By Susan Green
Novelist Marcel Proust once wrote that only through art do we get outside of ourselves to know another's view of the universe and to see landscapes that would otherwise have remained as unknown to us as the landscape of the moon.
A new exhibition project at the Kennedy Museum of Art, "Appalachians: A Contemporary Cultural Perspective," gives us a glimpse beyond ourselves, not to the moon but into the heart and soul of Appalachian culture.
Lee Gray, who guest curated the multi-disciplinary project, began with a deceptively simple question: How do Appalachians see themselves?
She said the project is "an opportunity to change the collective mindset about Appalachian culture by letting Appalachians speak for themselves."
What the artists say about themselves is complex. Bucolic landscapes, paintings alive with bright folk art colors, scenes of a landscape ripped apart by strip mining, sculpture, whimsical guitars, Finster-like constructions, sublime photographs and ordinary Appalachians talking about life in the hills and hollows, reinforce and challenge cultural stereotypes.
Tucked among the art works, excerpts from poems and short stories by Appalachian writers move you through the exhibition:
"This is the only junkyard in this country
Aint it beautiful?
I spend every Friday and Saturday night goin' to auctions to get this.
I buy careful:
Money don’t grow on trees around here,
And I got just about everything a body needs.”
(Jo Carson, "Stories I Ain't Told Nobody Yet")
And just when you think you've figured out what it means to be Appalachian, you see something that shatters your perception and raises another question.
"The exhibition is designed to evoke questions," Gray said. "All of the visual works of art, literature, music and films that are part of this project express traditional Appalachian aesthetics, but they also encourage you to think about the people and culture of this region in a new light. It's truly a celebration of the diverse culture and arts of our region."
Talking, listening, watching
A reconstructed front porch, an icon of Appalachian life, hugs a corner in one of the galleries. A rocking chair on the porch keeps company with an Appalachian "woman."
"We're going to use the porch as a backdrop for many of the performances and events that are part of this project," Gray said.
Literary and film symposia, studio tours, music, storytelling and family programming are also part of the project.
Everyone is invited to attend the opening reception of the exhibition beginning at 6:30 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 13, at the Kennedy Museum of Art.
The public is also invited to attend a reception at the Foothills School of American Crafts in Historic Nelsonville Square at 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26. Writers from the tri-state region will explore current Appalachian culture using poetry, short stories, novels and essays that focus on family, gender, social experience and heritage. Keynote and featured writers include, Jayne Anne Phillips, author of "MotherKind" and "Machine Dreams," Gail Adams, winner of the 1988 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, Ann Pancake, winner of the 2000 Bakeless Literary Prize for Fiction for "Given Ground," poet Laura Treacy Bentley, essayist and poet Richard Hague, Jack Wright and Larry Smith.
The evening concludes at Stuart's Opera House with a talk by Phillips and a high-energy performance of the Appalachian sounds of "The Recipe."
Readings and a panel discussion continue beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 27, in Hocking College Student Center in Nelsonville.
A complete schedule of symposia and events can be found at: www.ohio.edu/museum/appalachians.
Susan Green is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.