Champlain Creative Team Brings Fictional Vermont City to Life

Ralston, Vermont Historical display at Champlain College Art Gallery

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- The fictional Vermont city of Ralston (pop. 6,567) will share its fictional local history in an installation of artifacts and ephemera designed and curated to replicate the city's historical museum. Artifacts range from items dating to the city's 18th-century settlement to digital, interactive maps of the city "celebrity" locales.

The show runs Feb. 23-March 23 at the Champlain Art Gallery in the Center for Communication and Creative Media at Champlain College. An opening reception will be held Thursday, March 1 and is open to the public.

The city of Ralston is the narrative creation of Erik Esckilsen, Champlain College professor of rhetoric and digital storytelling, who developed Ralston as the setting for a series of fictions, including a novel-length work. The Ralston Historical Museum installation is the collaborative work of CCM Gallery Curator-in-Residency Dana Heffern and Graduate Fellow Jane Adams.

In addition to simulating a historical museum, the exhibit also becomes a spatial story-a platform for exploring how communities define themselves, how community members effect change, and how communities project a sense of collective selfhood through media messages, citizens' recorded experiences, and material culture. Visitors become participants in the history of Ralston as they experience curated artifacts and interactive media to construct their own sense of Ralston's quality of life past, present, and future.

The exhibition draws on Heffern's career as a scenic designer on Broadway, her active interior design business, and her varied artistic practice. Adams, a graduate of Champlain's Graphic Design & Digital Media program and a current student in the college's Master of Fine Arts in Emergent Media program, brings an interest in the intersection of design, media, and systems to the show.

For Esckilsen, the exhibition is part of a transmedia story of Ralston that includes short fictions set in Ralston, an undergraduate course that uses Ralston as a "sandbox"-style learning space, and a novel with the working title Quality of Life that he anticipates submitting to prospective publishers later this year.

Creating the city of Ralston as a setting for fiction was part of Esckilsen's sabbatical project in fall 2014. He introduced the world-in-progress at a November 2014 Pecha Kucha evening at the Shelburne Museum. His first published work set in Ralston, a short story titled "The Ralston Snowblower Collective," appeared in Seven Days in December 2015. Since then, he has developed the work into a novel with the working title Quality of Life. The novel is still a work-in-progress, though Esckilsen is now making revisions in consultation with a literary agent. He anticipates submitting the novel to prospective publishers later this year.

Ralston is also a text, of sorts, in Esckilsen's first-year course the Rhetoric of Community. Working in conjunction with Champlain College Prof. Chuck Bashaw, who teaches the linked first-year course Concepts of Community, students use Ralston as a platform for exploring how communities are defined and how community members effect change and negotiate differences. They are invited to participate in creating new dimensions of the community and to add to its emerging history.

In the process, Esckilsen says, students consider how their understanding of communities is constructed through inference - through media messages, citizens' experiences, and material culture. The Ralston Historical Museum exhibit is a good example: "Civic leaders considered these artifacts worthy of sharing with the wider world," Esckilsen says. "What does that say about these people and this place?"

For Esckilsen the author, creating fiction from the "inside out - from the story world as much as from the characters within it" - has turned some familiar challenges in the creative process around. "While a blank page can be unwelcoming, a blank map is quite the opposite," he says.

For more information about the Champlain Art Gallery, visit, The Gallery is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is closed Saturday and Sunday and College holidays.

Founded in 1878, Champlain College is a small, not-for-profit, private college in Burlington, Vermont, with additional campuses in Montreal, Canada, and Dublin, Ireland. Champlain offers a traditional undergraduate experience from its beautiful campus overlooking Lake Champlain and over 90 residential undergraduate and online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and certificates. Champlain's distinctive career-driven approach to higher education embodies the notion that true learning occurs when information and experience come together to create knowledge. Champlain College is included in the Princeton Review's The Best 384 Colleges: 2019 Edition. For the fourth year in a row, Champlain was named a "Most Innovative School" in the North by U.S. News & World Report's 2019 "America's Best Colleges,” and a “Best Value School” and is ranked in the top 100 “Regional Universities of the North” and in the top 25 for “Best Undergraduate Teaching.” Champlain is also featured in the Fiske Guide to Colleges for 2019 as one of the "best and most interesting schools" in the United States, Canada and Great Britain and is a 2019 College of Distinction. For more information, visit