Connecting Rural & Urban Communities

Bay Area commuters are now seeing the faces and stories of hidden California—stories of farmers, amateur boxers and rodeo riders, even a young cowgirl. The images are in advertising spaces on BART trains, part of a new public information campaign and art exhibit aimed at connecting urban residents with rural life in California.

It’s a place I know well, where my own writing and photography takes place, it’s my laboratory, inspiration and heritage. It’s a place I wish every Californian knew better and honored. But, in the bustle of the city, I know it’s easy to forget the backbone of our state, the hands that bring us food and the bodies that tend our landscape, use and protect our natural resources.

Lisa Hamilton’s project Real Rural is important to me because I’ve always lived in the two Californias. As a child I lived on family ranches in Marin and Lake counties and grew up in San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge spanning my worlds. Today, I live in Sacramento and crisscross the state, moving between urban and rural to tell stories about agriculture and the environment, puttering in my home garden and walking the state’s fields, vineyards and orchards.

Rodeo family

“Real Rural: Stories from the Rest of California” is a collaboration between writer and photographer Lisa Hamilton and the nonprofit organizations Roots of Change, the Bill Lane Center for the American West, the California Historical Society, and the Creative Work Fund (a project of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund), which supports artists working in the nine Bay Area counties.

Real Rural is a portrait of California’s rural communities—what Hamilton calls with some irony “The rest of California.” Combining photography, writing, and oral histories, the project illustrates that rural California is not simply “the rest” of the state, but in fact is a place of surprising depth and diversity. The multimedia portraits she has made bring that rural life to the urban public, in hopes of connecting the two on a basic, human level.

Kern County sheepherder

Real Rural is meant to start a new conversation between two parts of California that are at best disconnected and often at odds,” said Hamilton. “Many people in our cities think they already know the story of rural California: who’s there and how they think, their values and their struggles. I have aimed to demonstrate that in fact this place and its people are far more diverse and dynamic than most of us from outside realize.”

Hamilton spent much of 2011 crisscrossing nearly 10,000 miles of California, capturing amazing portraits of the state’s remarkable scenery and seeking out stories about the diverse residents there. This innovative multimedia project features portraits of people and places, along with compelling, provocative stories about the subjects.

The 20 stories featured in Real Rural highlight compelling struggles and joys of life told from people and families of rural California. What the project tries to capture is the passion of each person featured and their belief in something deeply enough that they scrap, struggle and sacrifice for it. This includes, among others, the story of Guadalupe Diaz, who as a young immigrant to the San Joaquin Valley, lived under a tree with her husband and infant child; Charley Custer, a pot grower who has gone public in order to help return morality to the marijuana industry; and Sebastian, a tiny, nine-year-old boxer who insists he can be a world champion.

Jesus, 4-H livestock show

“By putting these stories with faces from rural California on BART trains, Lisa shares the lives and dreams of rural Californians with those of us who live in the city,” said Jon Christensen, Executive Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. “We’re proud to be part of this unique project that brings the reality of rural California into our urban lives through Lisa’s artistic vision, and the extraordinary people who shared their lives with her—and now us.”

While the main medium is photography, the images are supported and enhanced by accompanying text, audio, and other storytelling media. A website – — helps capture the remarkable photographs and accompanying written and audio stories from places Hamilton traveled to and from that most people have never heard of such as Surprise Valley, Lost Hills and Mecca.

“There is no reason why rural California matters more than the rest of the state, but likewise there is no reason why it matters less,” Hamilton added.

California farmworker

“This project illustrates the depth and diversity of these rural communities in order to foster a more productive dialogue and increased cooperation, particularly as it relates to the food system,” said Michael Dimock, President, Roots of Change. “An important part of our mission is to educate people about these important issues and Real Rural helps connect the dots in a creative, inspiring way.”

The BART ad-art campaign will be featured on trains throughout the Bay Area through March 2012. Later this fall photographs from Real Rural will comprise a show at the California Historical Society in San Francisco. There will also be a concurrent ad-art campaign on billboards and public transit in Los Angeles and Sacramento.

“The California Historical Society is proud to be a part of this collaboration that explores a unique part of California’s history,” said Anthea Hartig, Ph.D., 
executive director, California Historical Society. “We look forward to helping bring these stories to the general public through an inspiring exhibit that showcases this remarkable collection of work.”

Lee Harris at home. Fairmead, Madera County.

For more information about “Real Rural: Stories from the Rest of California” visit

P.S. Happy Groundhog Day! (it’s a rural custom) See you in the garden, spring can’t be far away.

Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

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