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Appalachian Scene: A Celebration of Art

by Lynda McDaniel

Rows of long, wide windows punctuate the brick walls of the William King Regional Arts Center in Abingdon, Virginia. It's a stunning example of architecture matching mission, the way the windows, like the center itself, offer extraordinary views of nearby mountains and fascinating perspectives of distant horizons.

Creativity comes naturally to the people of this area, which spans the mountains and valleys of southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. Cut off by the steep landscape, early settlers drew from nature for their needs, crafting river cane into baskets, clay into vessels, and native hardwoods into instruments and furniture. That custom continues today alongside long-standing coal-mining and farming traditions that have carved deep influences into the way of life here. What, then, does an exhibit about Egypt or Eskimos have to say to a community steeped in its own rich culture?

"The exhibits all work together. Whether they cover local heritage or the world, they make history come alive," explains Barbara Chavatel, recently retired supervisor of instructional services in secondary education in Washington County. "For example, when students are learning about foods of other countries, it makes them focus on their own, and they begin to wonder where their traditions came from. We are a nation of immigrants, a melting pot culture, and these exhibits help us understand better and, hopefully, make us more accepting of diversity."

Each year 25,000 students and adults alike climb the time-worn wooden steps of the center, a renovated 1913 schoolhouse, to visit three stories of galleries, classrooms, and artists' studios. The center enjoys a broad range of support from state and local governments, which provide 30 percent of its operating expenses, and from local businesses and individuals, who contribute the rest.

The center was founded to save the derelict schoolhouse from ruin and to create a community arts center in an area that had none. It takes its name from William King, an eighteenth-century Irish immigrant who made his fortune here and who bequeathed money to a private school for the purchase of the 25 acres on which the center now stands. Early this decade, when the center needed the title to the land in order to finance its major renovation, the three remaining descendents of the trustees of the school (which ceased operation in 1906) donated the land to the arts center. "That was a huge endorsement of our mission," White adds.

At the core of the community's support of the center is an appreciation for its commitment to education. A comprehensive school program was initiated in 1993 after a study revealed a pervasive lack of sequential art programs in the region. Today more than 4,000 students from 200 schools in 12 surrounding counties participate in the broad curriculum presented by certified instructors and studio artists. Art Express, a program for third-grade classes, provides day-long visits of tours and arts-related activities. Appalachian Regional Commission funds, distributed through the Southwest Virginia Public Education Consortium—a group of superintendents, heads of higher education institutions, and area legislators—paid for the program's first year; the consortium continues to make annual contributions.

Other school programs, for students of all ages, include tours, workshops, take-home materials, and student exhibitions. The results, educators feel, hold promise for a lifetime of learning.

"We want the children to have a good experience when they come to the museum, so they will come back as adults," explains Allison Linder, assistant for school and youth programs. "We are trying to build a base of visitors who might not ordinarily go to museums. We want them to feel they can drop in any time and bring their own children someday

Visits to the studios of the three resident artists open windows into how art is made and expose young students to the wonders of creativity. On a recent day, a group of excited children wiggle and squeeze into a tight circle around painter John Sauers, who has maintained a studio at the center for almost four years. "You are going to do some artwork today that is all yours," he tells his captivated audience. "No one else can do what you do, and no one can take this away from you."

This kind of personal attention to creativity and self-esteem has earned the center awards from groups such as the Virginia Alliance for Arts Education. It has also brought a popularity that far exceeds the center's physical capabilities-as many as 1,400 students had to be turned away last year. To meet growing needs, a new expansion of the center's Van Gogh Outreach program will take art to 93 elementary schools in the outlying counties beginning in September 2000.

"For several of our schools, it's a hard, winding, three-hour trip to get here," Linder adds. "We'd like for the students to have the museum experience, but if they cannot come often or without difficulty, Van Gogh fills the gap."

In addition, the Van Gogh Outreach program can introduce children to artists from their own community, says April Street, an artist and curator who grew up in the heart of Virginia's coal country. "When kids see artists on television, they don't think they can be one," she explains. "Everything on television is in that box; those people aren't real. A program like this says, 'Look, she went to your school, and she became a real artist.' "

School programs have attracted adults to the center, too. Children share their experiences with parents who then want to see exhibitions and take classes for themselves. "We now have visitors coming in because their children want to come back, or because we have their grandfather's basket on display," White says. "Last August, 750 people attended Community Day, which is a phenomenal number for us in one day. We saw mother and daddy and children and, in some cases, grandparents. We have a far more eclectic and general audience than ever before, which makes me feel the mission is working."

Parental interest has had a ripple effect on area schools, as well. Chavatel credits the center's effective programming with helping increase art instruction in the schools. "Children went home and talked about the center," she explains, "and parents said they would like to see more of this. The school board began to take notice, and, as a result, [this school year] Washington County added full-time art teachers at the elementary level."

At a time when the influx of chain stores and the mass media increasingly compromise the uniqueness of any community, the center also helps preserve the region's rich crafts and decorative arts legacy through its Cultural Heritage Project. Center staff realized the need for such safekeeping following a popular quilt exhibition held in 1992. "We wanted to do more exhibits like that because it brought in a whole new audience," White says, "but we couldn't find any public information. No one had done the primary research. The National Endowment for the Arts and two smaller private foundations funded 18 months of field work that took us into people's homes, where we found fine examples of furniture, textiles, pottery, guns, and metalwork made between 1780 and 1940. We now have photographed and documented more than 2,000 objects."

Over the past three years, the center has presented a series of exhibitions showcasing this work. The exhibitions are collectively entitled the "Great Road Style" in honor of the work that developed in the region along the Great Road, the primary transportation route for western settlement during the nineteenth century.

The Cultural Heritage Project has also spawned a new mission for the center: acquiring a permanent collection of Great Road Style artifacts. The collection currently includes 45 artifacts, some of which are displayed at the 1860 Fields-Penn House in downtown Abingdon. In addition, a coffee-table book on the Great Road Style is planned for publication in late 2000.

At the other end of the spectrum, high-technology and multimedia installations figure prominently in the center's upcoming calendar. Through videotaped oral histories, satellite and conventional photography, and real-time interviews, "Imaging Appalachia: A Virtual View" transports visitors across the mountainous terrain, onto farms, and into coal mines, musicians' workshops, and artists' studios. Other exhibitions will spotlight one medium—clay, for instance—and juxtapose traditional and contemporary approaches. "That way, visitors will have the opportunity to see a wide range of flexibilities and possibilities," adds Tom Perryman, curator of art.

Possibilities. Potential. Self-esteem. These words surface often when the staff talks about the center's programs and exhibitions. To them, art is more than something beautiful or precious—it is the means to a wider world of creative thinking.

"Art is about ideas," Sauers adds, "and creativity is in every discipline—from economics to running a business. Children are our future trustees. They might be our next board supervisors or the next president of the United States, and we can help develop their creativity and self-esteem through art."

A group of children scramble down the wooden steps, past the Palladian window framing the mountains and world beyond, and head back to their schools. There, they will write letters that say thank you in their own way: "I learned that museums are very fun to visit"; "I hope I can come back with my mom + dad"; "I wish we could stay longer"; and "Now I know different things."

"And that," White adds, "is what we're all about."

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.