Changing Appalachia: From Custom to Cutting Edge

Posted by | April 17, 2014

Dr. Jean Haskell (l) and Dr. Katie Hoffman (r), curators of 'Changing Appalachia: From Custom to Cutting Edge.'

Dr. Jean Haskell (l) and Dr. Katie Hoffman (r), curators of ‘Changing Appalachia: From Custom to Cutting Edge.’

Please welcome guest authors Dr. Katie Hoffman and Dr. Jean Haskell. They are guest curators of a newly opened arts exhibit at the Portsmouth [Virginia] Arts and Cultural Center, in the state’s coastal Tidewater region. Dr. Haskell is retired as the Director of the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at ETSU. She was also co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia with Rudy Abramson. Dr. Hoffman is the founder and owner of Appalworks, a company committed to promoting Appalachian cultural heritage. She served as co-curator for the Appalachian section of the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington D.C. and was Traditional Music Producer for the 4-part PBS Series Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People.


Appalachia, by many accounts, seems to be disappearing or vanishing. These accounts, often accompanied by photographs of abandoned, decaying buildings, lament the loss of community places and of a traditional way of life in the mountains. While the nostalgic images and lamentations are often moving and valid, we argue for a more balanced view of Appalachia, one that includes its vital and dynamic elements—honoring tradition, yet taking it in imaginative new directions.

To many people, mountain culture seems frozen in the past—comprised of poverty-stricken folks who are significantly behind the times. Such well-meaning shows as Diane Sawyer’s Hidden America (2009) have exacerbated this problem. Sawyer’s first episode of “Children of the Mountains” begins with an invitation to “travel inside a world apart. . . ,” suggesting that Appalachia is vastly different from other parts of the country.

Sawyer’s “special report” focuses heavily on poverty and social dysfunction in Appalachia, both of which clearly exist in parts of the region. But, while she means well, Sawyer’s work is not very balanced. It shows the general tendency of outsiders to patronize mountain folk. Add to that such shows as Appalachian Outlaws, Hillbilly Blood, and Buck Wild, and it’s no wonder that people outside the mountains can’t let go of the negative stereotypes of poor, violent, ignorant hillbillies first promulgated by local color and travel writers in the 19th century. A promotional piece for Appalachian Outlaws says that “in Appalachia, 401Ks are built on ginseng, moonshine, and fur; feuds last for generations; and every day is a matter of survival.” Reality TV? Perhaps hyperbole TV is more accurate.

This first item to the left is a Charlie Brown devil face jug. Brown is an 8th-generation potter from Western North Carolina. The face platter is from Sammie Nicely, an "Affrilachian" artist from Russellville, TN. The two face jugs on the right are the work of the famous Lanier Meaders (1917-1998) from North Georgia, whose family still carries on the tradition. The first is "Richard Nixon" and the second is "Two-Face Politician." (I am sensing a theme there...)

This first item to the left is a Charlie Brown devil face jug. Brown is an 8th-generation potter from Western North Carolina. The face platter is from Sammie Nicely, an “Affrilachian” artist from Russellville, TN. The two face jugs on the right are the work of the famous Lanier Meaders (1917-1998) from North Georgia, whose family still carries on the tradition. The first is “Richard Nixon” and the second is “Two-Face Politician.” (I am sensing a theme there…)

People outside of our region (and some regional folk, too) often miss the story of Appalachia as a place of innovation. As writer Jeff Biggers argues in his book The United States of Appalachia, “This is Appalachia’s best-kept secret: Far from being a ‘strange land with peculiar people,’ the mountains and hills have been a stage for some of the most quintessential and daring American experiences of innovation, rebellion, and social change.” Biggers goes on to make a compelling case.

“Changing Appalachia: From Custom to Cutting Edge” is our response to the false notion that Appalachia and its “primitive” culture are “disappearing” or “vanishing.” As guest curators of a newly opened exhibit at the Portsmouth [Virginia] Arts and Cultural Center, in the state’s coastal Tidewater and not in Appalachia, we have worked hard with Museum Director Nancy Perry and Curator Gayle Paul to showcase the vibrancy and vitality of Appalachia’s art and craft community. The exhibit honors the custom and tradition that serves as a foundation for the cutting edge of Appalachian art and craft. Its purpose is to show visitors the innovation and imagination of the region’s “makers.” We want people, especially outside the region, to take a new look, quite literally, at the wealth of excellent art and craft in the southern mountains and its threads of continuity from the old to the new.

This turned and beaded piece is the work of <a href=""> Linda Fifield</a>, and is from her "Fire on the Mountain" series.

This turned and beaded piece is the work of Linda Fifield, and is from her “Fire on the Mountain” series.

Native people—the Cherokee, for example—learned to use the land and forests to meet their needs and live sustainably. White settlers learned from them, and many of the more traditional, customary objects in the “Changing Appalachia” exhibit—handmade draw knives and butter molds, beautiful baskets, stunning coverlets—show how Appalachians learned to make things, beautiful as well as useful, from what was readily available, passing on the tradition of each craft. These traditions are sometimes tended and cultivated to keep them unchanged, but often they become the seed from which other traditions sprout wings and fly. There’s a strong streak of inventiveness in Appalachian culture, and amongst us there have always been artists and fabricators who take what they need from the past, re-invent it, and do so with style.

The artists whose work comprises the “Changing Appalachia” exhibit all show a deep respect for our region’s people and traditions, but they also show how innovative and inspired the art and craft community in the region can be. Joel Queen, a Cherokee artist whose pottery is featured in the show, is committed to using traditional Cherokee methods in creating his pieces. They reflect certain elements of his heritage beautifully—but they are also recognizable as all his own. As he delivered his pots to the exhibit hall, Queen admired the horsehair sculpture of Millicent Young, an artist from Appalachian Virginia, commenting that one of her pieces reminded him of the Cherokee shawl dance.

'Un Furl', by <a href="">Millicent Young</a> of Swift Run Studio.

‘Un Furl’, by Millicent Young of Swift Run Studio.

He was pleased to see the kind of company in which his pieces would reside for the next few months. Like Queen, we are excited about these pieces, all of which are in conversation with one another to tell a positive story about our region. There is Young, who uses everyday materials such as horsehair and wood to create liminal, graceful sculptures designed to evoke spirituality. There is Sammie Nicely, from Russellville, Tennessee, whose great-great-grandparents were slaves in East Tennessee, and whose critically acclaimed “Affrilachian” art reflects his African and Appalachian heritage and serves as evidence that Appalachian culture is not as monolithic as many people think.

As we constructed the exhibit, we took into consideration the perception of Appalachia that we most wanted to change. A century of stereotypical images and impressions stand in the way of understanding the whole story. For some reason, photographs of poor people, dressed in overalls and posed by old vehicles or broken-down buildings, have become the lens through which many people view Appalachia. There is room for the nostalgia—and acknowledgment of the region’s problems—that these photos evoke, but we believe that there is too much emphasis on sepia-toned portrayals of falling-down houses and not enough on the vibrancy and nature of contemporary life in Appalachia.

For example, far from being an isolated mountain man, Benjamin D. Walls, a 34-year-old self-taught Bristol, Virginia fine art photographer, has traveled all over the region, the country, and the globe, creating stunning images of the natural world. Walls hopes that his images, available through his gallery in downtown Bristol, will inspire others to slow down, understand the importance of nature, and consider preserving it more carefully. An entrepreneur and job creator, he opened his own gallery and has enjoyed numerous accolades and awards—including having photographs chosen for display by the Smithsonian Institution and the Natural History Museum of London. He chooses to stay in the mountains of Virginia as an homage to his native Appalachian roots and environment. So Appalachia is not “disappearing” or “vanishing,” as so many writers have claimed over the last 100 years or so, but it is changing as people in the region find ways to integrate Appalachian heritage into modern life. Appalachian culture is a continuum in which the past continues to inform and shape the present.

‘Aspen’, by <a href="">Benjamin Walls</a>. Walls does not manipulate his images digitally, and 98% of the work he does--including this image--is on film.

‘Aspen’, by Benjamin Walls. Walls does not manipulate his images digitally, and 98% of the work he does–including this image–is on film.


Working with Gayle Paul, the talented curator of the Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center, we have brought together a community of artists whose works help viewers appreciate and understand more about the spirit of the Appalachian region. There are diverse pieces on display, some highly traditional or customary and some that offer traditional materials, themes, or techniques with a cutting edge perspective. They are all in juxtaposition, or more accurately, in conversation with each other, showing the lively artistic energy flowing through the region. As Millard Lampell once wrote in O, Appalachia (1989), “the mountains nurture visionaries. And visions are the seeds of art.”

The response to the exhibit has been overwhelmingly positive. Almost 700 people showed up for the opening reception for the exhibit on April 4. During the reception, Southwest Virginia’s Celtibillies entertained the crowd with their mix of Appalachian and Celtic music, as the Good Foot Dance Company, from Elkins, West Virginia, demonstrated some traditional dance steps from each culture. As a result of the positive reaction to the exhibit, the museum is considering extending it past the original July 6 ending date. Other programming related to the exhibition features Jews in Appalachia, quilts made and cherished by a mountain family descended from enslaved ancestors, ballad singing, Appalachian foodways from traditional fare to haute cuisine interpretations of mountain food, Appalachia in the movies, and more.

There is so much to be proud of in Appalachia, and we need to be sure that we acknowledge and celebrate the best of our culture as carefully as others before us have explored our deepest problems. As we have worked to establish a better balance, we have delighted in the fact that we are not alone in our aspirations.

As far back as 1981, the Appalachian Regional Commission sponsored an exhibition of contemporary Appalachian artists called “More Than Land or Sky: Art from Appalachia.” It opened at the National Museum of American Art, then toured the country. The New York Times review of it said, “Hillbilly, it is not.” Just ahead, in October of this year, the annual meeting of the Southeastern Museums Conference, to be held in Knoxville, Tennessee, stands as proof that others continue to share our mission: the theme is “Appalachian Renaissance: Renewing Traditions, Rethinking Approaches.” These programs, and our exhibition and programs, are not hillbilly either—just amazingly Appalachian.

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