Feminist Art Advancing Social Change in Rural Kentucky

Photograph from a “Stories from Da Dirt” production.

By Dr. Judith Jennings and Savannah Barrett                                                          .

There is an old joke that Kentucky is known for fast women and beautiful horses, but feminist artists are now presenting new visions of women, beauty and positive social change throughout the state, especially in rural areas. A new feature on the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture maps their work and invites readers to re-examine their understanding of the Bluegrass state. Feminist Art: Advancing Social Change in Rural Kentucky is a digital mapping project produced by Art of the Rural in partnership with the Kentucky Foundation for Women that documents and promotes rural, feminist artmaking across the state.

More than forty recent women’s projects showcased on the map demonstrate the diversity of content, process, and medium being utilized across the state. These women are working in a wide variety of art forms from textual portraits that envision social heritage to the Clear Creek Festival, combining music, art, and wellness. Their art addresses important social issues in rural areas of the state. A young feminist photographer turns her camera lens to a farming program for female prisoners. A daughter makes a play about her interracial family in Appalachia, and her father’s mental illness after serving in the Vietnam War. All of these projects were supported in part by the Kentucky Foundation for Women, which annually awards $200,000 in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $7,500 to individuals and small organizations through two annual grant programs, Artist Enrichment and Art Meets Activism. Since its founding in 1985 KFW has made more than 1,600 grants totaling over $8,000,000 to feminist artists across the state.

storymap composite

A composite view of the project’s PlaceStories map

“Feminist artists working in rural communities are creating new visions of life in Kentucky,” says Judi Jennings, Executive Director of the foundation. “The Eastern Kentucky Art Project, for example, includes interviews and work samples by women artists in Appalachia at the grassroots level to identify, document and honor their work.  A young writer and mother is blogging about what it means to be a feminist farmer intimately involved with food production for her family. These women and others like them are redefining what it means to be a woman and an artist in Kentucky and tapping into the power of art to enrich their own lives and the lives of middle school girls, women inmates, female cadets and army wives.”

The Kentucky Foundation for Women (KFW) advances positive social change by supporting varied feminist expression in the arts. Their work is anchored in the fundamental belief that when women and girls advance, so does Kentucky. Art of the Rural selected the foundation for the mapping project because of KFW’s commitment to serving all feminist artists in every part of the state. “We are honored to partner with this innovative organization to promote the work of feminist artists throughout the state of Kentucky,” says Savannah Barrett, Program Director of Art of the Rural.

“Kentucky writer Sallie Bingham established the foundation in 1985 with a gift of $10,000,000,” says Jennings. “This was not only an incredible act of generosity, but a visionary action of faith in feminist artists throughout the state to make Kentucky a better place for all. KFW acting alone cannot create feminists or make powerful art for social change. KFW creates hope and validation for feminists and provides resources for artists, activists and allies who dare to imagine a better Kentucky.  When feminist art is combined with compassionate community building the power and possibility of social change is made real.”

Julia Anna Carlisle. Finding 40

 “Kentucky Woman: Finding Forty” by Julie Anna Carlisle

Photographer Julie Anna Carlisle says, “If it weren’t for the Kentucky Foundation For Women, my project, Kentucky Women: Finding Forty, would still be an abstract idea. KFW gave me the financial platform to start. The application alone helped me shape a solid outline of what I wanted to do and how I would do it. KFW enabled me to develop my idea, to find voices and faces of Kentucky women who are bridging into the middle ground of life and to document them through interviews and photographs.”

Painter Patricia Ritter, a long time Kentucky Foundation for Women recipient, explained the importance of the foundation’s investment in her work and her enthusiasm about the new opportunities that the foundation’s partnership with Art of the Rural will offer: “Funding and support received through the Kentucky Foundation for Women has enabled me to share with others what I find wonderful about making art…and that is finding and using my creative voice. I have provided opportunities for women to visually express their thoughts and feelings while spending time in the company of others who share similar experiences. These projects have encouraged me to continue to make art and believe in my artistic vision.  My hopes are the mapping project will put me in touch with opportunities to create art with communities and groups and help them tell their stories.”

As a member of the Board of the national Grantmakers In the Arts organization, Jennings is also a strong advocate for equitable and inclusive funding for arts and culture throughout the United States. Writing in 2011, she called Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change, a report by Holly Sidford for the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy documenting structural disparities in funding,  “a wake up call to our field.”  As she points out, “The report shows that only 10% of grants of $10,000 or more given by private foundations with a primary or secondary purpose of supporting arts and culture benefit underserved communities.” Jennings was recently named one of the fifty most powerful and influential people in nonprofit arts by WESTAF blogger and nonprofit arts consultant Barry Hessenius, and is noted nationally as a “rising voice” for women’s issues in philanthropy.

Jackson Purchase Dance

Jackson Purchase Dance Company at Murray State University

From her vantage point as Program Director for Art of the Rural, Barrett cites studies that show that 16 percent of the population is rural but there is a substantial disparity in funding to this sector of the population. (Cromartie, 2012). If resource investment were evenly distributed across the United States based on per-capita rationale, rural Americans would have enjoyed an additional $28 billion of investment in 2010 (Wyant, 2012). “Considering these philanthropic trends,” says Barrett, “the Kentucky Foundation for Women’s investment in rural artists is especially important, not only to the arts in Kentucky, but as a model for other states and foundations to consider.”

 “The Atlas project introduces Kentucky women to new audiences nationwide, but also has the power to help folks visualize artists there as contemporary and innovative,” Barrett points out. “Augmenting the rural arts field is part of our mission at Art of the Rural, and we hope that viewers will not only gain a greater understanding of the breath of work being produced across rural landscapes, but discover projects, artists, and organizations that are worthy of collaboration across geographical boundaries.”

As Mitzi Sinnott, a young Appalachian grantee, expressed: “With every interaction between me and The Kentucky Foundation for Women, the message “an artist is to be valued and respected and given space to flourish” was impressed onto my creative psyche.  They confirmed that there is a place on Earth for my creative soul! The Mapping Project will provide many more opportunities for us to support and confirm ourselves as artists.  This additional piece of the process allows us to soar higher, farther.”

Elizabeth Glass

“Quilted Generations” by Elizabeth Glass

“To be connected with Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture on Placestories is an honor and will provide my project with a stronger network,” says Julie Anna Carlisle. “Everyone needs a mapping system to help with the overwhelming feast of information that exists out there.  Just as an individual could drive the back roads and highways of the grand state of Kentucky and still miss many important aspects of its character and culture, the World Wide Web is a vortex that tends to sweep the little-knowns into the corner of cyber anonymity.  I hope the Atlas will place my stories and those of many other rural artists closer to the electronic forefront.”

Matthew Fluharty, Director of Art of the Rural, explains: “While the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture can help individuals across Rural America understand how they are connected to each other, an organization’s individual project map within this larger endeavor can also offer to its grantmakers a visualization of the powerful work that has been accomplished and the impact such projects can have across geographies and disciplines.”

Erik Takeshita, Deputy Director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation based in Minneapolis/St. Paul, points to the intersection between art, culture and community development. In an American for the Arts blog, Back to the Future he stresses that local arts and cultural funding can advance our country as a whole. “Whether it is day labors in LA and migrant farm workers in the Central Valley; Native Americans in the Southwest, Alaska, or the Great Plains; African-American descendants of slaves in South Carolina; or rural folks in Appalachia, groups everywhere have unique stories that are specific to that place and people,” he writes. “The best work comes from embracing the culture of these people and places, when we look for whole solutions – not quick fixes – and when we take the time to understand our past and draw on the legacy of our ancestors and elders and the wisdom of our youth.”

WKCC. Ashley Stinson

“Fredonia: Sustainable Farming at the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex”

Through the Rural Arts and Culture Working Group, Art of the Rural is witnessing unlikely partnerships across states and regions that are producing exciting new projects together. The Wormfarm Institute in Wisconsin has partnered with the M12 in Colorado and Nikiko Masamuto in California, while the University of Oregon’s Arts Administration program has developed meaningful collaborations with their state arts and folklife agencies. The power of these Atlas projects transcends the static digital mapping process because it not only provides a platform to tell the stories of rural artists and organizations, but provides opportunities for visibility among similar organizations across the nation that can result in a stronger national network of rural artists.

This collaboration between Art of the Rural and the Kentucky Foundation for Women aims to cultivate a stronger network of feminist artists in rural Kentucky, and a more diverse representation of Kentucky artists within the national rural arts and culture field. Kentucky artists can find additional resources through the Kentucky Arts Council, the Kentucky Humanities Council, the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service’s Extension Fine Arts Program, and the USDA’s Kentucky Rural Development office. Opportunities for engagement in national rural arts and culture networks can be found through participation with the National Rural Assembly’s Rural Arts and Culture Working Group, Art of the Rural, the National Endowment for the Arts, the USDA’s Rural Development Office, and through attendance at the following conferences: The National Rural Assembly, the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention, and the Rural Arts and Culture Summit.

Author’s Note:

Savannah Barrett earned a Masters in Arts Management at the University of Oregon in Spring, 2013. She is a passionate advocate for arts access in geographically and economically isolated places, and serves as Program Director for the Art of the Rural. She began her career in arts management while in high school as a founder of a local arts agency in Grayson County, Kentucky. Savannah has worked with a variety of arts management organizations over the past ten years: the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts, the Louisville Visual Art Association (Louisville, KY), Salvo Collective (Louisville, KY), the University of Oregon Arts and Administration Program and the Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy (Eugene, OR). She now resides in Louisville, Kentucky.

Judi Jennings has enjoyed serving as the Executive Director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women since 1998. A native of Kentucky, she was the first generation in her family to attend college and liked it so well that she continued on to earn her Ph.D. in 18th century British History at the University of Kentucky in 1975. She taught history for six years at Union College in Barbourville, KY, where she discovered her own roots in the Appalachia region. After leaving academia, she worked at the Kentucky Humanities Council and Appalshop, arts and education center in Whitesburg. She moved to Louisville in 1991 to become the Founding Director of the University of Louisville Women’s Center. She serves on the Board of Appalshop and of Grantmakers in the Arts and  is a national advocate for equity in arts and cultural funding.


Cromartie, J. (2012, 05 26). Rural economy and population: Population and migration. Retrieved from http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/rural-economy-population/population-migration.aspx

Sidford, H. (2011)  Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy


Wyant, S. (2012, 02 22). Needed: New approaches to keeping rural America strong. Agri-Pulse Newsletter. Retrieved from http://agri-pulse.com/column-new-thinking-Rural-America-02222012.asp