Being an Appalachian woman, artist, and herbalist, I am committed to honoring the women in my community. So many people have forgotten the ways (stories, traditions, and rituals) of their grandmothers, and I believe it is important to recall and understand this ancestral knowledge while acknowledging the value of contemporary traditions and ways of knowing. Among this vast knowledge lies countless cultural and social contributions that are significant and offer a unique perspective to the lives of women in Appalachia. Many Appalachian women possess an intimate connection to the land and a way of communicating that is unique and nuanced in ways that often go unstudied in the academic realm. Looking back to writers who painted the dreadful and everlasting image of Appalachia, women and their folkways are often written off as unimportant and unworthy of further inquiry or documentation-- a practice that has prevailed despite the fact that women are just as worthy of being known and remembered.
Growing up in a small, rural Appalachian community, I had the enormous pleasure of being surrounded by the fellowship of some pretty incredible folks. Having the opportunity to be raised by my grandparents was even more of privilege. Their wise perspectives on life and the unique experiences that come from living with people who are part of an older community greatly influence me as a woman and as an artist. The impact of my upbringing has lead me to the specific type of place-based work I make. Something peculiar, that I didn’t question until somewhat recently, is that I wasn’t aware that “Appalachian” as a contemporary cultural identity existed until I went to college. This doesn’t seem like an uncommon experience, either, especially for women. Why is something that is so ingrained in who we are seemingly invisible-- especially to us?
As an artist who uses photography to make work, I am connected to the ways that making images with someone can be a deeply powerful experience. Not only does the act of intentionally making a photograph slow the process down, it allows space for stories to emerge and for relationships to be examined. I want to express my gratitude for the inspirational women in this work while deepening my relationship with the wisdom and resilient perseverance they have to offer. These women have their own histories, their own stories, and a connection to the Earth that we need right now. Through a series of creative workshops, I will create spaces for women to share their stories about what it means to be a contemporary woman of Appalachia as well as what it means to become a woman in Appalachia.
While unwrapping my own experience of womanhood, with the forest as my neighbor, I quickly learned that my relationship with the environment is one of utmost importance. Guided by the teachings of my grandparents, I have learned that each bird, every plant we cross is a teacher and we all work together to support the ecology of our region. My work positions itself in an eco-feminist discourse that is undeniably present in this time of political and environmental turmoil. I intend to stimulate the conversation around women’s rights as well as environmental rights. Looking at the way women’s knowledge is being affected, I attempt to preserve these natural ways of inherent knowing with my artistic work. Seeing and experiencing the rapid dissipation of regard for the environment and women’s knowledge of the land, I am called to create spaces within my community that work towards strengthening and sustaining the connection between these innately interwoven elements.
Often, when asked to conjure an image of an “Appalachian woman,” she is not even remembered in color. A quick image search renders an overwhelming amount of black and white photographs of mountain women, each worthy and inspiring in her own right, but very few contemporary images appear. This antiquated way of viewing us also contributes to the erasure we experience in society today. Through the acts of documenting stories, making images, and holding space that are exemplified in this project, specifically for people who identify as women in a way that is meaningful to them, we amplify our voices and recognize their importance.
The women in this research are connected to the land in way that deeply impacts their way of being and have a beautiful and poetic way of communicating through the arts, folk medicine, community organizing, and storytelling. By consciously creating these workshops as intergenerational spaces, there are opportunities for exchange between women, young and old, that allow for the creative contemplation of traditions and rituals. Elders are able to share their stories, be heard and appreciated, and be documented in ways that carry their narratives through time. Girls and their mothers have the unique opportunity to intentionally learn from one another and make known what is important to them as well as how they want to be represented moving forward.
Empowerment lies within the roots of this project and will be purposefully threaded through each workshop, and every photograph, to “bring [the] subjugated knowledge of women to the foreground” (Seitz, 1995) and create a lasting dedication to empowering women in the Appalachian community. In setting out to honestly represent women of Appalachia, I believe it is prudent to “start by telling stories, understanding the past, and sharing memories.” As Helen Lewis states, “You need to get people talking, planning, dreaming,” in order to establish pride and create a “sense of identity and roots,” (Lewis, 2007). This is not to say the women in this project do not possess these cultural characteristics. It is, however, to say that by creating spaces for them to flourish, these roots can spread and entwine and create a structure far stronger than they could be alone.
LEWIS, H. (2007). Rebuilding Communities: A 12-Step Recovery Program. Appalachian Journal,34(3/4), 316-325. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy006.nclive.org/stable/40934636
SEITZ, V.R. (1995). Women, Development, and Communities for Empowerment in Appalachia. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.