More than endurance test, 4-month expedition looks and listens for stories to document social fabric
by Jim Boyle Editor
Aug 2, 2019
Relay of Voices, a four-month-long expedition from the headwaters to the mouth of the Mississippi River, launched on July 9 and pulled into Monticello on July 27 before making its way to Elk River on July 28.
It’s part research, part artistic endeavor and part endurance challenge. Victoria Bradford Styrbicki and her husband, Tom Styrbicki, are running and bicycling the entire length of the river from Itasca State Park to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. They are also gathering the landscapes they see, the voices they hear and stories they uncover in 104 communities along the way.
So far, the trip has been filled with positive experiences made possible by welcoming hosts who have picked them up at the end of each leg, took them in, fed them home-cooked meals and told them about their lives in these selected river towns.
The hosts also brought them to people to interact with and ultimately gave them a stage to perform sketches of their early findings.
In Monticello, the couple stopped at Fitness Revolution, Montisippi Regional Park and West Bridge Park to meet, learn and perform. Their interactions will likely be woven into the tapestry of the story the couple is creating for this project. Ultimately, the Styrbickis hope to write a book.
A small group gathered at West Bridge to hear stories of their journey so far, and visit and have some food with these two interesting visitors and artists.
“It was a beautiful night, and a wonderful performance,” said Sue Seeger, a creative arts consultant for the city of Monticello.
In Elk River, they came to Elk River Lutheran, the former home of First National Bank of Elk River on the banks of the Mississippi River.
The couple was also fed at the home of Dave Anderson and Eileen Stombaugh on the Sunday morning where they zipped through a meal and a conversation before realizing it was already time for them to meet up with Lee and Peg Davies, who agreed to host the couple at their home before sending them off.
“There’s something refreshing about what they’re trying to do,” Dave Anderson said, noting how it runs counter to current culture which offers fast opinions and involves little listening and even less research.
About 30 people gathered at Elk River Lutheran to hear them and see Victoria perform sketches of stories from three of their first stops.
“Victoria’s artist/dancer eye yearns to observe and interpret movement,” Seeger said. “She is highly attuned to movement, and she uses her talent in this respect to enhance the stories she writes and shares as she travels the river, to great effect.”
Those who came to the Elk River performance also served as dancers in Victoria’s social choreography when the night turned to questions and answers.
“The artistic piece comes from our choreographer here (Victoria) who is also gathering movements, the movement of people within their lives, their behaviors and their actions as we sit across the table from them, their gestures and the rituals of their lives,” Tom said.
The couple’s next stop was Minneapolis, and they headed out on the morning of July 29. In their wake, they left behind postcards for others to fill out and be represented in the study. The cards ask individuals: Why do you make this place home?
Relay of Voices is a project of A House Unbuilt, a nonprofit corporation based in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Chicago, Illinois.
Victoria has also aligned her work with the Water Institute of the Gulf, a not-for-profit, independent applied research and technical services institution with a mission to help coastal and deltaic communities thoughtfully prepare for an uncertain future.
Through its integrated and interdisciplinary approach, the organization creates more resilient communities, thriving economies and a healthy environment.
“We’re interested in capturing life on the river in 2019 from the headwaters to the Gulf and what are the themes and what are the concerns of the folks along the river,” Tom said. “Overriding all that is this is about the river and the folks along the river and how they are rooted in their communities, how they are connected to the water, how they are affected by the water — even if they don’t know the Mississippi River is in their backyard, which is the case in some of the larger communities. Those communities are there because the river is there. Those are communities we’re going to explore, too.”
Victoria is also on her way home to Louisiana, and the couple expects to arrive on Nov. 5.
In addition to being an artist who has turned her attention to an experiential form of dance, Victoria spent a decade in community development. She desires to discover and alter social fabric.
Ten states and 104 communities
The Relay of Voices architect has been working with all 104 communities, 20 to 40 miles apart, as daily stops on the expedition as it travels downriver through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, finishing at the mouth of the river at the Gulf of Mexico.
Each stop along the way has been identified and vetted into an organized route to provide accurate representation of both the river and diversity of the communities surrounding. A primary reason for choosing the Mississippi River region was the dichotomy of rural and urban communities there, with many of them still making a living off the water and land. The river is home to a collection of small towns ranging between 200 and 60,000 in population anchored by seven cities with populations over 100,000, serving as beacons of culture and urbanity along the water way.
“We want to support a culture of listening around the communities of the Mississippi River,” Victoria said. “As we build a physical vocabulary drawn from these lives that are shaped around a volatile natural resource as well as a reliance on community relationships, a story that resonates beyond the river and connects all Americans will emerge. Through accumulation and just being present, we hope to be a catalyst for all the voices of the river while also providing insightful data for scientific purposes.”
The interview and geographic data from fieldwork is expected to reveal the overwhelming need to understand how the “One River” affects the outcomes at its terminal.
The Water Institute of the Gulf’s Human Dimensions Director and Social Geographer, Scott Hemmerling, helped shape the questions the Relay researchers ask in interviews with local residents along the Relay route as well as provide GPS body cameras for the researchers to geolocate the information they gather. This data will then be processed by the institute in order to be collated for future use in studies and continued fieldwork in Louisiana.
The Styrbickis will process the information too, and they hope to come back to the communities they visit.
The Relay of Voices has also partnered with 29 convention and visitors bureaus, 19 chambers of commerce, 30 arts, culture and educational organizations, 45 city and county governments, as well as hundreds of individual volunteers local to each community to solidify programming and to assist with accommodation, transportation, event space and nourishment to support the expedition as it travels south.
Relay team members include director Victoria Bradford Styrbicki, project collaborator Tom Styrbicki, certified triathlon coach Nic King-Ruley, and project manager Dinah Bradford. A House Unbuilt company members who previously contributed to the development of the project include Zack Bailey, Carla Gruby, Angela Gronroos, Lisa Leszczewicz, Ione Sanders, Kara Jefts and Caitlin Rafferty.
For more information, visit https://relayofvoices.com/.