Revisiting The Dreams of Appalachian Youth

Self-portrait with the picture of my biggest brother, Everett, who killed himself when he came back from Vietnam; Freddy Childers
A new project has appeared on the USA Artists crowd-funding site that will no doubt interest our readers: Portraits and Dreams: A Revisitation, directed by filmmaker Elizabeth Barret, in collaboration with Wendy Ewald. Included below are two excerpts from the detailed project description:
Over the past three decades a growing number of artists have worked as collaborators with people from outside the art world. Photographer Wendy Ewald is one of the pioneers in this approach to artmaking.  During 1975 – 1982 in the coalfields of Letcher County, Kentucky, where one-third of all families were living below the poverty level, Ewald worked as an artist in the schools.  She encouraged her young students (ages six to fourteen) to use cameras to record themselves, their families and communities, and to articulate their fantasies and dreams.  Material from that artistic and educational initiative was collected in the groundbreaking 1985 book Portraits and Dreams.   It was named one of the 10 best art books of that year by the American Library Association and will be republished by visual arts press Steidl Verlag.  Ewald was awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 1992.  Her work has been included in the 1997 Whitney Biennial, and her fifth book, a retrospective documenting her projects entitled Secret Games, was published in 2000. 

Ewald was inspired to take on this new project when she initially reconnected via email with one of her former elementary school student collaborators Denise Dixon.  She worked with Ewald during the time she was nine to twelve years and is now a reading teacher who also operates her own video business recording local events.  The two realized how much their lives and work had been affected by their early encounter. Ewald then became interested in creating new work that draws on her former students’ experiences as children and adults as a vehicle to explore memory and reality across the passage of time.  

Ms. Barret, whose films have been the recipients of numerous awards, is working with Wendy Ewald to help provide context to the reunions and remembrances the film seeks to document.  As their USA Artists site outlines, the story of these children-turned-adult photographers becomes the story of a whole generation of Appalachian youth who seeked to navigate their cultural and regional inheritance alongside their own evolving identities as young people raised in the national milieu of the late 1970s.


[The earlier 17-minute Portraits and Dreams “sound slide,” directed by Andrew Garrison, can be viewed in its entirety on Vimeo.]

Please follow the links to explore Ms. Barret’s Stranger With a Camera, an award-winning film that considers how contentious the rural – urban, outsider – insider relationship can be when pitched in Appalachian communities. This is an extraordinary piece of place-based art, and we highly recommend it to our readers [a copy of this film will be sent in thanks for support of Portraits and Dreams: A Revisitation].