Art for Appalachia

Posted on August 17, 2011


Last weekend I made it down to southwestern Virginia to visit people I’ll be working with starting in September. I have an internship with a community organization against mountaintop removal mining, and I’ll be living in a collective with two other people.

While I was there, I had the chance to visit Appalshop in Whitesburg, KY. Appalshop is a long-established organization that creates a range of media about Appalachia. For an organization to build off the skills of local people to create their own media about Appalachia is a big deal– representations of Appalachia as a broadly defined region are rife with stereotypes that make it more difficult to combat poverty and other social issues in the area.

Appalshop in Whitesburg, KY

Appalshop formed in 1969 as part of the War on Poverty. The original intent was to teach media skills to youth that they could use to find jobs outside Appalachia. Instead, members saw their media skills as a way to stay in the region, representing their own communities and setting themselves apart from false stereotypes. Since then, subjects of Appalshop projects have ranged from documenting traditional arts, to exploring history, to working through current social issues.

Steve and Matthew

Photo from an Old Time Days workshop, as part of Appalshop's Traditional Music Program. The Old Time Days workshops are an affordable way to learn traditional music from the masters.

My reflections on Appalshop’s role and my future organizing work:

After my visit to Appalshop, I got to thinking about the use of art in organizing. When I am in SW Virginia, how can I use art as part of my work? Organize a knitting circle where people can voice their concerns in a supportive environment? Lead a collaborative art project? Find a way to participate in Appalshop’s already-existing programs?

More than anything, I see Appalshop’s work as a method of listening. Art gives people the power to communicate across boundaries and tell stories in unique and personal ways. According to the Appalshop website’s history page, the organization’s “underlying philosophy has always been that Appalachian people must tell their own stories and solve their own problems.” I can dig that. And what better way to begin to understand an underrepresented region than by exploring that community’s own creative self-representations?

Needless to say, Appalshop’s work inspires me. I can’t wait to live nearby and learn more about its programs and its role in the region.

How have you experienced art as a form of listening? Do you have in mind an example of an art organization that has inspired you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions!

Subscribe to Designing Change by Email

Posted in: Art, Organizing