More Inspiring Minds
A Creative Economy
A Creative Economy
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 Caf. The latter, located in the fledgling Eclipse Village, is named for a David Dewey drawing.
The land and buildings that comprise the village, located off the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway in The Plains, were purchased from owners of the defunct Eclipse Mine five years ago by local entrepreneurs and artists. The venture is a true experiment in the arts as a vehicle for economic development.
"What this project is all about," says Fisher, "is economic development, human resource reclamation and product resource reclamation."
In addition to Fisher's restaurant, the tiny woodframe miners' homes house The Bone Gallery and Frame Shop, the medical office of Dr. John Coppinger, a Buckeye Forest Council office, On The Path Wholistic Healing Center and the Eclipse Textile and Fabric Collective. The remaining buildings still are in need of restoration.
At the end of the lane, within a stone's throw of the 17-mile bike path that runs from Athens to Nelsonville, is The Company Store. It once served the needs of the mining town of 1,200 residents who lived and worked in the Eclipse Mine. The mine was abandoned at the end of World War II, and the company store has remained closed save for a brief occupation by the VFW.
"We reopened the store in 2001," Fisher explains, "but now we are mining art."
Fisher's involvement began nearly two years ago when Mitchell decided to expand Passion Works by adding a second studio and gallery space at The Company Store. Together they are working to raise money to make the relocation a reality.
For now, The Company Store's two floors and basement are filled with installation pieces and artwork by School of Art faculty and students, local high school students and community members. Many of the pieces are made from materials found in and around the building that, while structurally sound, is in disrepair. A recent exhibition titled "Found About and Rounded Up" consisted of art entirely made from items found on the grounds. One installation features slate shingles taken from the roofs of the original cottages. They are streaked by decades of rain, creating images that one first assumes to be the work of an artist.
The ground floor serves as a combination gallery and gathering place. Musical performances are held in a stage area every Friday. Fisher says The Company Store eventually will house gallery, studio and production space; a stage for performances; and banquet seating. A juice bar is planned for the second floor.
Paul MacFarland runs The Bone Gallery and Frame Shop, which features the work of local artists in shows that rotate every two weeks. When the gallery is open, a wooden bone hangs on the front porch from two lengths of chain.
"We are selling a valuable product, art produced here in Appalachian Ohio," MacFarland says. "The shows represent the best of Appalachian modern art."
MacFarland's passion for -- and deep roots in -- Appalachia is shared by Gunter-Seymour, president of the board of Foothills School of American Crafts in Nelsonville. As a longtime basket maker, she has experienced firsthand the challenges of preserving tradition, culture and an endangered craft while trying to maintain a self-sufficient lifestyle.
"I struggled to make a living for years, and it was clear to me that other artisans and craftsmen were struggling as well," says Gunter-Seymour, who works as a graphic designer for the University. "We needed help."
Foothills School is one source of assistance. Incorporated in 1989 as a nonprofit educational agency, Foothills was established by craftsman David Baird, educators and civic leaders who saw the need for a supportive environment for regional artisans. In addition to teaching design and fabrication, the school equips students with general and craft-specific business skills and is committed to preserving endangered regional crafts.
"Foothills is all about promoting the overall welfare of the Appalachian region by supporting and encouraging the artistic community," Gunter-Seymour says. "We feel strongly about creating programs and facilities that contribute to the development of economic activity."
In partnership with Hocking College, Foothills offers four five-week classes in Appalachian art for college credit: Native American flint-knapping, copper enameling and jewelry making, ceramics and sculpture, and stained glass. The courses, taught at Foothills, count toward either a humanities requirement or an elective. A weeklong Appalachian Arts Camp will take place at Foothills this summer to acquaint prospective students and their parents with the new art programs at Hocking College. The collaboration is the first step toward an accredited associate degree program in Appalachian arts and marketing.
Located in a restored century-old building on Nelsonville's Public Square, Foothills houses the Baird Gallery and an artist resource center that accommodates six G-4 Macintosh computers, a color laser printer, a scanner, a digital camera and a research library -- everything struggling artists need to market their work. The second floor houses workshops for students whose art incorporates metals, sewing or stained glass. Individual studio space also is available for rent, and an auditorium on the third floor is undergoing renovation.
With Foothills School and Stuart's Opera House as anchors, the square in Nelsonville, Gunter-Seymour says, is the perfect location for a regional arts operation that could accommodate hundreds of artists -- performing, visual and culinary -- in an area ripe for economic development. (In recent years, plant closings or relocations have meant the loss of nearly 750 area residents' jobs.)
"I'm not thinking about creating a shopping destination, but about creating an artistic experience," she says.
"I envision a place where visitors can spend time working with artists and craftsmen to truly learn how the work is created."
The Dairy Barn Southeastern Ohio Cultural Arts Center, the oldest and most independent of the area arts organizations, also is mulling over the benefits of a unified effort to promote the arts. Housed in an old dairy barn, the organization offers juried exhibitions, including Bead International and Quilt National, art classes for children and workshops for emerging artists needing advice on the business side of art. Director Crista Campbell says there have been discussions among board members about forming a consortium of local arts organizations, but there are some reservations.
"I'm not sure we want to add another level of administration. There is a very strong feeling of free spiritedness in Athens County," Campbell says. "It would have to be a consortium rather than an arts council that would serve the community, and it would have to go beyond Athens County to include southeastern Ohio."
Historically, partnership and collaboration have not been front and center among Athens' arts organizations. While it's true the players want one another to succeed, they are cautious about who should assume a leadership role to move the arts forward. The hesitation, says Campbell, is based on a fear that individual organizations could lose their unique identities.
Yet there is one point on which everyone agrees: A more cohesive arts community has the potential to create a healthy economic base in one of the poorest counties of southeastern Ohio. If that happens, perhaps tarpaper shacks, dilapidated trailers and coal mines won't be the first images that come to mind when people think of Appalachian Ohio.
Susan Green is a media specialist for University Communications and Marketing.