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On The Road: Exploring Western America's Creative Cultures

A road trip can help us reconnect to our human instincts of migration, leading to new discoveries of vibrant culture and human experience. After using my spring break to travel across California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, I can speak from experience when I say that there is something inherently therapeutic about seeing the change of landscapes throughout a long drive. From the towering pine trees in Tahoe National Forest to the red rock walls of Zion National Park, there is no doubt that the landscape and environment play pivotal roles in shaping the creative economy of a region. 


San Luis Obispo 


San Luis Obispo is not just a typical college town. The culture is very clearly focused on their environmental sectors such as agriculture, viticulture (wine-making), and architecture. Known for its craft breweries, wineries, and artisanal food producers, the casual culinary scene focuses on locality and the flavors of the region. San Luis Obispo is also home to many skilled craftspeople working in traditional trades such as woodworking, metalworking, and ceramics. Studios and family-owned shops such as Anam Cré and Len Collective promote creative community building and sustainable handmade craft. 



structural piece at architecture graveyard

“Recognized as one of the top five undergraduate architecture programs in the country, Cal Poly is a known leader in producing highly qualified professionals” (calpoly.edu). Many student architects learn how to blend design, practicality, sustainability, and environmental stewardship, which can be seen through the various pieces around the campus. Located in the hills of Cal Poly’s campus architecture graveyard. This is a must see area when passing through, as many student projects and large scale experimental pieces are exhibited. Though many student works live on the Cal Poly campus, there is also an abundance of artwork dispersed throughout town. Museums and galleries such as EDNA Contemporary Fine Art and SLO Museum of Art showcase curated pieces of art while murals and sculptures fill the historic streets. 


electrical box street art in San Luis Obispo

Santa Cruz

 

A friend of mine wearing Santa Cruz Apparel

Nestled along the shores of California's central coast was my second stop, Santa Cruz. The city embodies the sea and surf culture into local style. Known for its laid-back atmosphere and historic surf culture, Santa Cruz serves as a epicenter for fashion that reflects the free-spirited ethos of coastal living. Santa Cruz, the iconic apparel brand, was founded in 1973 by surfers and friends Richard Novak, Doug Haut, and Jay Shuirman. It started as a small craft surfboard and skateboard company. As the brand gained popularity among adventure seeking locals, Santa Cruz expanded by making apparel and resonating with those with interest in action sports and the laid-back culture. It goes the same for surf brand O’Neill. Jack O'Neill, the founder, has a strong connection to Santa Cruz, which is often regarded as the birthplace of the brand's success. In the early 1950s, O'Neill established his first shop in San Francisco but later relocated to Santa Cruz, where he further developed and popularized the brand's signature surf products and apparel. Additionally, Santa Cruz's proximity to Silicon Valley has led to the emergence of the eco-conscious fashion movement, with a focus on sustainability and ethical production practices. Local designers and entrepreneurs are pioneering innovative approaches to eco-friendly fashion, using organic materials, recycled fabrics, and environmentally friendly production methods to reduce their carbon footprint.


mural in Downtown Santa Cruz

From funding public art installations and cultural festivals to providing grants and resources for arts organizations, Santa Cruz demonstrates a stronger commitment to nurturing and celebrating the diverse artistic talents that thrive within its community than most other cities. By putting money into the arts, Santa Cruz’s creative economy continues to flourish. For example, “Santa Cruz City Arts, in collaboration with Arts Council Santa Cruz County, launched [a] Pilot Grant Program to support arts-based initiatives that contribute to our City’s recovery efforts. This program invests in local artists to tackle pressing challenges and seeks to have a major impact on the well being of the City’s community and the health of its economy.” (Santa Cruz City Arts)



Salt Lake City/Park City  


My last stop in the road trip was Salt Lake City and Park City, Utah. Driving into the state, I could already tell that I was in for some breathtaking views of salt flats and snowy mountains. With my eye on the spring snow, I could tell how much the creative economy in the area thrived off of snow season. Since Salt Lake City is home to some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the country, boasting world-class resorts such as Snowbird, Alta, Brighton, there is an undeniable presence of vibrant snow culture with ski shops, snow apparel, and winter festivals dotting the streets. A quick drive over to Park City is worth your time if you enjoy art galleries and western snow attire. There is definitely no shortage of custom felt cowboy hats, fur coats, and artisanal leather goods in this town where locals are all decked out in warm but fashionable outfits. 



Tanner Trading Co in Park City, Utah
Prospect Gallery in Park City, Utah

The biggest creative and cultural event Park City is known for is Sundance Film Festival. Founded in 1978 by actor Robert Redford, Sundance has become one of the most important festivals in the film industry, especially for independent filmmakers. In addition to its cultural significance within the industry, the festival also plays a vital role in the creative economy of Park City and the surrounding area. The surge in visitors during the festival creates jobs during the season and brings in substantial revenue for local establishments such as hotels, eateries, ski resorts, and retail stores. According to ABC4 Utah, “the 2023 Sundance Film Festival brought in $63 million in wages and $12.8 million in tax revenue. Out-of-state visitors spent $96 million during the festival”, in which a portion of the revenue funnels into Park City Summit County’s Arts Council.


Ultimately, this road trip served as a test to explore the various facets and forms of creativity and culture in each city, reminding me of the impact our environment has on influencing culture and shaping local communities.



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