The value of the slower life

I’m presently reading Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: A spiritual geography. In the book, Norris relays her rural experiences on the western plains of South Dakota. She moved back to the state of her birth after growing up in Hawaii and living in New York City. Her city friends thought she was crazy for moving to an isolated community of 1,600 people, giving up the network of artists surrounding her in The Big Apple.

The book talks often about the struggles of life on the Great American Desert, for artists and for everyone else under that big sky. For instance, she wasn’t able to get grants as a writer living in Lemmon, South Dakota, like she had been able to in the city. But the isolation brings advantages over city life too. From the book:

Like all those who choose life in the slow lane — sailors, monks, farmers — I partake of a contemplative reality. Living close to such an expanse of land I find I have little incentive to move fast, little need of instant information. I have learned to trust the processes that take time, to value change that is not sudden or ill-considered but grows out of the ground of experience.

Living life more slowly gives us the opportunity for intentional observation. This is key for artists, who take in, digest and interpret the world around them. It can be done in the city, but Norris is correct when she says that it’s easier to do in more rural environs.


The Plains (in Kansas)

Would it be ideal for artists to live in a small town outside of a city — preferably a small town with a liberal arts university? This would gain them access to both the networks in a larger metropolitan area and the slower pace of country life that lends itself to more careful observation (and patience in creation, perhaps). Siloam Springs fits this scenario, being about 40 minutes from The Strip, a collection of cities along I-540 250,000 people call home. Seward, Nebraska, is another possibility — and is situated on the wide open prairie. Seward is a nice little community of 6,000 about 30 minutes outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, and is home to Concordia University. What about Grove City, Pennsylvania, 50 miles north of Pittsburgh? Its residents number around 8,000 and it also houses a private Christian college.

I have a hard time, personally, believing that I’d fair well in a small town without the cultural anchor of a liberal arts college, even if it’s only half an hour from a cultural mecca such as New York City. Norris points out more than once in Dakota that the only people in Lemmon to have concerted intellectual discussion with are the clergy and teachers. She also points to a quote from a Dakota professor lamenting the lack of arts in their states. Without art, the professor points out, the states will lose their culture.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

3 Responses to The value of the slower life

  1. Jim Janknegt says:

    I live in the country outside a small town (5000 pop.) 25 miles east of Austin. Amazingly there is a large population of artists in this small town. We moved here about ten years ago. I was pretty active in the Austin art scene when I lived there but since moving to the country have dropped out of the Austin art scene. I have never really been that dependent on other artists for motivation to work. So living in the country suites me well. I still work in Austin at the University, which I love but hope to retire soon. When that day comes I think I will be happy staying put in the country and will rarely go into Austin. But that’s just me.

    Besides the painting I enjoy the authenticity of growing my own food, tending animals, chopping wood and hope to increase that part of my live as well. I can easily envision spending half the day painting and have the day growing food.

  2. pNielsen says:

    I’m enough of an extrovert that the idea of living in smaller towns without some kind of arts interest isn’t a happy thought. However, I’d love the opportunity to have a little land, grow some veggies and milk a goat. Chopping wood sounds therapeutic.

    The problem is that I can’t find time enough to make art now. How in the world would I find time to work a paying job, take care of land and animals and still make art? I’ve resigned myself at this point to a life that is focused — and I don’t mind the resignation — on the creation of art. A person just can’t do it all, at least not well. Now, if you don’t have to work a day job, if your art makes enough money, that’s a different story.

    Now if I can just put it into action!

  3. Jonathan Brandenburg says:

    Paul, thanks for the shout out to Kansas (picture) and Seward. I’m here with Melissa in the hospital…about to be induced and I knew in this contemplative time I should read your blog…I was led correctly. I agree with you about not knowing whether I could really live in a small, rural village with no arts and especially for me limited intellectual conversation. However, I love Norris’ way of expressing that which grows out of time and patience…I have missed those things – walking slowly through small streets(you keep walking, Paul), chopping wood for your fireplace (duraflame is nice but just not the same), and just being slow in both actions and words. I really sense this as Ben gets older and as I have another child. I know God is calling me where He wishes…but I often pray that He would send me wherever my kids will be safe. I know the California lifestyle (as in almost everywhere) is not healthy…but on top of that it is fast paced and wealth driven. I know everywhere has its problems, but sometimes I miss that small community and that slow life found in Kansas and Nebraska. I’m rambling now, but I probably will be doing that more as the day goes on. We’ll be here for at least 12 hours…possibly up to 24 hours. So, look for more sleep-deprived and deep in thought comments :).

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