Appalshop and the Spirit of Regeneration in Central Appalachia

Whitesburg’s Main Street at Dusk

By Savannah Barrett

Similar to other regions with a history of extractive industry, the central coalfields are experiencing a startling economic transition. As reported by Mountain News, “Southeast Kentucky alone has lost some 7,000 coal jobs just since mid-2011, and many industry analysts believe those jobs aren’t coming back.” State and national officials announced the S.O.A.R. (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) initiative in December, 2013 to generate ideas about how Appalachia’s struggling economy can productively transition into the future. This effort is combined with the federal “Promise Zones” Initiative, which will invest $1.3 million private sector funds in a revolving loan aiming to grow jobs and small businesses.

Much of the state and national buzz about this region emphasizes the dire straits of Eastern Kentucky’s economy, while few celebrate the spirit of innovation and community-based leadership that’s taking the lead in visioning the region’s future. These reports often spotlight the problem statement: the significant need for investment in the region.  This story is not about the need. This is a story about the people that are making it work in central Appalachia, and the great time you’d have on a visit.

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It’s been a harsh and long winter in the bluegrass state and I was especially grateful for climbing temperatures as I set out on my drive to Whitesburg. I listened to my favorite spring album (Love: Forever Changes) as I cruised onto the two lanes beyond the Mountain Parkway. There’s something magic about the turn off at Hindman onto Highway 160 and the road hugging the North Fork of the Kentucky River as it meanders through Carr Creek State Park.  As I drove into those steep, tightly rowed mountains of the central coalfields, the region welcomed me and I welcomed springtime in Kentucky.

Whitesburg is a town of 2000 in the middle of the central coalfields of Appalachia. It’s an easy four-hour drive from Louisville (3 hours from Lexington), but many of our state’s urban corridor residents are unaware that such a vibrant and thriving place is nestled in the hills and hollers of Eastern Kentucky.

Brian Owens performing at Summit City Lounge

Brian Owens performing at Summit City Lounge

When I arrived at Appalshop, I was enthusiastic about a week of conversations but wholly unsuspecting of the generous helping of fun in store. My first stop was the restored Boone Building where a dozen artists from across the region were gathering to co-create during the Epicentre Arts’ Painting Party.

After a sunny afternoon of meetings on the patio of Summit City Lounge, I stood on Main Street just in time to catch the sunset projecting rust and purple on the mountains. Excitement washed over me as I walked out of the bar and into my first progressive dinner. The party was hosted in a series of well-designed apartments full of bright, motivated people serving and enjoying locally cultivated and skillfully prepared food and cocktails. While there, I had conversations with hosts of the live radio cooking show “What’s Cooking Now”, a group of young women finishing up their Teach for America placements, folks that were starting community gardens, and a dozen writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians. From there, we spilled into the street and joined the crowd at Summit City that had come to see Brian Owens. The St. Louis soul singer was performing in Whitesburg for the second time and had  sold out his debut at the Apollo Theater the week before. The energy was undeniable, the bar packed and swaying.

Bad Branch Falls in Letcher County, KY

The week went on this way. The next morning, two folks I had met the night before took me for a hike to Bad Branch Falls, a park trail that snakes up Pine Mountain through groves of rhododendron and hemlock. I later drove winding back roads on my way to Norton, Virginia where I visited with a community organizer friend on his family’s seventh generation home place before settling into a lovely dinner and story circle at Roadside Theater. My friend and his fiancé had moved back to his family land and were both working hard to make the community the place they hoped it could be. The yard outside their home was populated with chickens, kayaks, and freshly turned soil. Both the hike and the visit evoked a similar feeling in me: the power of people showing you their home place, and the visible pride hanging in the air between us. The joy of knowing a place like the back of your hand is visible in these people. It’s a culture of haves: “You have to try this spring water, you have to come to this show, you have to take this hike, and you have to see this gallery”.

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Adam Wells on his Norton, VA homeplace

There’s an amazing extension of invitation: to take part, to drink from the cup, to share the joy of living in a place that you’re actively working to sustain. The storycircle at Roadside included a long conversation about the themes of freedom in rural life. Each of us had been raised in rural places — ranging from a farming community in Kentucky to a village in Bulgaria, and we all expressed a knowing that something about the independence our parents granted us in those wild places when we were young had cultivated an early discovery of self. That connection between sense of place and sense of self is obvious here. Maybe that’s why so many people — young and old alike — are investing their lives and livelihoods in improving the quality of life in their communities.

While in Whitesburg, Savannah was the guest on our friend Zhivko Illeieff’s podcast Local Transmissions, which explores local communities through dialogue.

I had come to Whitesburg for Art of the Rural’s Year of the Rural Arts residency at Appalshop: a multi-disciplinary arts and education center producing original films, video, theater, music and spoken-word recordings, radio, photography, multimedia, and books. Throughout the week I came to know staff members that are supporting an incredible range of programming:

The noncommercial community radio station WMMT broadcasts to five states, and shares the voices of a myriad of community members live on the air  in every genre of culture, as well as regional news and human interest stories.  In line with Appalshop’s mission, WMMT gives voice to a wide variety of Appalachian and rural communities. Hip Hop from the Hilltop /Calls from Home is Appalshop’s hip-hop radio show that encourages family members to send shout outs to inmates incarcerated in the region’s prison system.  A fun fact: the only two hip hop radio shows in the central coalfield region are broadcast from WMMT.

Appalshop films has created more than one hundred documentary films about subjects including coal mining, the environment, traditional culture, and the economy. Since 1969, Appalshop filmmakers have been creating films to document their own communities, with the central belief that Appalachian people must tell their own stories and solve their own problems. Their 2000 film Stranger with a Camera premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, subsequently won the San Francisco International Film Festival, and later aired on PBS. Appalshop documentaries have received numerous honors and awards over the years. In 2005, The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man (1975) was named to the National Film Registry.

The Appalshop Archive preserves and provides access to the thousands of hours of film, videotape, sound recording and photography that portray a multifaceted view of life and history in Appalachia. As archivist Caroline Rubens explained “Appalshop has made a lot of observational films, letting the subjects tell their own stories. These films document the untold stories- the arts, culture, and heritage of a place that wasn’t fairly represented, and as such are counter narratives of rural mountain people.” While much of this material was produced by Appalshop staff, the Archive has accepted donations of media that enrich our understanding of the region, including a substantial collection of photographs taken by William “Pictureman” Mullins.

Roadside Theater is a traveling ensemble company that draws upon the rich history and culture of their home place in Appalachia to develop original community-based plays that tour nationally and internationally. They have decades long exchange partnerships with theater ensembles in New Orleans and the Bronx, as well as artists in the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico. Their website is a ‘worksite’ – a collaborative platform to build models for creating culturally specific, place-based art and for using the tools of culture to enable communities to solve their own problems in a fair and just manner.

This year marks the 40th Anniversary of June Appal Records. June Appal has recorded and distributed the music of Buell Kazee, Morgan Sexton, Lee Sexton, Carla Gover, Nimrod Workman and others. Over the last thirty years, June Appal has released more than eighty titles, many of which are available through their online store. Art of the Rural will feature a series of media throughout the Year of the Rural Arts 2014 to celebrate this anniversary.

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The 28th Annual Seedtime on the Cumberland festival is an annual event aiming to portray the depth and richness of the region’s traditional heritage and to celebrate the process of passing it on to new generations. Each year, Seedtime still focuses on the connection between old-time and present-day mountain life through musical performances, live readings, theatre pieces, artists’ workshops, and other events. As WMMT Operations Manager Elizabeth Sanders remembered: “On Saturday night at Seedtime, you can stand in the street in front of Appalshop and hear a Square Dance in one direction and a punk show in the other.” Seedtime provides a venue for dedicated artists to display their crafts and talents, and share their work with the community and general audience of the festival. Seedtime on the Cumberland takes place June 6-7, 2014. Art of the Rural will be on site providing live social media coverage.

The Appalachian Media Institute (AMI) began in 1988, and has a mission to lend a voice to rural Appalachian youth through eight weeks of peer-led media training and production. The program’s students make three documentaries per session. They’ve trained more than 1000 young people and supported more than 125 youth-made media productions. In 1998, AMI received the inaugural Coming Up Taller Award by First Lady Hilary Clinton, and is the only program of its kind in the region. In addition to their Summer Documentary Institute, they provide year round programming to area youth and participate in cultural exchanges with communities across the nation.

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AMI alumni Brian Dunn filming during the summer program

I had the opportunity to speak with AMI alumni Brian Dunn, who expressed the purpose of AMI as giving kids an opportunity to “experience something else- something that they didn’t know that was in the region.” He says that part of the value of this program is that it offers the world “a perspective from someone in the region that has more of a feel of what’s here. It feels like you’re contributing to expansion in a way because you’re getting your name out there and showing that Appalachia is more than what people think it is.”

For him, building a community of like-minded young people has been important to his development: “With the people that I’ve spent the past two years with in AMI, I’ve gone from barely knowing them to developing some of the best friendships I’ve ever had in my life. I imagine us all pulling together and finding ways to share cool things about Appalachia with the world. The value of it is priceless. I love it here and have grown up here all my life- and now I can share that with the world. Some of the issues that people have on the outside, we have here too. Some of the things that are awesome about other communities, we have here too.”

His one message to people around the world?: “Don’t be afraid of any type of stereotype or opposition… The more people tell you that you aren’t going to amount to anything, tell them to just sit back and watch, and do your work and have fun with it and go forth and be awesome.”

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Jeff Chapman Crane’s artist studio. Jeff and fellow artists Sharman Crane and Lacy Hale are co-founders of EpiCentre Arts Group

The Appalshop collective reverberates far into the community in Letcher County. With a forty-five year history as a model rural arts organization, I wasn’t surprised to learn about the incredible work happening within the Appalshop structure. What impressed me most was the cycle at work in Whitesburg. In particular, the reciprocity between the ways Appalshop’s projects support other community initiatives and how the community at large inspires and strengthens Appalshop’s programming. By witnessing that mutuality between organization and community, Whitesburg taught me something valuable about how community cultural development is vitally dependent on a groundswell of energy that simultaneously inspires, supports, and grows beyond the work of an organization.

IMG_2742 The Appalachian Artisan Center’s Luthier Shop in downtown Hindman, KY

During my residency in the central coalfields, I met with folks from Epicentre Arts, the Cowan Creek Community Center, the Catalyst Project, Grow Appalachia, the Hindman Settlement School, the Kentucky School of Craft, Green Forests Work, Pathfinders, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Center for Rural Strategies, and Vicco, KY, USA (the first rural Kentucky town to pass a fairness alliance). These organizations are tackling a diverse range of issues: representation for rural communities; artists collectives; connecting youth with the arts and natural environment; fairness; social justice; reforesting strip mining sites; and a renowned writer’s workshop, folk education program, Dyslexia eduction, a luthier shop, and an artist studio program in Hindman. Alongside the work of these organizations, there’s plenty of entertainment in the area: The Summit City Lounge is showcasing local talent with rotating art exhibitions and music every Tuesday during karaoke and on Wednesdays at Open Mic Night. Just down the road the Carcassonne Community Center hosts one of the oldest and most established old-time square dances in the nation.

For nearly every conversation shared about the groundswell of community-driven projects and small businesses popping up, I was reminded of someone I knew in the city who would be excited by the project. Art of the Rural is working with Appalshop to produce a rural-urban cultural exchange between the creative communities in Whitesburg and Louisville. Stay tuned for more information on this project.

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Savannah Barrett in front of a mural celebrating the region’s cultural legacy in Hindman, KY.
Photo credit Brett Ratliff

Art of the Rural will be in residency periodically throughout the Year of the Rural Arts. To find out more about the Year of the Rural Arts Residency program, visit: http://artoftherural.org/residencies/