If you ask Liz Simmons the Linda Nochlin-esque question, “Why aren’t there any great artists from West Virginia?”, she has an answer ready.
“Of course there are, but you just don’t know them,” notes Simmons, curator of art and engagement for the Juliet Museum of Art at the Clay Center in Charleston, West Virginia. “Great things are happening in the middle between the two coasts, too.”
West Virginia, the only all-Appalachian state, tends to find itself in the national news for Sen. Joe Manchin’s antics, state laws targeting transgender athletes or problematic depictions of “hillbilly” culture. The state’s vibrant art scene rarely gets national press.
In some ways, Simmons understands why it’s hard to get the word out about West Virginia 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 the overcrowded art field. But she argues that the quality of art in her home state deserves attention and highlights the region’s wide diversity in the field — and in the people.
And there are many other notable artists and art movements in other parts of the Appalachians that deserve your attention as well. In eastern Kentucky, for example, the Appalachian Artisan Center exhibits works by local artists and holds classes in pottery and metalworking. Across the border in Tennessee, the Knoxville Museum of Art is running an exhibit called Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee, the first permanent exhibition dedicated to the artistic achievements of East Tennessee. These examples only scratch the surface of Appalachian art.
The following five artists are leading the wave of inventive and committed artists in West Virginia.
Robbie Moore devotes his days to art as executive director of the Beckley Arts Center while devoting his nights to his own mixed media art, often working until 3am. In the stillness of those late hours, he thinks about the messages he wants to convey—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 (according to census data). Across the state, 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 spark that pride, and there are things you can’t ignore, especially as a black person.”
He adds: “A lot of my views and politics, if you like, can be quite progressive, but [I’m] living in a very conservative country. I like the idea of nostalgia and the history of our state and what it represents in the larger Appalachian picture, but I’m also very contemporary and want new, progressive ideas to surface.” In his multimedia work, Moore explores contradictions.
During college, a professor suggested he leave West Virginia and go to a bigger city in another state. Moore defied the advice and stayed, insisting 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.
“The Appalachians are steeped in culture and the arts,” he said, “but they’re not always appreciated, especially the more modern forms.”
When Ellie Shaul moved to Charleston, West Virginia, from Massachusetts, she promised her parents she would only stay for two years. Sixty-two years later, Shaul, now 85, spends her life in the Mountain State saying, “I just found my place.” A retrospective of her paintings and sculptures titled Eli Shaul: Rethinking the Familiarended earlier this year at Clay Center’s Juliet Art Museum.
Shaul is a force in the West Virginia art scene. Over the years, she experimented with abstract art, ran a gallery, painted “pocket pails” (lunch pails repurposed as purses) that became popular across the country, documented the construction of interstate highways in the region, collaborated with other local artists, and designed sets for the local theater and ballet.
Shaul also documented West Virginia’s “screamers” (or “hollows”), essentially rural villages, in more than a dozen paintings, often rendered in psychedelic purples, yellows and blues.
“Every time I tour the museum, the response to the hollow paintings is ‘the hollow never looked so good,'” she says. “I’m kind of offended by that because I see the Hollow completely differently than everyone else does.”
She is inspired by the hollows near her home, especially in the spring. A sixth grader who visited her exhibit at the museum captured the feeling exactly.
“He says… “It’s the world around her. She paints what she sees, her home. And then she took the color she saw and subverted it into something different, more magical,” Shaul said. “That’s how 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 setting. The textile artist forages for leaves, bark, moss, mud, plants, feathers and shells to create paper on location in the streams and rivers of West Virginia.
“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 Artists Fellow at the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts.
Tribble spent most of his childhood in Elkins, in the northeastern part of the state, and lives there today. She was drawn to Elkins not only for its greenery (she lives in what she calls the “magical wonderland” of the Monongahela National Forest), but also for its community.
In addition to making paper, Tribble creates a “sewing bicycle”; she attached a sewing machine to her bicycle so she could work outside with the pedals acting as pedals. She calls it “part drawing tool, part performance object.”
The bike stimulates conversation with onlookers, and she shares her creations across state lines with her Paper Club. “Art is like a mirror. It reflects the energy and events and attitudes of the people in a particular place at a particular time. It’s like a reflection of the moment,” reflects Tribble. “If you only look at art in a certain place, you miss so many moments.”
Women are often trained to take up more space to make their presence known. Nicole Westfall takes this 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 rejected—being a woman and a person of color, and I have a passive demeanor anyway, and then I’m 5-foot-3. I think art was a way for me to feel like I could create conversations where I feel uncomfortable. But then making it huge was like, ‘you have to listen to me and you have to pay attention to me,'” explained the 29-year-old Korean American artist.
Her artwork, ranging from a whimsical mural at a local community college to a collection of woven mushrooms located around town as part of the Charleston Arts Festival, is a joy to behold. Westfall proudly describes itself as an “advocate of the decorative arts,” supporting the appreciation of crafts and applied arts. In recognition of her artistry, she was named a 2021 Emerging Artist Fellow by the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts. This summer, she is working on a portrait of Dr. Mildred Mitchell-Bateman, the first woman and first African-American to hold the title of Commissioner of Mental Hygiene for West Virginia.
Westfall, who grew up in a rural community outside of Charleston, encourages visitors to explore Appalachian culture beyond its depiction in the national news.
“We have people who are really trying to succeed here and make it better,” she states. “No one wants to stay in their own bubble. And if you’re going to preach that, really get outside of it.
Inside the West Edge Factory, an old garment factory turned community arts center located in Huntingdon, West Virginia, by the Ohio River, artist-in-residence Sasa Wilkes uses oil paints to tell stories. Sometimes Wilkes tells the stories of others, as in the artist’s 100 nasty women pictorial series that includes pioneers from Lizo and Dolly Parton to Virginia Woolf and Stacey Abrams. Wilkes is now telling a personal story that will “explore my own experiences as a trans person in Appalachia.”
Wilkes, 41, grew up and still lives in Barbersville, about 10 miles from Huntingdon, with a family history of coal mining. The artist hails Huntingdon, near the Ohio-Kentucky border, as “a little bubble of LGBTQ inclusion.” Their latest works tell a story about identity – about shedding old skin and shedding.
“I really hope that this will be a way for a lot of people to understand trans identities, when maybe they’ve never thought about it before or maybe even had negative views before.” We need something to combat the bullshit 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’d like to be that person… who does [people] change their mind or make them open up a little bit about something.
“People who come from here,” adds Wilkes, “when they make art, they really have something to say that’s worth hearing.”