The founding duo behind South Dakota art collective MidwestNice Art discuss their uniquely Midwestern approach to creative success and professional equity.

Midwest Gothic: An Extremely Polite Conversation With Tim Rickett and Epiphany Knedler of MidwestNice Art [Interview]

It’s pop, not soda.

But say “soda” within spitting distance of a Midwesterner and they’re more likely to hand you a can of Coke than correct your dialect to the preferred “pop.” The corn-eating flatlanders of the Midwest are much too nice to say anything about their predilections for quirky slang, long goodbyes, and ranch dressing at every meal. Not just nice. Midwest Nice.

“I think there is a lot of resilience in the [Midwest],” says Tim Rickett, who heads one half of South Dakota-based art collective MidwestNice Art. “In the Midwest, you can get larger studio spaces, create your own galleries, and pursue larger-scale activities because there is room to grow,” chimes in cofounder Epiphany Knedler, who met Tim at East Carolina University during graduate school. The two artists quickly bonded over their shared Midwestern background, similar aesthetic, and an overarching mission to support creatives in their professional success.

The founding duo behind South Dakota art collective MidwestNice Art discuss their uniquely Midwestern approach to creative success and professional equity.
Exhibitions like ‘mint condition’ (winter 2023) give Midwestern artists a chance to shine.

“We have to work pretty hard to get our work out there because of the space in between [New York and LA],” Tim tells NOT REAL ART. “It’s a different competition, but arguably just as good of work at times.” Formed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, MidwestNice Art takes its name from the phrase “Midwest Nice,” an expression that rolls the region’s idiosyncrasies into both a compliment and a very fitting passive-aggressive jab. Midwesterners are seen as genuinely nice people, but it’s their permeating sense of humility, stoicism, and restraint that seems particularly odd or incomprehensible to coastal dwellers. That dismissal bleeds into the national art scene, where markets in LA and New York act as cultural capital for the entire country.

“Rural communities—a majority of the Midwest—often don't have a lot of opportunities to share their work or even display work,” says Tim, who works with Epiphany to tip the scales back toward artists in the Great Middle. Alongside guest creatives, the two educators—Tim is an associate professor at Northern State University and Epiphany is an adjunct instructor—provide artists with tools, resources, and community. Their website includes practical tips for writing a bio and artist statement, applying for opportunities, and putting together a professional portfolio. They also offer editing services, as well as studio visits, exhibitions, portfolio reviews, and a quirky gift shop. “Making art is still the most important,” says Epiphany, “but to get funding, access viewers, and even spread your work through social media, you need access to other tools.”

“When you're growing your art practice, it can be daunting to share your work with the world,” she continues, explaining that MidwestNice shares its combined knowledge and resources to help struggling artists find community. Theirs is a distinctly Midwestern attitude—friendly, dogged, unassuming—that’s in short supply on the country’s coasts. “In the cities, there is definitely more competition,” Epiphany concedes before she adds, “but that's not to say an artist from the Midwest can't make it elsewhere.”

In Today’s Q+Art Interview…

Tim Rickett and Epiphany Knedler of MidwestNice Art discuss the necessity of compromise for successful collaboration, why sometimes it’s OK to be selfish, and what they miss most about the Midwest when they’re away.

Epiphany Knedler installs an exhibition; photo: Tim Rickett
The founding duo behind South Dakota art collective MidwestNice Art discuss their uniquely Midwestern approach to creative success and professional equity.
Tim Rickett speaks at East Carolina University’s MFA Artist Talks.

Does MidwestNice Art have any tips for successful collaboration with other artists and creatives?

Tim Rickett: Collaboration is all about conversation, give and take, and compromise. It certainly helps that we have the same goal in mind, which is to share work and create art around a centralized theme. From there the rest feels pretty fluid and unconscious anymore.

Epiphany Knedler: With MidwestNice Art we’ve started to bring in other artists who often have very different styles than our own. It is important to diversify our palate and create that conversation of cohesion. Be upfront about your concerns and needs, but always listen and be flexible with each other.

How do structure and routine fit into a professional artist’s toolkit?

EK: As your artistic practice grows, you often need to have a specific schedule, especially when it comes to the usually less fun activities of making like framing, applying for shows, artist statements, or updating your resume. Setting aside a certain amount of time each week or month to complete those tasks is important. It not only helps future you—you don’t have to spend an excessive amount of time trying to remember what shows you were in once you’re applying for a grant (it happens and, from experience, is never fun)—but it can also help you better understand your work and goals. I also like to schedule specific studio time so I don’t have an excuse for not making work.

How do you come up with the themes for your exhibitions?

EK: We like to use unique words or phrases. We actually came up with the first theme, The Hazards, after attending a Decemberists’ concert after their album The Hazards of Love. We take a lot of inspiration from music. Our new jurors also get to come up with a theme if they’d like, either based on ideas in their work or just something they want to look at.

The founding duo behind South Dakota art collective MidwestNice Art discuss their uniquely Midwestern approach to creative success and professional equity.
‘American West’ by Epiphany Knedler
The founding duo behind South Dakota art collective MidwestNice Art discuss their uniquely Midwestern approach to creative success and professional equity.
‘The Night Rider’ by Epiphany Knedler

What’s currently playing in your studio?

TR: Definitely depends on the mood, but we share a very similar music preference and gain a lot of inspiration from bands like Dr. Dog, Shakey Graves, The Nude Party, The Decemberists, and The Dead South.

EK: We both constantly have Dr. Dog on repeat, especially if we’re working together. I’m currently playing a lot of Orville Peck, ABBA, Taylor Swift, and true crime docs.

What do you find yourself missing about the Midwest when you’re away? What are you happy to get a break from?

TR: Being from Nebraska, I always miss the fast food chain Runza. It is a must-have if you are passing through the region.

EK: Snow. Like for both answers. We lived in North Carolina for a few years and had maybe two mornings of light snow and the rest of winter was around 40 degrees. Now we live in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and this winter is persistent. As we write this it is snowing again…

‘The Devil’s Gulch’ by Tim Rickett
‘The Legend of Tipperary’ by Tim Rickett

What’s the one piece of creative advice you’d like to share with our readers?

TR: I am a firm believer in experimentation and learning from failures and mistakes. I find that recreating some work, like with ceramics for example, the work needs to fail so you know the material limitations and where you sit with technique and refinement. After you see all of this you know what areas you can and should improve upon.

EK: There are two great pieces of advice I got when I was in graduate school: one is from my dad, Cory Knedler, also an artist, who said to be selfish with your time when you’re in the studio; the second is from my mentor and instructor, Angela Franks Wells, who, anytime I started to explore a new idea, said to just go play. Focus on your work and play around with your materials and concepts!

What’s your favorite Midwestern saying?

Both: Ope.

Why should we visit Aberdeen, South Dakota?

TR: To come see us, of course! Aberdeen is called the Hub City for the surrounding small towns in the Northern Plains. There are miles and miles of pastureland, corn, and fresh air. It's sometimes a hard selling point, but it is quite the experience if you've never seen for miles in front of you, and somewhat surreal.

EK: There's also Storybook Land and the house that the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz is here.

TR: We also have a Target.

Epiphany Knedler in the studio; photo: Cory Knedler

MidwestNice Art: Website | Instagram | Facebook | Shop

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist. Featured photo courtesy of Epiphany Knedler.

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Morgan  Laurens 

Morgan Laurens (she/her/hers) is NOT REAL ART’s editor in chief. Morgan is an arts writer from the Midwest who enjoys saying “excuse me” when no actual pardon is needed. She specializes in grant writing and narrative-based storytelling for mission-driven artists and arts organizations. With a background in printmaking, pop culture, and classic literature, Morgan believes a girl’s best friend is the pile of books on her bedside table.