If you ask Liz Simmons the Linda Nochlin-esque question “Why aren’t there any great artists from West Virginia?”, she’s ready to answer.
“Sure there are, but you just don’t know about them,” notes Simmons, curator of art and engagement for the Juliet Art Museum at the Clay Center in Charleston, West Virginia. “There’s also great stuff happening between the two coasts.”
West Virginia, the only state located entirely in Appalachia, tends to make its way into national news for the antics of Sen. Joe Manchin, the state’s manager. law targeting transgender athletes, or problematic depictions of “hillbilly” culture. The state’s vibrant arts scene rarely receives the national press.
In some ways, Simmons understands why it’s hard to get West Virginia artists known. The state’s population (1.8 million) is small, as is its tourism industry compared to some larger destinations — and West Virginia is just one of many overlooked areas in a crowded arts realm. But she says the quality of the art in her home country deserves attention and points to the great diversity across the region in the field – and in the people.
And there are many other notable artists and art movements in other parts of Appalachia that deserve your attention as well. In eastern Kentucky, for example, the Appalachian Craft Center exhibits works by local artists and organizes courses in ceramics and metallurgy. Across the border in Tennessee, the Knoxville Museum of Art is hosting an exhibit titled Higher Ground: A Century of Visual Arts in East Tennessee, the first permanent exhibition devoted to the artistic achievements of East Tennessee. These examples only scratch the surface of Appalachian arts.
The following five artists are leading the wave of inventive and engaged artists in West Virginia.
Robbie Moore devotes his days to the arts as Executive Director of the Beckley Arts Center, while he devotes his nights to his own multimedia art, often working until 3 a.m. In the silence of those late hours, he thinks about the messages he wants to communicate – sometimes about being Black in Appalachia.
Moore, 42, was born and raised in Beckley, the largest city in southern West Virginia. Of its 17,000 inhabitants, 16% of the population is black and 75% is white (according to census data). Across the state, West Virginians are known for their pride in the Mountain State, but, says Moore, “especially in the last few years, there’s been so much that’s been challenging. that pride matters, and there are things you can’t ignore, especially as a black person.
He adds: “A lot of my opinions and my politics, if you will, can be pretty much progressive, but [I’m] living in a very conservative state. I love the idea of nostalgia and our state’s history and what that represents in the larger Appalachia setting, but also being very contemporary and wanting to bring out new progressive ideas. In her multimedia work, Moore explores contradictions.
While in college, a professor suggested she leave West Virginia for a bigger city in another state. Moore defied advice and stayed, insisting he could be a successful artist in his hometown – and he was right. Last year, VM Live the magazine’s readers voted him the best entertainer in the state.
“Appalachia is steeped in culture and the arts,” he said, “but it’s not always appreciated, especially the more modern forms.”
When Ellie Schaul moved to Charleston, West Virginia, from Massachusetts, she promised her parents that she would stay only two years. Sixty-two years later, Schaul, now 85, has spent her life in the Mountain State saying, “I just found my place. A retrospective of his paintings and sculptures, titled Ellie Schaul: reinventing the familiarcompleted earlier this year at the Clay Center’s Juliet Art Museum.
Schaul is a force in the West Virginia art scene. Over the years, she experimented with abstract art, ran a gallery, painted “lunch buckets” (lunch buckets repurposed as handbags) that became popular across the country, documented the construction of the highway from the area, collaborated with other local artists and designed sets for the local theater and ballet.
Schaul has also documented the “hurlers” (or “hollows”) of West Virginia, essentially rural villages, in more than a dozen paintings, often rendered in psychedelic purples, yellows, and blues.
“Every time I pay a visit to the museum, the response to the hollow paintings is ‘the hollow has never looked so beautiful,'” she says. what everyone sees is hollow.”
She draws inspiration from the hollows near her home, especially in the spring. A sixth-grader who visited her exhibit at the museum captured the sentiment exactly.
“He says… ‘It’s the world around him. She paints what she sees, her house. And then she took the color she sees and turned it into something different, more magical,” Schaul recounted. “That’s how I look at the hollow – it’s magic.”
For Nevada Grandstand, West Virginia isn’t just the inspiration for her work — it’s often the medium. The textile artist searches for leaves, bark, moss, mud, plants, feathers and seashells to create paper on site in the streams and rivers of West Virginia.
“It’s a way of creating a portrait of a place based on cataloging the objects that are there,” said Tribble, 24, Tamarack Foundation for the Arts 2020 Emerging Artist.
Tribble spent most of her childhood in Elkins, in the northeast of the state, and lives there today. She is drawn to Elkins not only for its greenery (she lives in what she calls the “magical wonderland” of the Monongahela National Forest), but also for its community.
In addition to its papermaking, Tribble created a “sewing bike”; she attached a sewing machine to her bike so she could work outdoors with the pedals acting as a pedal. She calls it “part drawing tool, part performance object.”
The bike stimulates conversations with onlookers and she shares her creations with her across state lines paper club. “Art is a bit like a mirror. It reflects the energy and events and attitudes of people at a certain place at a certain time. It’s like a reflection of the moment,” Tribble reflects. “If you only look at art in a specific place, you miss so many moments.”
Women are often trained to take more space, to make their presence known. Nichole Westfall takes this advice literally with his large-scale, often three-dimensional murals around Charleston, the state capital and most populous city.
“I’ve always felt a bit rejected – being a woman and a woman of color, and I’m also passive anyway, and then I’m 5ft 3in. I think art was a way to feel like I could create conversations that I was uncomfortable with. But then making it huge was like ‘you have to listen to me and you have to be careful’,” the 29-year-old Korean American artist explained.
Her works, ranging from a whimsical mural at a local community college to a collection of fabric mushrooms located around town as part of the Charleston Arts Festival, evoke joy. Westfall proudly describes itself as a “defender of the decorative arts”, supporting the valorization of crafts and applied arts. In recognition of her art, she was named a 2021 Emerging Artist Fellow by the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts. This summer, she is working on a portrait of Dr. Mildred Mitchell-Bateman, the first woman and first African-American person to hold the title of Commissioner of Mental Hygiene for West Virginia.
Westfall, who grew up in a rural community outside of Charleston, encourages visitors to explore Appalachian culture beyond its portrayal in the national news.
“We have people who are really trying to make it here and make it better,” she says. “Nobody wants to stay in their own bubble. And if you’re going to preach it, really get out of it.
Inside West Edge Factory, a former clothing factory turned community arts center located in Huntingdon, West Virginia, next to the Ohio River, artist-in-residence Sassa Wilkes uses oil paint to tell stories. Sometimes Wilkes tells the stories of others, as in the case of the artist 100 badass women series of paintings, which features pioneers from Lizzo and Dolly Parton to Virginia Woolf and Stacey Abrams. Now Wilkes is telling a personal story, which will “explore my own experiences as a trans person in Appalachia.”
Wilkes, 41, grew up and still lives in Barboursville, about 10 miles from Huntingdon, with a family history of coal mining. The artist praises Huntingdon, near the Ohio and Kentucky borders, as “a little bubble of LGBTQ inclusivity.” Their latest works tell a story about identity – about shedding old skin and shedding.
“I’m really hopeful that this would be a way for a lot of people to understand trans identities when they may have never thought about it before or maybe even had negative opinions before. We need something to fight the crap because it’s all over the news in such a negative way and it’s really painful,” Wilkes laments. “Maybe it’s idealistic, but I feel like I’d like to be that person…who does [people] change their minds or make them open up a bit about something.
“People who come from here,” adds Wilkes, “when they make art, they really have something to say that is worth listening to.”