If you ask Liz Simmons the Linda Nochlin-esque question “Why are there no great West Virginia artists?,” she’s prepared with a reply.
“Of course there are, but you just don’t know them,” notes Simmons, curator of art and engagement for the Juliet Art Museum at Clay Center in Charleston, West Virginia. “There’s great stuff happening in the middle between the two coasts, too.”
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West Virginia, the only state wholly in Appalachia, tends to find itself in the national news for the antics of Senator Joe Manchin, the state’s law targeting transgender athletes, or problematic portrayals of “hillbilly” culture. The state’s vibrant arts scene rarely receives national press.
In some ways, Simmons understands why it’s tough to get the word out about West Virginia’s artists. The state’s population (1.8 million) is small, as is its tourism industry compared to some larger destinations — and West Virginia is just one of many regions overlooked in a crowded art field. But she asserts that the quality of art in her home state deserves attention, and emphasizes the wide diversity across the region in the field — and in the people.
And there are many more remarkable artists and arts movements throughout other parts of Appalachia that deserve your attention, too. In eastern Kentucky, for example, the Appalachian Artisan Center exhibits work by local artists and runs classes in ceramics and metalworking. Across the border in Tennessee, the Knoxville Museum of Art maintains an exhibit called Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee, the first permanent exhibition devoted to East Tennessee’s artistic achievements. These examples just scratch the surface of Appalachian arts.
The following five artists are leading the wave of inventive and engaged artists in West Virginia.
Robby Moore devotes his days to the arts as executive director of Beckley Arts Center, while he dedicates the nights to his own mixed media art, often working until 3 a.m. In the stillness of those late hours, he thinks about the messages he wants to communicate — sometimes about being Black in Appalachia.
Moore, 42, was born and raised in Beckley, the largest city in southern West Virginia. Of its 17,000 residents, 16 percent of the population is Black and 75 percent is White (per census data). Statewide, West Virginians are known for their pride in the Mountain State, but, Moore says, “especially in the last few years, there are so many things that challenge that pride, and there are things that you can’t ignore, especially as a Black person.”
He adds, “A lot of my views and politics, if you will, can be pretty much progressive but [I’m] living in a very conservative state. I love the idea of the nostalgia and the history of our state and what that represents within the broader picture of Appalachia, but also being very contemporary and wanting new, progressive ideas to surface.” In his multimedia work, Moore explores the contradictions.
During college, a professor suggested that he leave West Virginia for a larger city in another state. Moore defied the advice and stayed, insistent that he could be a successful artist in his hometown — and he was right. Last year, WV Living magazine readers voted him the best artist in the state.
“Appalachia is steeped in culture and the arts,” he said, “but it’s not always appreciated, especially more modern forms of it.”
When Ellie Schaul moved to Charleston, West Virginia, from Massachusetts, she promised her parents she’d only stay for two years. Sixty-two years later, Schaul, now 85, has spent her life in the Mountain State, saying, “I just found my place.” A retrospective of her paintings and sculptures, titled Ellie Schaul: Reimagining the Familiar, wrapped up earlier this year at Clay Center’s Juliet Art Museum.
Schaul is a force in the West Virginia art scene. Over the years, she’s experimented with abstract art, run a gallery, painted “pocketbuckets” (lunch pails repurposed as purses) that became popular nationwide, documented the region’s Interstate construction, collaborated with other area artists, and designed sets for the local theater and ballet.
Schaul has also documented West Virginia’s “hollers” (or “hollows”), essentially rural villages, in more than a dozen paintings, often rendered in psychedelic purples, yellows, and blues.
“Every time I give a tour at the museum, the response to the hollow paintings is ‘the hollow never looked so good,’” she says. “I kind of take offense to that because I see the hollow completely differently than everybody else sees the hollow.”
She’s inspired by the hollows near her home, especially during springtime. A sixth grader who visited her museum show captured the feeling exactly.
“He says … ‘It’s the world around her. She paints what she sees, her home. And then she’s taken the color she sees and is subverting it to something different, more magical,’” Schaul recounted. “That’s the way I look at the hollow — it’s magical.”
For Nevada Tribble, West Virginia isn’t just the inspiration for her work — it’s often the medium. The textile artist forages for leaves, bark, moss, mud, plants, feathers, and shells to create paper on location in West Virginia’s streams and rivers.
“It’s a way of creating a portrait of a place based on cataloging the objects that are present in that place,” said Tribble, 24, a 2020 Emerging Artist Fellow with the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts.
Tribble spent most of her childhood in Elkins, in the northeastern part of the state, and lives there today. She is drawn to Elkins not only for its greenery (she lives within what she calls the “magical wonderland” of the Monongahela National Forest) but also for its community.
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In addition to her paper-making, Tribble created a “sewing bike”; she affixed a sewing machine to her bicycle so she could work outside with the pedals acting as a treadle. She calls it “part drawing tool, part performance object.”
The bike spurs conversations with onlookers, and she shares her creations beyond state lines with her Paper Club. “Art is kind of like a mirror. It reflects the energy and the happenings and the people’s attitudes in a certain place at a certain time. It’s like a reflection of the moment,” Tribble muses. “If you’re only looking at the art in a specific place, you’re missing out on so many moments.”
Women are often coached to take up more space, to make their presences known. Nichole Westfall takes that advice literally with her large-scale, often three-dimensional murals around Charleston, the state’s capital and most populous city.
“I’ve always felt kind of dismissed — being a woman and a woman of color, and also I have a passive demeanor anyway, and then I’m 5-foot-3. I think that art was a way to feel that I could create conversations that I was uncomfortable with. But then making it huge was like, ‘you have to listen to me and you have to pay attention,’” the 29-year-old Korean American artist explained.
Her artworks, ranging from a whimsical mural at a local community college to a collection of fabric mushrooms situated around town as part of Charleston’s arts festival, evoke joy. Westfall proudly describes herself as a “defender of the decorative arts,” supporting the valuation of crafts and applied arts. In recognition of her art, she was named a 2021 Emerging Artist Fellow by the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts. This summer, she’s working on a portrait of Dr. Mildred Mitchell-Bateman, the first woman and first African American person to hold the title of Mental Hygiene Commissioner for West Virginia.
Westfall, who grew up in a rural community outside of Charleston, encourages visitors to explore the culture of Appalachia beyond its portrayal in the national news.
“We have people who are really trying to make it here and make it better,” she states. “No one wants to stay in their own bubble. And if you’re gonna preach that, really go outside of it.”
Inside West Edge Factory, an old clothing factory turned community arts hub located in Huntingdon, West Virginia, beside the Ohio River, artist-in-residence Sassa Wilkes wields oil paints to tell stories. Sometimes Wilkes tells the stories of others, as in the artist’s 100 Badass Women painting series, which features trailblazers from Lizzo and Dolly Parton to Virginia Woolf and Stacey Abrams. Now, Wilkes is telling a personal story, one that will “explore my own experiences as a trans person in Appalachia.”
Wilkes, 41, grew up and still lives in Barboursville, about 10 miles from Huntingdon, with a family history of coal mining. The artist praises Huntingdon, near the Ohio and Kentucky borders, as “a little bubble of LGBTQ inclusiveness.” Their newest works tell a story about identity — about shedding old skin and molting.
“I feel really hopeful that it would be a way for a lot of people to understand trans identities when maybe they never thought about it before or maybe even had negative views before. We need something to combat the crap because it’s all over the news in such a negative way and it’s really painful,” Wilkes laments. “Maybe it’s idealistic, but I feel like I would like to be that person … who makes [people] change their minds or makes them open up a little bit about something.”
“The people that come from here,” Wilkes adds, “when they’re making art, they really have something to say that is worth listening to.”