July 2006 Issue
Much to the delight of visitors, the beauty of Ohio's Appalachia counties has stirred its residents to produce homegrown works of art.
There's nothing unusual about people finding sparks of inspiration in their surroundings, or developing interests that complement their environment. For instance, make a trip to a historic Ohio town such as Marietta, and it seems every resident from the sheriff to the ice cream shop owner is an amateur historian, capable of waxing professorial on their town's significance in centuries past.
So perhaps it was inevitable that in our state's awe-inspiring Appalachia region - an area so beautiful that its rolling hills seem sculpted from the earth, its colorful flora appears to bear a painterly touch, and each tree stands so stately it seems perfectly placed by a landscape designer - there would exist an abundance of people who not only call this picturesque part of Ohio home, but who also proudly call themselves artists.
These creative souls are scattered across 29 counties that, massed together, curve like a bow from the eastern section of the state (beginning with Columbiana County) and down through its southern portion (all the way to Clermont County in the southwest). In fact, the region boasts so many skilled artisans working in such a variety of mediums - more than 300 artists toil away in home studios in the Hocking Valley alone - that it appears to serve as an incubator for talent, providing an atmosphere that inspires locals to capture its beauty and traditions and share them with visitors.
Of course, it could simply be that Appalachia offers enough attractive features and tranquil settings to make it a magnet for the artistically inclined. After all, creative types in other parts of the country often have to travel far and wide to find appealing subjects to inspire their work, and then a serene spot in which to produce it. Here, you need only step outside for both.
"Occasionally, people who aren't from here will ask me, 'Don't you get bored shooting the same place so often?'" says Eric Hoffman, a photographer whose affinity for Appalachia, especially the Hocking Hills, prompted him to open The Old Bear's Den Workshop Center in a rustic part of Logan. "This whole area just constantly changes - each season is phenomenal," he says. "People that have never been here don't realize that it's like another world."
"You're inspired by what's around you, and if you're an artist, you really can't get much better than Appalachia," says Donna Sue Groves, who lives and works in Adams County as the southern field representative for the Ohio Arts Council. The organization has long been committed to fostering and promoting artists in the region, and Groves herself is responsible for putting some of its traditions on full display.
A desire to pay tribute to her mother's passion for quilting has blossomed into the "Clothesline of Quilts" project: a collection of more than 20 massive quilt squares painted on barns throughout Adams County, offering passersby an attractive diversion while traveling the back roads of Appalachia.
Groves notes that while the area has seen an influx of artists, lured not only by its pastoral views but also its leisurely pace - "that slower lifestyle frees people up, allowing them the opportunity to be creative," she says - artistry and fine craftsmanship have always been characteristic of Appalachia and its people.
"Part of Ohio's Appalachian culture, especially long ago, was living in rural or isolated areas," says Groves. "So, you had people doing things like making white oak baskets or pottery or quilting, but doing it all out of necessity," she says. "Then, they took it one step further and began to find joy and pleasure in the process of creating, expressing themselves in the beauty of those items. They'd embellish whatever they were making with their own personality."
In the case of the Appalachian artists who run workshops out of their studios for curious visitors, that can also mean injecting their unique personalities into the classes they teach. From her studio and basket shop atop a pastoral hill in Rockbridge, Leota Hutchison, a 70-something artisan with callused hands from decades of hard work, mixes the attentiveness of a schoolteacher with the precision of a drill sergeant as she instructs guests in how to weave baskets.
Her home, fronted by a field that abounds with deer and adjacent to her garden blooming with Virginia bluebells, is a popular destination for the many people who covet arts and crafts from the region. The guests recognize that buying one of Hutchison's baskets, or being taught her traditional manner of basket weaving, means something: The artwork that comes from Appalachia carries a connection to local culture that always feels authentic.
"A lot of people know that the artists who live and work in Appalachia are rooted very deeply here," says Groves. "We have a strong connection to home and what that represents."
(Athens, Belmont, Hocking, Meigs, Monroe, Morgan, Noble, Perry and Washington counties.)
The art in the central region of Ohio's Appalachia is as diverse as the places in which it's found. Take The Little Cities of Black Diamonds (www.littlecitiesofblackdiamonds.org). While this smattering of small towns and rural townships flourished when coal was king at the beginning of the 20th century, the region is now becoming known for its burgeoning arts communities and tours and its annual Spring Arts & Heritage Festival, which features everything from an Appalachian storyteller to an auction of works by area artists.
In a nod to the area's history, the festival is presented amid the backdrop of the Eclipse Company Town, which was constructed for miners' families by the Hocking Valley Coal Company between 1900 and 1902.
"The culture and beauty of these parts of the state ... they just seem to foster creative juices," says Carol Mackey, who makes her living as a small-business banking officer in Logan, but who is more widely known as a devout supporter of the arts in the region.
Mackey and her husband, Bruce Bowens, are the owners of an eye-catching building from the 1860s that sits on Main Street in downtown Logan - it resembles a saloon with its expansive second-story balcony, making it easy to imagine its past life as a speakeasy and flophouse, formerly known in town as "The Heartbreak Hotel." Today it's called The Piano Works (or "The Artbreak," as the owners refer to it), and here Bruce plies his trade as a piano restorer and tuner, while the couple also pays homage to area artists by hosting a gallery on the premises, currently featuring works by nature photographers such as Jim Shirey, a retired Ohio University mathematics professor.
"We really wanted to be a place where local artists could show and sell their work," says Mackey, who also sits on the board of The Bowen House, a community arts center (Bruce is president of the board). Even without The Piano Works' efforts, Mackey's commitment to the area's talent is notable. She helped launch the Hocking Valley Arts Group initiative that, along with several other groups, produced "Treasures of the Hocking Hills," a documentary that features some of the region's most beloved artists (www.hockinghillsart.com).
And in Logan, the works of some of those artists literally line the streets. Last year, the city decided to do something about the old parking meters downtown, which stood as useless eyesores ever since the town stopped charging drivers to park. Today, where the heads of meters once stood on posts, there now rest vibrant sculptures - everything from colorful flowers to a stoic owl.
"This area is where art, nature and [even] music merge," says Mackey, noting that The Piano Works has expanded its arts coverage to serve as a venue for local and visiting musicians as well.
"It's in our work, our homes and our communities," she adds.
Athens County CVB
Belmont County Tourism Council
Hocking Hills Tourism Association
Marietta/Washington County CVB
Meigs County Tourist Association
Monroe County Tourism Office
Morgan County Chamber of Commerce
Noble County Tourism
Perry County Chamber of Commerce
(Adams, Brown, Clermont, Gallia, Highland, Jackson, Lawrence, Pike, Ross, Scioto and Vinton counties)
I get to look at the Ohio River and see the Kentucky hills. Nirvana it is," says Donna Sue Groves, rhapsodizing about her cozy spot in Adams County, in Appalachia's western region.
While Groves' voice is still thick with down-south flavor from her years growing up in West Virginia, the southern field representative for the Ohio Arts Council now extends her connection to and love of Appalachia to its 29 counties here in Ohio - specifically, the western region. With the output of local creativity on exhibit at such venerable arts establishments as The Pump House Center for the Arts in Chillicothe and the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center in Portsmouth (which includes the work of native son and American scene painter Clarence Holbrook Carter), it seems like practically every citizen of these southern counties could make ends meet as an artist.
Well, almost everyone. "I know that I have an artist in me somewhere - I just haven't found her yet," Groves says with a laugh.
"But the joy that I have in my everyday work is just being able to talk to artists and arts organizations around here, making sure that they have the opportunities and tools they need to be creative and to provide us programming in the region. So, I get to participate in it that way."
In 1982, the Ohio Arts Council launched the Appalachian Outreach project to promote the region's wealth of talent and artistic merit. Today, the organization has an online database, the Ohio Appalachian Artist Directory, and recently chronicled their efforts in a book, Celebrating, Honoring and Valuing Rich Traditions: The History of the Ohio Appalachian Arts Program (www.luckypress.com/appalachia).
"I talk to folks who are nervous because they don't know where to turn with their artwork, or how to market it," says Groves, who was the driving force behind the beautiful quilt patterns that are painted on barns around Adams County - a perfect blend of Appalachia's traditions and tranquil scenery, while also encouraging motorists to take a leisurely drive off the beaten path(www.adamscountytravel.org/BarnQuiltSquares.htm). Thanks to efforts such as the quilt barn project, Groves believes Appalachia is becoming just as well known among travelers for its wealth of dedicated artists as it is for its outdoor recreation.
"I am so blessed," says Groves of her home near Manchester, her affection for the region, and her opportunity to highlight skilled Appalachians such as her quilter mother. "I have the best job in the world."
Adams County Travel & Visitors Bureau
Brown County Tourism
Clermont County CVB
Gallia County CVB
Highland County CVB
Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce
Lawrence County CVB
Pike County CVB
Portsmouth (Scioto County) Area CVB
Vinton County Chamber of Commerce
(Carroll, Columbiana, Coshocton, Guernsey, Harrison, Holmes, Jefferson. Muskingum and Tuscarawas counties)
Never mind your youthful ambitions. Odds are, if you were living in Ohio Appalachia's eastern region in the late 1800s or early 1900s, you were going to be an artist.
"I would wager that 70 percent of the population of Zanesville were artists of one type or another," says Susan Talbot-Stanaway, director of the Zanesville Art Center.
Of course, the pottery and ceramics locals made back then were initially more the result of a great geographic location and a worldwide need for the items the locals produced, rather than any creative yearning. Features such as the area's abundance of clay deposits and its proximity to major railroads made this part of Appalachia a prime source of pottery and glass in the past, and eventually a hotbed of artistic ingenuity.
"The wealth that was made from those early industries is what built this place," says Talbot-Stanaway of the art center. Today, in addition to featuring works by such renowned international artists as Rembrandt and Picasso, visitors can also peruse an extensive collection of Ohio pottery and glass, as well as works by local painters such as Zanesville native Paul Emory. This fall, the center will display the wood and bronze sculptures of Appalachia-area artist David Hostetler.
In addition to spots such as the Tuscarawas Art Center in New Philadelphia and events like the Art on the Square Festival downtown, eastern-region residents will also soon be able to tap into creativity at the new Fine and Performing Arts Center being built on Kent State University's Tuscarawas campus.
"That's big news for us," says Dee Grossman-Tasker, executive director of the Tuscarawas County Visitors Bureau. "The space will be very high-end and technologically advanced, and it gives us another venue to present the arts, which will bring even more economic development to the area."
Cambridge/Guernsey County CVB
Carroll County CVB
Columbiana County Visitors Bureau
Coshocton County CVB
Harrison County Community
Holmes County Tourism Bureau
Steubenville CVB/Jefferson County
Tuscarawas County CVB
Zanesville/Muskingum County CVB