Beautiful Possibility: An Interview With Alison Pebworth

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Beautiful Possibility Title Banner by Alison Pebworth (pictured: Olaudah Equiano, Tahcoloquoit (Sauk and Fox Chief), Olive Oatman)

Feeling nervous? Got credit card debt? Schadenfreude? The shakes? Maybe it’s Americanitis. San Francisco-based artist Alison Pebworth has a tonic for what ails you – coming soon to a city near you.

You might think of Pebworth as a quieter, more visually oriented version of Reverend Billy. Her interactive, art installation-based roadshow, Beautiful Possibility, certainly covers some of the same grassroots, anti-consumerist turf. And, like the good Reverend, Pebworth delivers her theatrical message under the playful guise of a familiar American archetype. But instead of donning the collar of an itinerant preacher, Pebworth morphs herself into the persona of traveling salesperson, hawking her spiritually invigorating artistic “elixir” in the manner of an old-time, Wild West medicine show.

The second installment of a two-part tour she initiated in 2010, the 2012 iteration of Beautiful Possibility continues where the last left off, caravanning Pebworth’s quirky brand of socially engaged art into ten more states during a ten-month period, all on a lean, mean Kickstarter-raised budget of $10K.

And it’s quite the show. There are bright banners and slick, slogan-spouting posters, and printed bunting fluttering in the breeze. But instead of a horse and wagon, Pebworth drives a truck with a sleeping trailer hitched behind it. Instead of relying on flea circuses and freak shows to attract crowds, she draws them in with her own quietly intriguing and fascinatingly modern take on allegorical art.

But, as Pebworth is quick to point out, Beautiful Possibility is not so much about broadcasting opinions as it is about gathering them. With scheduled stops this year in Indian reservations, wheat-belt states and rust-belt cities, at urban cultural centers and rural utopian communities, a big part of Pebworth’s m.o. is just to listen. As she travels, she’ll be collecting information on Americanitis with the help of playfully worded questionnaires, with the aim of comparing and contrasting opinions from region to region—and with the hope of drawing a consensus on a larger, national scale.

I interviewed Pebworth by e-mail as she prepared to embark on the 2012 tour.

Q: Tell us more about the nervous condition that Beautiful Possibility sets out to address, “Americanitis.” I thought at first that it was a term you coined yourself, but I see it actually has a long history in American thought.

Pebworth: Over 100 years ago, “Americanitis” was a medically recognized ailment. The philosopher William James, who suffered from it, first coined the term in the 1870s. Then a neurologist by the name of William Sadler wrote a book and toured the lecture circuit for 20 years speaking about it. Rexall even put out an Americanitis Elixir and Tonic to combat the nervous diseases associated with a busy lifestyle. I recognize it in myself today; I thought others might too.

Q: This will be the third time you’ve been on the road for months at a time with a large-scale, itinerant project. What are some of the most memorable experiences from your past adventures?

Pebworth: Sometimes the most memorable moments are the small interactions that mark clear shifts in my thinking, like the time I was in a tiny town in rural Arkansas at the crack of dawn waiting for a café to open. Walking down the street, I noticed Confederate flags and Bible verses in windows, so when I turned back and saw an old man in Western wear checking out the California license plates on my trailer, I only assumed he was judging me harshly. Still, I sucked it up and went over to say hello. We ended up sitting in front of the barber shop for over an hour talking about travel, relationships, and politics. It floored me when he asked, “You know who I think should be the next president? Hillary Clinton!” This was 2006! What it made me realize is that when we think we are being most judged, it’s usually us that are doing the most pre-judging. This set into motion a practice that gives me the most enjoyment as I travel—engaging those whom I think I have the least in common with and making a point of broaching the topics of religion and politics—not to preach, but to share my perspectives and to invite theirs. We all know those warm feelings we sometimes get in random interactions with strangers. A lot can be accomplished through just being kind.

But there are also more obvious memorable experiences like participating in purification ceremonies, or Inipi, the sweat lodge, on the Oglala Sioux Reservation on my 2010 tour. For two to three hours I sweated knee-to-knee in complete darkness with a group of Sioux men (and my sister, who was visiting), who sang and prayed in Lakota, and occasionally translated for us so that we could participate. Here was a ceremony in place for centuries that focuses your attention on the public prayer—dealing with the intense heat in the pitch black, there is nothing else but the voices in your head merged with the ritualized round of prayers of those who are with you. I am going back to visit and work with the tribal elder, Ben Goodbuffalo, who led this first experience on Pine Ridge in South Dakota to participate in Inipi before I start the 2012 tour from Minnesota to the East Coast.

Q: How did you choose the cities and venues for this tour?

Pebworth: Ultimately, the cities/states/venues choose me. I chart out a rough course I’d like to make, then look to find whatever spaces are available. I put the word out and then just follow the enthusiasm. If I have to try too hard to convince someone of my worth, then it usually means it’s not a good fit and the collaboration will be weak. But if a person or organization approaches me, I do my best to try to make something work out.

Q: Beautiful Possibility makes use of maps, charts, banners and posters, which you’ve hand-painted yourself. There’s a playful humor in it all, a subversion of what’s “official”—of the authority we take for granted behind the informational displays we see in classrooms, government offices, and museums. I’m thinking in particular of the “Remarkable Tricksters of America” poster with its depiction of Karl Rove, P.T. Barnum, and “Yes Men” as so many wondrous flora and fauna. What’s the intent behind this kind of “educational” signage?

Pebworth: I’m trying to make my work more accessible. I’m using the nostalgic appeal of the familiar to lure people in. But once I draw you in, you might not get what you expected. I use advertising images and educational charts because I feel these are the visual languages Americans are most conditioned to. Many people think “art” is something you learn, or that there is a right or wrong way to look at it, and that it is therefore out of their realm. I’m trying to remove that obstacle.

Q: You’ve described some of your early forays into public, interactive art as a “long and awkward journey of trial and error.” Could you tell us about the transition from making paintings in a private studio to “taking the show on the road,” so to speak?

Pebworth: In 2001 I had a vision of myself as a socially engaged artist. How do you start trying to manifest a fantasy? You stick your foot into the dark unknown and then try to feel your way around until your eyes adjust and you learn how to navigate through it. My first step was to build a cabinet for a painting and take it out into a remote landscape to see who I’d encounter. I was actually relieved that no one came by because I had no idea what I would say. But it was the first step. From there, with each iteration, I reduced my vulnerability until I had a fully enclosed tent and started inviting others to collaborate on interactive projects within the space. It became a lab that allowed me to go into neighborhoods in the Bay Area that I don’t usually go into and try out social experiments. I am not a performer, I am only learning how to be myself in sometimes-awkward settings and seeing what works and what doesn’t.

Q: All artists, whether they’re visual artists, writers, poets, composers, etc., have to deal with a certain vulnerability and feeling of exposure that comes with putting their work “out there.” I’d imagine this feeling might be even more intense for you because you’re engaged with the public so directly and openly. Did it take some getting used to at first?

Pebworth: I travel alone because it forces me to connect with other people, a kind of forced socialization, and yet the long drives from point to point let me preserve the intense introversion I am naturally drawn into. Committing myself to social projects and to engaging strangers and challenging my assumptions as I travel means it’s no longer just about me. I’m taking all the people I meet and hope to encounter into that inner realm too.

Q: In the absence of grants and other public funding, you’ve used Kickstarter as a way to raise funds for this project. What’s your experience with the process been like so far?

Pebworth: This is my first time using Kickstarter and it’s been both incredibly heartbreaking and incredibly heartwarming. At first, when I wasn’t sure if I was going to get any support behind me, I could really feel all of the energy I had put into this project being sucked out of me. This is my life’s work after all—is it all futility and vanity? But now, as the support has built, and I am getting such surprising pledges—some from people I have never met—my heart is swelling, and I am truly feeling the force of even the smallest show of support. This is what I hoped for, that it would truly be a people-powered project. The responsibility to make this project succeed is not just my own, and as scary as that may be, it’s given me a lot of hope.

Nora Maynard is a Canadian-American fiction/nonfiction writer based in NYC. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, The Millions, Hippocampus Magazine, Leite’s Culinaria, Food Republic, and Apartment Therapy: The Kitchn, among other publications. Nora has been awarded fellowships from the Ucross Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Millay Colony for the Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, The Artists’ Enclave at I-Park, and is a winner of the Bronx Writers’ Center/Bronx Council of the Arts Chapter One Competition. She is at work on a novel. Visit her website at