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A Passion for the Arts

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May 12, 2003
Artists and entrepreneurs are shaping the vision of a new Appalachia
By Susan Green

The following article appeared in the Spring 2002 Ohio Today. Part two appears in Thursday's Ohio in Focus.

Tarpaper shacks with rusted cars out front. Dilapidated trailers. Coal mines. Such images still come to many people's minds when they think of Appalachian Ohio. These things do still exist. But an increasingly modern region that boasts natural beauty, thriving organic farms, creative entrepreneurs and a vibrant arts community is fighting for attention every day.

Athens County is home to an abundance of cultural resources: the Ohio University College of Fine Arts and its affiliated galleries and Kennedy Museum of Art; The Dairy Barn Southeastern Ohio Cultural Arts Center; Passion Works Studio; Foothills School of American Crafts; and an exciting new venture, Eclipse Village. And they're no longer the well-kept secret they may have been.

Author John Villani listed Athens in the 1998 and 2001 editions of his book "The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America." When USA Today pinned him down in December for his personal favorites, he ranked Athens among the top 10.

"As I traveled around the country, it became clear to me that many important, influential and highly successful artists live in rural America," Villani says. "I love Athens. It's a great arts town."

Such compliments are no fluke. They result from the dogged determination of the people leading the region's arts organizations. These individuals, many of whom are Ohio University graduates, are committed to putting southeastern Ohio on the leading edge of a national grassroots movement that is reaching critical mass: arts as an industry for economic development. That this is industry sans smokestacks makes it popular among Athenians.

"People who come to Ohio University for their education fall in love with Athens and want to stay," says Patty Mitchell, BFA '87 and MFA '91, Passion Works' founding director and artist-in-residence. "An extraordinary collection of artists with a strong sense of community live in Athens County."

Mitchell is among the many graduates who have stayed. She is working with fellow alumni and like minded community members to build on a rich Appalachian heritage and the creative endeavors of craftsmen, artisans and professional artists who find inspiration in the hills of southeastern Ohio.

Kari Gunter-Seymour, BFA '94, who was born and raised near Athens in Amesville, is driven to preserve the land, culture and ambience of Appalachian Ohio and to make Athens County an arts destination. She thinks the best way to achieve this is through a unified effort on the part of regional arts organizations.

"We are all trying to make an industry out of the arts, an industry that doesn't pollute or change the landscape," she says. "The goal is to promote healthy change."

She and local artist Paul MacFarland, AA '81, are part of a small group of dedicated volunteers drafting a business plan to create a regional arts center that draws on the strengths of Appalachian Ohio.

So, what is it about Athens?

Relaxed. Comfortable. Affordable. Beautiful. Rich in artistic tradition. These words slip with ease off the tongues of Mitchell and her peers. It is, she says, a place where "you can just be."

"I love living in Athens; it's easy to put ideas into play," Mitchell says. "Comfortable living means excitement and energy come from within. There is a spirit of cooperation here. Everyone wants to do well."

That spirit quickly became apparent to Raymond Tymas-Jones when he arrived in Athens four years ago to become dean of the University's College of Fine Arts.

"The very, very strong community of creative people who live in this area are passionate about art and art-making," he says. "They have an altruistic attitude that reaches out with intense focus."

It's an attitude that fits perfectly with the college's own mission and makes it easy for the University to be a good neighbor. Many of the college's 900 undergraduates and 250 graduate students are deeply involved in regional arts organizations, as are its faculty and staff.

Former School of Art Director Power Booth offered Seigfred Hall's gallery to the Athens Area Arts Alliance for its holiday gift shop and summer exhibit. Visiting ceramics instructor Pam Pemberton and students recently made more than 350 clay soup bowls for a community fundraiser. And Interim School of Art Director Bob Lazuka is working with Mitchell to create a student internship program at Passion Works, a studio dedicated to providing artistic and collaborative opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities.

Mitchell founded Passion Works in 1998 to "inspire and liberate the human spirit through the arts." A lofty goal to be sure, but Mitchell is constantly rewarded. "Every day," she says, "I find someone with a gift." What sets Passion Works apart from other arts programs involving developmentally disabled individuals is that it is not therapy based; it is dedicated to the creation of fine art.

More than 1,000 Ohio University and Hocking College students, faculty and staff have volunteered at Passion Works, helping with everything from sorting beads for Passion Jewelry to partnering with the artists to write poetry.

"When you come through the Passion Works door, you are among working artists," Mitchell says. The bar to create quality work is high, and Passion Works artists do it every day. Their pieces are genuine, intimate and as deliberate as they are spontaneous.

The studio is best known for its Passion Flowers, brightly painted sculptural metal flowers of varying sizes. Inspired by Passion Works artist Carolyn Williams' flower drawings, they are painted by a corps of artists and then cut and assembled by members of the community. Every step of the process provides employment opportunities. They are so prolific in the community that Mayor Ric Abel in October declared them the official flower of Athens. They are profitable, too, generating $30,000 of Passion Works' $60,000 in sales last year. The studio also sells paintings, quilts, ceramics and sculpture.

Several Passion Works artists have achieved almost cult status thanks to their highly sought-after work. Among them are Williams, who also is known for her quilts, illustrator David Dewey and painters Harry Grimm and Nancy Dick. Their work has found its way to greeting cards, rubber stamps, decorative tiles and sterling silver charms used in Passion Jewelry.

Athens businessman and restaurateur Ed Fisher displays and sells Passion Works art in his restaurants, Purple Chop Stix and Starving Wolf Cafe. The latter, located in the fledgling Eclipse Village, is named for a David Dewey drawing.

To be continued ...

Susan Green is a media specialist for University Communications and Marketing


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