From Chicago to Fargo: It Was On the Way

By     Jun 26, 2014
Lead Content Writer, Energy Media Group

Heather Zinger

A Warm Hello to All the Creative Community Fellows! It’s a pleasure to learn about all of your projects and initiatives. I can’t wait to spend the next 9 months getting to know you all and your work more.

My story begins in Chicago land and ends in Fargo with many a pit stop in between. (I’m mostly talking about gas stations here.) My name is Heather Zinger and I currently reside in Fargo, North Dakota where the annual median temperature is: 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Translation: it’s effing cold here which condenses summer into three short months. I don’t ski, I don’t snowboard, no snowshoeing, ice climbing, ice fishing or polar plunging. (Though I’ve heard this is awesome!) So, what business do I have living in a place whose identity is heavily influenced by its extreme winter weather conditions? (Fargo is also known for its blizzards, flooding and mosquito swarms). In a nutshell, I’m fascinated by how environment and thus culture, forms identities.

This interest in culture and identity formation led me to travel and live near, and afar, from Chicago, IL to Madison, WI to Avignon, France to Portland, OR to Fargo, ND. Part of the journeying was an attempt to figure out where I belong. Finally, while attending art school, my interest was captured by community, engaged art. It started after I made ENDURE, a performance based fundraiser for Multiple Sclerosis. To pursue these interests, I attended a Social Practice conference in Portland, OR and had the good fortune of hearing the artist, Michael Strand, talk about ethics in art. I was hooked and knew that I had to work with him. This is a summary of how our first conversation went:

“I want to work with you.”


“How about next month?”

“Don’t you have to worry about work?”

“Nah, I’ll just leave a for a month and come back.”

“You can do that?”

“Sure. No one will even notice.” (I was working as a freelance photographer)

“How long do you want to stay?”

“Maybe a month.”

“Let’s figure out how to make this financially sustainable.”

“Do you have a guest room?”

“Haha. I doubt my wife and sons would be okay with having a stranger live with us.”

“Right that could be weird. I am pretty strange... Is there somewhere I can pitch a tent?”

“Let’s keep talking and find a way to make your stay sustainable.”

“Sure. Interesting. Where do you live?”




I’d never been to Fargo. The only reason I’d even heard of it was because of the Cohen Brother’s film, Fargo. Obviously, the only real thing in that movie is the accents, and that’s only true some of the time. At the time, Fargo struck me as mythic because common responses to living there are usually more than head nods. No one ever just nods his or her head in understanding. No one. Telling people you live in Fargo usually turns into an event.

I started making plans to leave Portland, OR (where I was living at the time) for one month to live in Fargo to learn about community engaged art making. During my preparations, Michael told me about an Artist-in-Residence position at the Roger Maris Cancer Center and encouraged me to apply. The job was compelling and so I did. Two months later, they offered me a job. Two months later, I arrived in Fargo. It was an event.

According to Wikipedia, Fargo is the largest city in North Dakota containing roughly 16% of the entire state’s population of 725,000. The city’s population numbers around 113,658 and is going strong. A developed downtown area makes Fargo a big draw for the area especially since the closest largest cities are hours away (Winnipeg, Canada is 3 and Minneapolis is 4.) Fargo has an interesting geography that is prone to flooding, blizzards and mosquito swarms. The most active industries are agriculture, oil, education and healthcare. That’s quite an interesting economic dynamic.

Oil is huge in western part of the state. You’ve all probably heard about the BOOM. The landscape is littered with oilrigs and man camps. Since Fargo lives on the far eastern border of North Dakota (it’s a 5 minute walk to Minnesota), we haven’t experienced intimately the many impacts of the oil boom just yet. Most of the effects plague the western part of the state - environmental destruction, new arrivals unable to find oil jobs, the rise of violent crimes and more specifically sex trafficking. (Though women are being kidnapped from all over.) The oil fields are estimated to continue producing for the next 70-100 years. So, the clock is ticking.

As a newcomer to the Fargo (and Moorhead) community, I have an interesting perspective. Most of its inhabitants grew up here or married those from this area. There are transplants, most of who are going on 10 years in this community. Once Fargo hooks you, it HOOKS you. I’m been here two years and what keeps me here is that Cheers is around every corner, in the bar or on the street. Fargo has the time to be kind and supportive. It has the space to allow for new beginnings and experiments.

The art and entrepreneurial scenes are active and engaged. There is a current of enthusiasm that exists that I’ve never encountered before. Folks LOVE Fargo. They know how to throw a party AND they know how to jump-start a car in 5 minutes flat. If you need a ladder, they’ll find you one or build you one. The range of talents is admirable. I could go on but as with most cities, there are things that people rave about and things that get swept under the rug. During my time here, I’ve grown passionate about creating inclusive spaces, embracing and celebrating diversity and dialoguing about the hard things. These are skills that every healthy community works to develop. Fargo should be no different.

All of this brings me to ART LAB the project/initiative that I’ll be focusing on for the next 9 months. Since ART LAB is still in it’s infancy, the mission is quite expansive:

ART LAB is an arts based think and practice tank that strives to find creative, compassionate interventions for pressing community and social needs. Collaborating with community partners and residents, ART LAB will use art to foster dialogue, empathy, civic mindedness and social justice with the intention of building inclusive bridges to strengthen communities.

I’ve received a grant from the Fargo Moorhead Area Foundation to rent a space in the Moorhead Center Mall until August 31st. My goal is to start and document the impact of arts programming in the next few months to procure more funding to continue ART LAB. Whew! I’ve got my work cut out for me.

I’ll be hosting a community needs and resources discussion in the space next week. If any of you out there has done this before, please share your experience and any suggestions. It would be greatly appreciated!