Artist boosts town’s declining population with cut-out villagers

How do you save a fading rural village? An artist from Taylor, Nebraska, hatched an idea to recreate the town at its boom, when it had double its current population, to draw visitors. Special correspondent Mike Tobias of NET reports.

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    In a rural Nebraska village of less than 200 people, a local artist is attempting to get drivers passing through to stop and spend a little money locally, while at the same time doubling the town's population.

    From PBS member station NET, Nebraska Education Television, Mike Tobias explains.


    There's Ralph Hodson, little Audrey, Ralph and Hank, the friendly villagers of Taylor, old-fashioned, kind of stoic folks, a little stiff, wooden, actually.

  • MARAH SANDOZ, Artist:

    I want as many wooden people as there are actual people in Taylor, which is only 182. I can do it.


    Marah Sandoz is one of the actual people, and creator of the wooden ones.

    A couple decades ago, she got involved with a local economic development group brainstorming about ways to help the fading village.


    What can we do to stop the traffic? What can we create for people to see?

    And so we went back to, OK, what do we have? We have a couple really cool historic buildings. Let's go back to that era and let's recreate what was when this town was booming, when this town was bustling.


    It became Sandoz's project, a self-described, self-trained artist with experience using wood and paint. She hatched the idea of life-sized plywood cutouts depicting people who might have lived in the village between 1890 and 1920, when Taylor had twice as many people as today.

    The first villagers arrived in 2003, Herbert and Alice, near the historic, now unused Pavilion Hotel.


    People thought they were fun. They were different. People said that they had to stop and wait because they thought that the people wanted top cross the street. They wave at them. It created a lot of local chatter.


    The villager population has since grown to about 100 of the cutouts. Sandoz does most of the work, with a little help from family and locals. Location is often a starting point for the artist.


    So, a lot of my ideas come from seeing a spot. I tend to see canvases in the community, what would have been happening there in 1910.


    The villagers caused a pair of westbound travelers to stop.


    Well, first reaction, we thought it was real, you know, it was real, just kind of somebody standing there, you know?


    And it has kind of an inviting look to it, you know? And it makes you want to find out more about it. So, we're — actually, we're thrilled that we stopped here and find out this is where they're being made and a little bit about the villagers, as they call them.


    Right now, there's only so much revenue the villagers can generate for Taylor, because there are only a handful of places to spend money in the only town in one of Nebraska's least populated counties.

    And that population has been declining for decades. Sandoz believes the villagers project can change that.


    We're creating a really positive climate for antique and retro stuff, and so will see if we can get some other little businesses around the square that can fill those tourism niches.


    For now, Sandoz will do her part by creating more villagers, six a year, until there's enough wooden people to symbolically double the town's population, all with the hope that real people will start coming to Taylor, instead of leaving.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Mike Tobias in Taylor, Nebraska.

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