Appalachian Paintbrush Calluses
I’m forever grateful that I ended up with an amazing second grade teacher, high school art teacher, and two Appalachian parents who all supported and enthusiastically encouraged my love of art throughout my schooling. That’s rare in these parts.
Now before you get madder’na wet hen, that’s no jab at mountain folk. I am mountain folk. It’s simply the truth. This is my story to tell, and the lack of interest/support of the arts is a very real part of my experience as a young artist growing up in small-town Georgia, Sand Mountain to be exact.
An insensitive and lost opportunity would be had if I couldn’t recognize WHY this is the case. But I do. The view of art, especially as a career is a generationally held viewpoint that birthed from the necessity of practicality. First, Trenton is flanked by not one, but two mountains which had to have made expansion a bit more difficult than comparable Appalachian regions, hence a perfect storm for familial beliefs and ways of living to brew, with not much need to adapt or progress. Second, mountain people are resilient, hardworking, and know the anguish of watching corporations wallow in the wealth of resources extracted by our people who only have calluses, black lung, and a modest paycheck to show for it. I reckon anyone forced to focus on mere survival would view art as a petty luxury that only people who could entertain “thriving” rather than “surviving” could afford. So I get it. I really do.
I do recognize that all of this didn’t stop us from creating some of the most beautiful folk art on the planet, but it did stump the prospects of art as anything more than a weekend hobby for many of us.
I think that’s where the challenge arose for me. Let me preface by saying that I speak from a place of privilege in that my parents did break the generational cycle of poverty that shrouded our family tree and therefore were more able and willing to entertain art as my career choice.I wanted art to be my livelihood; a radical notion to generations past. When someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I received hesitant “oh okays” rather than sincere accolades when I announced that I wanted to be an artist or designer. In a town so fond of supporting athletics, I found approval and fellowship on the ball fields or gymnasiums. When it came to art though, there wasn’t anyone else, or so I thought.
To my initial joy and frustration a few years back, I learned that our town had actually had an active arts council throughout my young years; Joy because I realized that despite the stigma, our little town actually had been interested in cultivating the arts, and frustration because I had no idea back then. Why had the school not worked with the council to connect young artists with council mentors? Were community artists even interested in investing time into teenagers? Were the schools even interested in investing time into fine art students? I’m sure there was an abundance of red tape that kept all these connections and investments from happening, or so I hope at least.
I’m happy to announce that the local arts council has since been reestablished, and I would be remiss not to mention other artistic endeavors that folks in the community have undertaken. Our local library offers monthly art experiences for the teenagers in our community, many of which are taught by local practicing artists and/or art council members. In addition, the county visitor center displays locally-made art and has an arts committee responsible for hosting a community art show which was hugely successful for the first show! I was ecstatic to see that three of my previous art students participated. The little mountain community that my mother grew up in hosts an area-famous arts and crafts festival and the best chicken stew for a chilly autumn day. Also, all four county schools now have art class offerings, and I offer private art lessons to students wanting one-on-one instruction.
Despite prominent progress, our Appalachian home still has room for growth in the arena of fine art. Young artists, often students, are recruited for community beautification projects, business logos, poster designs etc. for a discount price. Folks mean well offering them opportunities to practice their craft, but they should be compensated fairly. Many art-related businesses, galleries, and cafes lay boarded up in vacant gravel lots and plazas throughout the county. In addition, as a student liaison for the Public Arts Committee, I still find it challenging to engage the students at our public schools for artistic community opportunities. Art falls into the cracks between more “practical” jobs, soccer practice, homework, AP classes, homework, family, etc. And that makes sense for people not particularly interested in art. But for students who live and breathe art as I did, I hope that their calluses are validated in our Appalachian community also, even though hard labor or sporting equipment didn’t create them; A paint brush did.
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Art business owner journaling about my artistic adventures.