News Column

Appalachian art, old and new

August 1, 2014

By Teresa Annas, The Virginian-Pilot

Aug. 01--PORTSMOUTH -- "Changing Appalachia: Custom to Cutting Edge" is the sort of well-researched, comprehensive exhibition that looks like a museum spent years organizing it.

In fact, the show was pulled together in just about six months through the combined efforts of three curators, particularly Jean Haskell, co-author of the "Encyclopedia of Appalachia."

Noted for its cultural richness, Appalachia is a mostly mountainous region that trails from New York to Mississippi, touching on 13 states.

Haskell, who lives in Portsmouth, hatched the idea to build a show on the mountain region's culture with Nancy Perry, director of the Portsmouth Museums, according to Gayle Paul, curator of the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center, where the show opened in April.

The museum made a good call in extending the stay of the show from the usual two or three months. It ends Oct. 5.

Haskell and another Appalachia authority, Katie Hoffman of Jonesborough, Tenn., created the exhibit with Paul, who eventually went on a whirlwind truck trip to pick up the art and objects from all over Appalachia.

The show ambitiously surveys nearly every aspect of artistic output associated with Appalachia, with traditional and more contemporary examples -- that means baskets, pottery, quilting, weavings, woodwork, painting, beadwork, musical instruments, tools and sculpture.

With at least 200 objects in one big room, it's surprising that the exhibit does not look crammed or chaotic. Media are clustered for comparison, and label text is provided for every object.

A goal was to reveal "something about mountain culture that has often been ignored or, at worst, denied: the Appalachian penchant for assimilation of new ideas and innovation on old ones," Haskell wrote.

That point seems important, and could have been more stressed throughout the show regarding the older items. It is fascinating to read how certain objects came to be designed, such as the circa 1930 Roanoke settin' chair, a fireside seat with slats and posts curving backward for increased comfort, from Haskell's collection. That design would seem an improvement on its close kin, the stiffer ladderback chair.

The best part of this show is the chance to compare the old and the new.

The settin' chair, for instance, sits on a platform near a 2002 maple and walnut bench handcrafted by David Ramazani of Charlottesville. Proximity makes it clearer that Ramazani's design blends aspects of the traditional and contemporary.

A Richard Nixon face jug, made in 1976 by Lanier Meaders, the late Georgia potter, is a traditional Southern pottery form. This whimsical jug features a ski-jump nose, like Nixon's.

A more contemporary approach comes from Joel Queen of Cherokee, N.C., who makes round clay vessels with deeply incised abstract patterns. He's a ninth-generation potter and a Cherokee Indian whose style evolved from his tribe's traditional clay forms.

The most memorable pieces in the show are the contemporary works commenting on the Appalachian lifestyle, such as the weavings by Vita Plume.

Plume, who taught until 2012 at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, based her textiles on photos of Appalachian figures taken by legendary documentary photographer Doris Ulmann, who traveled the region and documented it in the 1920s and '30s.

Ulmann did so because she felt the Appalachian ways were dying out. Plume, in turn, used a computerized Jacquard loom to capture some of those images, yet in a ghostly way. Plume's work suggests a memory that is fading, as old photos do.

Comparisons occur between media, too. Painter Suzanne Stryk of Bristol, Va., has something in common with the basket makers, out in the woods, cutting strips off limbs for basket weaving material.

Like the basket makers, she is very attuned to nature, especially birds and their painstakingly woven nests. Stryk's mixed media work "Ephemera" suggests a nest with feathers woven into it that has turned into a kind of tornado.

Without these marvelous contemporary examples, the exhibit might feel a bit dry, and a tad too didactic. With them, the show gives off the lively scent of a regeneration in progress.

But if this show's assertions are true, that regeneration has always been there, embedded in Appalachian culture.


If you go

Who "Changing Appalachia: Custom to Cutting Edge"

Where Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center, 400 High St.

When Through Oct. 5; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. first Friday of each month

Cost $3

Contact 393-8543,


Teresa Annas, 757-446-2485,


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Source: Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)

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