Artists at Western Carolina University and a historic 20th century house might be an odd combination. But they share a common goal. Here’s how this unlikely duo is hoping to build a community.
Holding onto memories of Appalachian traditions can take many forms. Artists, preservations and oral historians are all working to protect those memories - each in different ways.
The Appalachian Women’s Museum is located in the over 100-year-old Monteith Farmstead in Dillsboro. President Sharon Sullivan says students, retirees and visitors are all interested in learning from the region’s history for different reasons.
“I don’t know if there is one answer. But I think that it’s a positive thing,” says Sullivan. “It provides a place not just for visitors but for local folks to come and sit and listen to the stream behind the house.”
The nonprofit has been working since 2004 to restore the property. At the beginning of this year, Dillsboro gave them the deed to the house for $10.
Sullivan says they want to develop more partnerships with organizations across the region. In the last 14 years, they have focused on the house which recently had heat installed for the first time.
“The time is really ripe for us to move past just fixing up the house to programing,” says Sullivan.
One such partnership is with LivLab, an artists collective organization and class at Western Carolina University run by assistant professor of sculpture Morgan Kennedy. The organization received funding to work on an oral history project with the Women’s Museum.
Right now, they are collecting stories from across the region.
Mo Kessler is one of the members of LivLab and a masters of fine art student at Western Carolina. Their art is influenced by their identity as a Kentuckian and community organizer.
“So often the story of Appalachia is not told or it is told through stereotypes and caricatures,” says Kessler. “So we just wanted to flip that on its head and think about how can we push back on this idea and push back on the monolithic idea of Appalachia.”
LivLab is also waiting on a second grant to build a gathering place on the museum property where visitors can listen and share stories. Kessler says that community building is a part of art and storytelling.
“Somebody is going to say something about a grandma that is going to remind you of your grandma and there is going to be a connection there where there wouldn’t be otherwise,” says Kessler.
The group also organized a panel to bring together preservationists to talk about the unseen women of Appalachia.
Barbara McRae spoke about the Women’s History Trail in Franklin. The first of its kind in the state. Kimberly Smith, who is a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, spoke about her project to define and recognize ‘Beloved Women. Marjorie Eyre from the Appalachian Women’s Museum presented on the history of the Monteith Farmstead and women in the region.
TJ Smith is the executive director at Fox Fire in Rabun County, Georgia. He also spoke on the panel to share some of the stories of Appalachian women that have been collected at their legendary organization.
“It’s important to build these kinds of connections in Appalachia,” says Smith. “A lot of us are doing similar work so there is strength in numbers as they say.”
In the 1960s, Foxfire launched as a group of high school students talking to their grandparents about their Appalachian traditions. It’s grown into an internationally recognized publication, says Smith. The Foxfire play on Broadway was inspired by Macon County woman Ari Carpenter.
“That only happened because someone took the initiative to go over there and record her. She was just a person in the community - those stories are everywhere,” says Smith.
All three groups are working to preserve stories that might not be heard otherwise. Smith adds that uplifting the stories of diverse groups in Appalachia will also help breakdown the stereotypes of the region.
“They have value they have things to add but the overarching American media homogeneity is what is being broadcast. On a community level if we can lift that work up then we might be able to overtake the broader national view of it,” says Smith. “I think that this culture is important and our ability to preserve that is to just give future generations the ability to pick of those torches and carry them forward.”
LivLab will find out if they received additional funding to work with the Appalachian Women’s Museum in May.