What are a bunch of hipsters doing in Green River, Utah?

  • Patrons of Ray's Tavern in Green River, Utah, glance at a table full of Epicenter staff and volunteers, including visiting art fellows Justin Flood, left, and Raphael Griswold.

    Andrew Cullen
  • The Epicenter's AmeriCorps volunteers Armando Rios and Ashley Ross walk with Griswold past the shell of a former pizza joint next to their office.

    Andrew Cullen
  • The Epicenter was a potato chip storage facility before the young architects who founded the design and social services center renovated the building.

    Andrew Cullen

Updated 11/14/12

At 3 on a Friday afternoon, Armando Rios and Ashley Ross are distributing fliers for tonight's art show. Rios sports an ironic Burt Reynolds mustache and purple button-down. Ross, in her tight black leggings and long dark bangs, looks like she stepped out of a coffee shop in the Mission. But this isn't San Francisco. It's Green River, an eastern Utah town of 952, afloat on an inland sea of dry gray earth and surrounded by melon and alfalfa fields.

In its 140 or so years, this has been a railroad town, a uranium town and even a melon town, each role bringing its own boom and eventual bust. It hosted a missile launch complex in the '60s and '70s, which closed a decade later, right around the time I-70 was re-routed around town. Since then, Green River has scraped by in chronic depression, peddling hotel rooms and gas to travelers, selling its trademark melons, catering to river-runners and, most recently, hankering for a proposed nuclear power plant.

For the past three years, Green River has also been home to the Epicenter, a nonprofit social services and design center founded by architecture school grads  from Alabama: Rand Pinson, Jack Forinash and Maria Sykes. Forinash first came to town as an AmeriCorps member, hoping to design and build affordable housing. But he realized the town needed more than that -- business owners weren't communicating and visitors were skipping Green River in favor of Moab, 52 miles away, for example. So he renovated a one-time potato chip storage building into an office. With its glass façade and minimalist interior, it stands out in Green River's dilapidated downtown.

Its staff, which includes AmeriCorps members like Ross and Rios, serve as the de facto chamber of commerce, affordable housing managers and the town's marketing firm. They serve hot meals to seniors, assist with food stamps and do research for city recorder Conae Black, who says she "would just love to keep them forever and ever."

Tonight, though, they're taking on a tougher role: the arts and culture committee.

After the fliers are distributed, Ross and Rios join Forinash, Sykes and a crew of artists recruited for a month's worth of art and community service. They meet at Ray's Tavern, the only draft beer in town, where white-haired couples steal glances at the group. When the waitress asks if they are "just visiting," one of the artists says no, we live here. She was actually asking, in a roundabout way, if they planned to order anything, but fitting in, or not, seems to always be on their minds.

Forinash is especially conscious of how his colleagues are perceived by the rest of Green River, where the few other people their age tend to be Mormon, married with children and working at least two minimum-wage service jobs. "You're going to be representing us, we're going to watch over you," Forinash tells new volunteers and artists. "Don't mess with our program here in this small town."

After finishing their beers, the crew heads to Desert Flavors, an ice cream shop whose logo the Epicenter helped design. (They've also hand-lettered the menu at the coffee shop and even waited tables at the Mexican restaurant.) Then it's on to the art show, a collage of old photographs. The artist, a tall, spacey blond from Portland, Ore., interacts sparsely with the few visitors, who poke their heads in and leave. The only non-Epicenter staff who linger are the mayor, his family and the town archivist, who supplied the photographs.

Forinash and Sykes have learned that the locals aren't interested in this kind of art, possibly because they dislike the way it portrays their town. When one artist displayed lonely photographs of abandoned homes and stark landscapes in the Robber's Roost motel, owner Keith Brady wasn't thrilled. "I prefer awe-inspiring," he says.

It's a bit of a paradox. "Visitors and photographers love decay," Sykes says. "But when you live here, you look at it every day, or you're forced to live in places like that, it's not a good thing."

In some ways, it doesn't matter if the artists alienate the locals. According to Sykes, the Epicenter folks tend to remain outsiders for other reasons, such as having college degrees. Besides, they need the company.

"I'm proud of what I'm doing, and I like it here," Sykes says. "But sometimes when it's really cold and I don't have a boyfriend …  and my mom visits and she cries and she's like, 'Why are you here living this monastic life?' then, yeah, it is very stressful."

Back at the Epicenter, the art show is winding down. Tomorrow, they'll spend the day at a riverside beach with beer and watermelon, slathering each other with mud and napping in the shade. For a few hours, they'll forget their ambitions and the struggle to fit in and just be themselves.

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