Credit: Courtesy Ashlyn Gulbranson
The Gen Z TikTok accounts capturing the beauty of small-town America
A deserted mid-century diner lined with old slot machines, a mossy pine-clad gas station complete with solitary pay phone, and a local grocery store with outdated modular ceiling lighting: These are the backdrops of small town life artfully documented by 26-year-old Ashlyn Gulbranson.
A northwest Arkansas resident since 2013, Gulbranson quickly put down roots after moving to Fayetteville for college. Her perceptive eye has earned her a small but loyal audience of about 13,600 followers on TikTok, where she posts visual dispatches from her quiet American life under the account name @pineacre.
This depiction of the US, one of fluorescent lights, gas stations, diners and log cabins is nothing new. These lonely landmarks of small-town life have inspired artists for more than a century.
From the 1920s to the 1960s, it was realist painter Edward Hopper who most notably captured their eerie beauty. More recently, America's quiet side has been an enigmatic draw for visual artists like Gregory Crewsdon, whose dimly-lit photographs examine what he sees as the drawn-out malaise of home life in the woods.
Small-town living has long been mythologized in popular culture, too. The quirks of close-knit communities have been spun into comedy gold -- via the likes of Emmy Award-winning sitcom "Schitt's Creek" -- and the stuff of Lynchian nightmares in cult TV series "Twin Peaks." Netflix crime drama "Ozark," set less than four hours from Gulbranson's town, depicts the surrounding area as an unassuming rural backwater -- ideal for undisturbed money-laundering.
But now, rural America is being refracted through a different lens, as Gen Z residents share scenes from their environment on TikTok.
Despite its reputation for highly choreographed dance challenges and lip-sync comedy, the app -- which was downloaded 315 million times in the first quarter of 2020 alone -- has become an unlikely creative outlet for anyone with a smartphone.
Malcolm Lombardi has amassed some 219,000 TikTok followers by posting cinematic vignettes of his life in Skaneateles, upstate New York.
"I'm just always taking photos and videos," the 22-year-old said in a phone interview. "Then I'll go back later and see what story I could tell or mood I could create by piecing things together."
Lombardi's videos speak to that picaresque stifled teen experience: halcyon summer days spent biking down to the nearby lake and ambient winter nights out on his parent's roof. There's a surrealist edge to some of these 60 second mise-en-scènes that help capture the curious beauty of provincial ennui.
"Growing up I often got bored here. It's a really small town; there's probably like 7,000 people here," he said. "Sometimes I felt a bit trapped. You couldn't really get many places without a car. I knew every single person at my school since I was 5, because it's just like that in a small town. But I've grown to appreciate it so much more. It's such a beautiful place."
The fulfillment of filming
In a small way, these videos reclaim wider narratives that malign suburban and rural living. According to a July 2020 report from Pew Research, the proportion of people aged 18 to 29 living with one or both of their parents had risen to over 50% as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the face of rising rents across urban cities like New York and Los Angeles, rekindling a love for hometowns and more affordable areas feels pragmatic as well as romantic.
Last August, Isobel Straub embarked on a mighty six-week cross-country road trip, beginning in New England and wrapping around the West Coast before finally finishing in Colorado. To document her trip of a lifetime, Straub made a habit of filming daily diary-style videos which quickly racked up tens of thousands -- and on occasion, millions -- of views. Upon returning home, Straub was keen to continue making the videos that had by now become a habit. But Burlington, Vermont didn't feel as exciting at first.
"I used to be a super negative person. And I just hated the drudgery that each day brings," said the 21-year-old in a phone interview. "But I just continued documenting my normal, everyday life. Instead of going on these grand adventures, I was just doing my mundane stuff."
Straub, who grew up in a small town in Maine, is at the center of her videos. In between early morning cups of coffee on the porch and barista shifts at the nearby bakery, her documented life is everything suburban living is set up to be: pleasant and wholesome. There are more than 272,000 curious followers keeping tabs on Staub's life, watching her climb trees, meet up with friends at the farmer's market, or literally drive off into the sunset, as she moves through what feels like an infinite cut of "Dawson's Creek."
"I definitely do appreciate the area that I live in more," Straub said. "I just feel like I'm constantly so aware of the present moment all the time. I think those videos just really helped me get to that point."
For Lombardi, filming his hometown legitimized it in a way, too, allowing him to see Skaneateles through fresh eyes. "It makes you reconsider, seeing what other people say. I'll record a place or an activity and seeing how other people react to it makes me realize, 'Oh, that was kind of special,'" he said.
But not everyone finds the regional landscapes charming. "Some people said, 'This is what my nightmares look like,'" recalled Gulbranson, after she posted a recording of her local grocery store and its outdated decor. "Some said horrible things like, 'This makes me want to die.'"
Regardless of criticism, Gulbranson views her account as necessary documentation of a dying form of architecture.
"Where I live in northwest Arkansas, it's like the hub of Walmart," she said, referring to the chain's looming corporate presence. There are 120 Walmart stores dotted around Arkansas, with the company headquarters located in the town neighboring Gulbranson.
"They're bringing in a lot of change to this area. And so I feel the urge to document all of these businesses and places that I think are amazing, because I've seen them slowly fade out or get remodeled trying to keep up with the growth."
For Gulbranson, there are more similarities than differences between her corner of Arkansas and the America depicted by Hopper. "I was doing a lot of research on him a couple of months ago," she said, "about the pandemic 100 years ago and how artists reacted to it. I think it's really interesting how even throughout art history, there's this abstract loneliness people were trying to convey. He's my biggest inspiration."