Artists of Appalachia Push Back on Regional Stereotypes
Installation view of Andrew Scott Ross, Gallery of the Thieves , 2019. Courtesy of the Asheville Art Museum.
The Asheville, North Carolina–based artist Molly Sawyer describes a common misconception about the art being made in southern Appalachia. Artists’ works are often categorized as craft and associated primarily with the region, as opposed to connections with the art world at large. This perception, she said, is heavy and “ghost-like.”
Sawyer is one of 50 artists included in “Appalachia Now!”, the Asheville Art Museum’s inaugural special exhibition. It coincides with the opening of the museum’s new expansion and shows alongside “Intersections in American Art,” the first installation from the permanent collection. “Appalachia Now!” unsettles the idea that art and craft in southern Appalachia are separate entities, and that the latter is inextricable from family tradition, survival, and isolation. As Pamela L. Myers, the museum’s executive director, explained, “We wanted to take an opportunity to really examine, in a contemporary exhibition placed in conjunction with the installation of the permanent collection, outdated notions of influence and identity.”
“Appalachia Now!” curator Jason Andrew noted that developing the show meant facing antiquated regional stereotypes. “When you say ‘Appalachia,’ everyone starts to hear the banjos playing,” he said. “We were juggling the rich history of what making is in Appalachia, with the contemporary lens of what artists are doing.”
Meredith Elder, Zen & the Art of Stock Horse Maintenance, 2017. Courtesy of the Asheville Art Museum.
Andrew, who is based in Brooklyn, has been traveling to western North Carolina since 2008, as an attendee and later a presenter at the annual symposium “ReVIEWING Black Mountain College.” He’s returned to work on exhibitions in the region, including curating Jack Tworkov shows (Andrew manages the artist’s estate) at the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center and the Asheville Art Museum. Tworkov taught at Black Mountain College, the historic experimental college in North Carolina where a slew of prominent artists explored groundbreaking ideas as teachers and students; they include Josef and Anni Albers, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Ruth Asawa, among others. Asheville Art Museum holds one of the largest collections of visual art from Black Mountain College, and the legacy of the arts in western North Carolina—dating back to the Cherokee people—has guided the museum’s reopening.
Myers sought for “Appalachia Now!” to answer questions like: “How does this place interact with the rest of the world? And how is that dialogue understood through the work of artists in all media?” She noted that Andrew was chosen as curator for his perspective as someone connected to the region, as well as contemporary art more broadly.
Andrew and then–curatorial assistant Lola Clairmont considered more than 700 artists in curating the show. This included visiting 54 artists in their studios in southern Appalachia.
To root the exhibition in Appalachia while creating flexibility for artists to work their way out of the region’s history, Andrew devised four thematic sections. “Chores to Forms: Object Making From Functional to Fanciful” offers contemporary interpretations of craft. Asheville-based ceramicist Michael Hofman presents Dinner for Eight (2019), a set of handbuilt porcelain dishes impressed with patterns from tatted, bobbin, and crocheted lace. Betty Maney, who comes from a line of Cherokee basket weavers, shows her baskets: minute, minimalist, and decorative forms, some of which are only two to three inches wide. Sculptor Elizabeth Brim, who uses blacksmithing techniques, displays a steel chemise.
Installation view of “Appalachia Now!,” at the Asheville Art Museum, 2019. Photo by Jason Andrew. Courtesy of the Asheville Art Museum.
The Appalachian tradition of storytelling is examined in the section “From the Porch: Storytelling and Personal Histories.” Like Brim, artist Meredith Elder approaches belief systems of the South “that do not always coincide with strong feminine identity”; she channels these ideas into mixed-media collage paintings. In a digital video directed by Irving Hillman, Greenville-based road warrior poet Glenis Redmond recites a mesmerizing incantation, “The Tao of the Plastic Comb.” The poem recalls a school picture day and its aftermath, when a white classmate unmade the hairstyle Redmond’s mother created, promising her: “I can make you pretty.” Nearby, Clarissa Sligh’s Blessing of the Men (1996–2017) is comprised of nine photographs of men in moments of warmth, openness, or vulnerability set against 2,000 origami cranes hung from the ceiling.
Carolyn Ford, a ceramic artist from Gaffney, South Carolina, carves Southernisms and Southern skills—like quilting, weaving, and throwing pottery—onto ceramic disks. After a period of travel, she identified elements of culture that she took for granted at home, and realized there were “traditions potentially being lost.”
Diana Farfán, Eve, Our Lady of Freedom, from the Bread and Circus series, 2016. Photo by John Fowler. Courtesy of the artist and the Asheville Art Museum.
In “Beyond the Porch: Nature and Places Unseen,” Knoxville-based painter Jered Sprecher presents vibrant, compressed images of flora and wildlife in Invisible as Music (2019), describing the mediation of the natural world through phone screens. Andrew Scott Ross’s floor installation Gallery of the Thieves (2019) is a field of drawn, painted, and collaged Greco-Roman forms that question the origin story for Western civilization.
Josh Copus’s Threshold (2019) is a monument made from natural bricks that embodies community. Copus worked with locals in his hometown of Marshall, North Carolina, to shape bricks by hand using local clay, and embossed each one with a name or meaningful intention. After the exhibition, Copus will take the bricks home and install them at the revitalized cultural space Old Marshall Jail, where they’ll be accompanied by community members’ oral histories.
Installation view of Josh Copus, Threshold, 2019, in “Appalachia Now!,” at the Asheville Art Museum, 2019. Courtesy of the Asheville Art Museum.
In the fourth phase, “Spiritual to Cosmic: Beliefs and the Infinite Universe,” photographer Bear Allison’s 2017 “Booger” series portrays subjects in traditional Cherokee booger masks. The masks are believed to ward off trouble, or assuage fear. In a video piece, Remembering the Earth (2017), artist Jennifer L. Hand wears a garment of oak leaves, beeswax, fabric remnants, and blue pigment as she walks from sunup to sundown through a quiet forest. The piece alludes to the spirituality in nature, as well as in daily rituals.
The alignment of “Appalachia Now!” with the museum’s permanent collection signals to the long history of creativity in the region—and Asheville itself. The city has a particular origin story in terms of connecting art and place. Asheville faced crushing financial debt after the Great Depression and, rather than declare bankruptcy, repaid its debt, settling its last bond in 1976. Revitalization during the 1980s was, in part, led by creative individuals wary of development that would efface the historic downtown district.
Danielle Burke, North Carolina Star, from the series “Stars Over Appalachia,” 2015. Photography by Nick Simko. Courtesy of the artist and the Asheville Art Museum.
“There was a notion that the arts could anchor the conversation and be central to Asheville’s rebirth,” Myers explained, “and what they hoped for has happened.” Local galleries like Revolve and Momentum are cornerstones of the arts community; Blue Spiral 1, a former radio supply shop in downtown Asheville, is now a 15,000-square-foot gallery with 24 shows of local and global artists per year. The Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center offers invaluable historical context, archives, and rotating exhibitions. And the River Arts District is home to more than 200 artists within former industrial sites. Local artist Frances Domingues describes Asheville as “a place where you can continually reinvent yourself; a place of constant renewal.”
In step with Asheville as a place of renewal, the Asheville Art Museum has installed artist Henry Richardson’s Reflections on Unity (2016) on a locally quarried boulder in its entry plaza. The 5,000-pound orb is comprised of thousands of pieces of cut and chiseled glass, and positioned directly across from a granite obelisk built in 1897 to honor Zebulon B. Vance, a former Confederate colonel, U.S. senator, and North Carolina governor. Light emanates from Richardson’s composition, metaphorically suggesting an ongoing and indefinite exchange between the museum and Asheville’s history.
Critically, “Appalachia Now!” demonstrates the breadth of art production coming out of southern Appalachia. These artists are not just tapping into the region’s rich artistic legacies, but creating work in dialogue with their peers around the world.
“A show like this is long overdue,” said artist Danielle Burke, whose series of woven coverlets, “Stars Over Appalachia” (2015), is featured in the show. “The material culture of this region is associated with being homey and domesticated, or with products made for a market, for sale for pocket change—but there is overt contemporary art in this region that is varied and diverse. People have claimed that material culture.”