that Des Moines is, once you burrow into it, a very wannabe-hip city. We aspire to Portlandism so we have our share of quirks — like the zombie-themed restaurant a fabulously-talented chef is opening this year, or my favorite bar, or the just-outside-the-metro stop animation community group housed in an Airstream trailer. And we have our offbeats. And we’re very, very proud of our marriage equality.

But even if Des Moines wasn’t drifting towards cool, there are perks to living in flyover country, and it certainly doesn’t hold creatives back to stay here.

First, it’s effing cheap, yo.

Real estate here is CHEAP. The average rent for a three bedroom apartment in these parts is $800. You don’t even want to hear about my mortgage. If you’re sticking to Des Moines proper and not venturing out to the ‘burbs, you’d have no problem finding a fab house between $130,000 and $160,000. When we bought a house, I felt like a sellout — but we can afford to own a home because we don’t live in San Fransisco or Miami. I don’t have to sacrifice as much for my career here.

Property taxes are low. Registering a car is cheaper. FOOD is WAY cheaper. And so is going out, though if you’re a fan of douchey bars you can pay big city prices on booze. This is great, because my two favorite things to spend money on are food and art supplies, and I have more cash for both.

Every day I wake up and write or draw or paint or wrangle artists, and every day Scott works in an office fully-stocked with Wii games and beer. It’s awesome to be able to work like we do without having to scrounge. We don’t make the big bucks, but staying in Iowa allows us to do what we love. Every day.

There’s room for experimentation.

Materials or access to facilities is often cheaper in The Flyover. More importantly, as a friend said, people are less jaded here. That has its downsides, but it’s nice to have people enthusiastically and nepotistically cheering you on when you announce your next hairbrained plan.

Flyover Country has short travel times.

I also don’t think people from large cities get the size difference between a big town and a small one. Here in the Midwest, we spend less time getting from place to place. There is NO TRAFFIC HERE. Over and over I’ve heard newcomers remark on our rush hour with a scoff. Saves a load of time. That, and flyover cities often have a network of nearby cities within driving distance. A friend pointed out that you could be stuck in traffic in a city for the entire time it takes us to drive to Minneapolis.

And then we have big fish syndrome.

I will be the first to admit it’s nice. People are, again, less jaded, and there is simply less competition. There are fewer events or people or products to divide your audience’s attention. And because it’s cheap you can just do new things all the time and fuck up faster.

The Internet exists.

I absolutely couldn’t have stayed here in a time before the WWW. But now we can enjoy our flyover state cost of living and sell goods worldwide. Artists in my city are showing in Toronto and Chicago and GENEVA and Miami and LA — and making a living on Etsy and cleaning up at Renegade Craft Fairs.

Creatives all over the country are flocking to cheaper cities. Detroit is this unreal “blank canvas” where artists are buying homes for as little as $100. Even Silicon Valley-types see the potential in towns like mine. We’re not even a second-tier city, but we still have creatives moving in.

I had to think long and hard about what I wanted to do when I graduated. Staying in Des Moines meant I’d work harder in a few areas than other artists. I’d have to meet people on my own, instead of networking organically like I could in person. I have to be a lot more self-driven to be a creative in flyover country, but that’s the main pitfall. We all have high speed internet now, and if a painter scrounges together the money to buy a ticket on the Megabus to Chicago or to pay FedEx to take a painting to Toronto, creatives in flyover country can show internationally while reaping the benefits of smaller town life.

At the root of things, an artist’s job is to tell stories about their culture. I have to go so far as to say we shouldn’t be bunched up in three or four places in a country. Luckily, it’s not such a bummer to live in my bitty metropolis.

Comments on Starving artists live in New York, while The Heartland’s artists are fat and happy

  1. Ugh. You make me really wish I wasn’t so attached to the coastline. But growing up a sailor’s daughter I just cannot handle being very far from the sea. Plus performing arts can’t be done remotely so easily, though I know there are pockets of theater communities in flyover states. If only I didn’t need that proximity to salt air.

  2. I feel like you all are in better flyover states than me 😛 I live in suburban, south county St. Louis, Missouri, and the traffic is AWFUL, but the real estate is even cheaper than you described here. I don’t know if the people are exceptionally nice or not because I’m antisocial, but we don’t have much of a scene at all ever. Buuut I don’t get out much. Perhaps I should 😛

    Iowa sounds better.

  3. Zombie Burger is awesome! That along with El Bait Shop, Fong’s, and Essenhaus (felt like I was back in Germany!) with their train shots made my winter in Iowa bearable when we made it to Des Moines. The summer was pretty awesome there, too. We rode the hell out of the rails-to-trails areas like High Trestle Trail (bonus: it glows at night!!) and Ledges State Park was a ton of fun when the roads washed out and there were no cars allowed. There is decent river kayaking too. The winter was pretty brutal for me but I had never seen thundersnow or snowlightning before so that was exciting.

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