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Hometown America: Chris Gravett’s undiscovered Arkansas

"I didn't have the balls to study photography in my 20s," says Chris Gravett. The recent graduate's series on a small town in Arkansas is currently on show as part of the Free Range Graduate Art and Design Show at The Old Truman Brewery.

“I Googled myself, as you do, and accidently added an ‘e’ to the end of my name,” says 64-year-old recent graduate Chris Gravett. “The city of Gravette in northwest Arkansas came up. Wikipedia says it has a population of 2300 – 90% white, with 23 churches, in an area of four square miles. I thought it was such a bizarre demographic I wanted to know more.”

And so began the making of Gravette The Heart of Hometown America, which is currently on exhibit at the Free Range Graduate Art and Design Show at The Old Truman Brewery in east London – a summer season of shows celebrating up-and-coming graduate talent in the fields of art, design, fashion, photography and architecture.

Chris researched further and discovered that the city of Gravette was founded by a man named Ellis Tillman Gravett – without the ‘e’ – in 1893. A further ancestral search uncovered that Ellis Tillman was British, a settler originally from Steyling in Sussex, and that their ancestral lines cross in the early 16th century. Inspired by this intriguing bit of genealogical information, Chris flew out to Gravette in November 2014 from his hometown of Arlesey in Bedfordshire, hoping to capture the essence of this small community with a link to the home counties.

“There aren’t an abundance of hotels in Gravette; in fact, the only B&B closed down,” explains Chris, “so I stayed in a B&B 13 miles away in Bella Vista. The owners were very hospitable and interested in what I was doing. I stayed 10 days and they made it easy for me to work at night.”

Chris spent most of his adult life working for a communications company: “I’ve been interested in photography all my life, but in my 20s – what with kids and a mortgage – I just didn’t have the balls to pursue it full time. But in 2010 I chucked it all in. I was in a better position to take risks, so I enrolled in the photography course at the University of Westminster. I’ve just graduated with a BA Honours in Photography.”

His main interest is in documentary photography, which perhaps explains his determination to uncover more about this unremarkable community hidden away from the tourist trappings of bright-lights America. He says his objective was not only to make images of this small pocket in God’s country, but also to do a reccy and make contacts – to meet the kind of Chevrolet, apple pie Americans he’d pictured in his mind. “The people weren’t as forthcoming as I had expected them to be, and I didn’t meet the type of people I had wanted to get to know – people who lived and worked and made their lives in Gravette,” he says. “They were quite reserved, in fact, which is contrary to the impressions we often have of Americans – brash and forthright.”

He did, however, befriend “quite an eccentric” local with whom he remained in contact after his return to England. They kept in touch by email for several months, and when Chris arranged a return trip to Gravette in March this year, his eccentric ‘fixer’ introduced him to the very Americans he had hoped to know – the God-fearing grafters with a Protestant work ethic, pledging their allegiance to God, country and family.

Gravette The Heart of Hometown America is also a photobook, which Chris plans to enter into various book awards. “The Gravette Historical Museum bought my book. They asked me to write a narrative of my impressions of the community, so I did. I believe it’s on display now.”

Chris says the project has some life in it yet and he is currently exploring a potential exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, which was founded by Alice Walton of the Walmart family.

Chris Gravett’s exhibition of Gravette The Heart of Hometown America  ends on Monday, 14 June; however, to see more of his work visit his website.

Chris’s short on the Rana Plaza disaster, Twenty Days Later, can be viewed here.

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• Information about Free Range’s summer season of shows is available here

• British Journal of Photography is hosting a series of Breakthrough Sessions and workshops as part of Free Range. For more, visit BJP’s pop-up gallery at The Old Truman Brewery, Elys Court, 15 Hanbury Street, Shop 13, E1 CQR, or click here for information on workshops and photography sessions. The winners of BJP’s Breakthrough Awards are currently on display at The Old Truman Brewery in Shop 13.

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