Youth Storytellers Discover New Narratives at the Museum of Art
Seated in a circle in the Hall of Sculpture at Carnegie Museum of Art, Kate Fowler, director of award-winning youth media program the Appalachian Media Institute (AMI) at Appalshop, poses two questions to a group of young people from Pittsburgh and eastern Kentucky.
“When have you felt like you were part of your generation?” asks Fowler, a documentary filmmaker, photographer, and educator. “When have you felt outside your generation?”
Surrounded by columns built from the same marble that fashioned the Greek Parthenon, with sunlight filtering through Lothar Baumgarten’s installation The Tongue of the Cherokee, a permanent part of the hall’s skylights, the youth pause before offering measured responses. Some recall organizing punk rock basement shows in and around Whitesburg, which helped establish a much-needed music scene in the tiny town of about 2,100 people on the eastern edge of Kentucky’s coalfields. One of the Pittsburgh participants discusses the first time her atheist upbringing felt foreign alongside other, mostly Christian children in her grade school.
Fowler and Matthew Newton, associate editor in the Museum of Art’s publishing program, lead this “story circle” as an exercise in examining the layered ideas of place and identity. The pair became acquainted two years ago while working on a “Portraying Appalachia” symposium for the literary magazine the Oxford American, an effort to dispel the stereotype perpetuating Appalachian people as the ruddy face of poverty.
Earlier this year, after Fowler accepted the position with AMI, the two solidified plans to pilot a rural-to-urban cultural exchange program that, in its first year, brought together this group of 10 young people ages 16 to 22. Titled Envisioning Our Future, the eight-week program empowered these youth interns, seven from Kentucky and three from Pittsburgh, to critically explore their home communities through filmmaking, photography, podcasting, and creative writing—all with the Museum of Art as the backdrop and inspiration for learning.
It can be easy to forget that urban centers like Pittsburgh, Asheville, and Birmingham are part of Appalachia—a 205,000-square-mile mountainous swath that bleeds into sections of 13 states from New York to Mississippi—especially when the identity of the region is so often placed squarely on the stereotype of the poverty-stricken coal miner. Still, eastern Kentucky and Pittsburgh have both shared a reliance on industry and suffered as it faltered. “Sometimes when you hear about Appalachia in the media you forget how urban spaces are influenced by poverty, too,” says Fowler.
Big Steel’s collapse in Pittsburgh and the declining coal industry in Kentucky have each inspired a cadre of artists dedicated to unearthing a new Appalachian identity. The gathering of young rural and urban artists at Carnegie Museum of Art is part of the next generation adding their voices to the ongoing conversation.
To help guide their learning, part of a workshop centered on John White Alexander’s The Crowning of Labor, a mural adorning the walls of the museum’s Grand Staircase. On the first floor of the mural, laborers work in a smoky, sooty environment—both alluding to Pittsburgh’s reputation as “hell with the lid taken off” and its industrial prosperity in the steel era. As the mural climbs the walls to the second and third floors, it becomes more idyllic, almost propagandist about the rewards that hard work brings to bear.
“When a people identify so deeply with the industry that not only pays their bills but defines the place they come from, it becomes ingrained in the cultural narrative—even for young folks who were born long after the boom years,” says Newton.
The youth interns analyzed their own identities as postindustrial Appalachians in both Pennsylvania and Kentucky, and looked to the museum galleries as a living classroom. For many of the students from Kentucky this was particularly meaningful, since it was their first experience at an art museum and in a city as large as Pittsburgh.
Elyssia Lowe described her visit—the first to an art museum—as “surreal,” particularly from her perspective as a 22-year-old art major: “[You] read and study about these works of art and their creators,” she says. “To see it all in person was a life-changing event that I will be forever grateful for.”
Oakley Fugate, also a youth intern from Kentucky, noted that his first visit to Pittsburgh “would have easily cost more than my mother makes in two or three months, and that’s not counting the second trip.”
Outside the museum, the group toured the struggling communities of Wilkinsburg and Braddock, discovering how art is being used as a tool for neighborhood revitalization. At Braddock Carnegie Library, they considered its Art Lending Collection, a project of the artist collective Transformazium, the library, and the Museum of Art that allows anyone with an Allegheny County library card to check out four pieces of art at one time for three weeks, then renew it like you would a book. At the Carrie Furnaces, they immersed themselves in what was once a major site of industry, today reclaimed as a historical artifact and opportunity for regional artistic inspiration. Finally, filmmaker and Braddock native Tony Buba gave the interns a guided tour of the neighborhood he’s documented for more than four decades.
“Young people got to see what it means to build a lot of community trust and to know that people will be uplifted by it,” Fowler says.
The young artists honed in on Buba’s close attention to fair representation of not only the region but its people. “Meeting all of these wonderful people and seeing how they are actively working to change the status quo was probably the most inspiring part of the workshop,” says Joshua Taylor, a 20-year-old intern from Pittsburgh. “It really has driven me to try and make a difference in my life and in the lives of others around me, whether it be small or large.”
Back inside the museum’s galleries, the opportunity to view real masterpieces was a defining experience, reformulating some of the youth’s identities as budding artists.
“It was about seeing the things they had learned about in school,” says Fowler. “Having access to artists like Van Gogh and Monet is a huge part of it.” Art major Lowe cried when she saw her first Monet, Water Lilies, in person.
“The students had a tactile response to the art. They sat and looked at the artworks closely,” says Fowler. “I think in something like Monet it does not come across when you’re looking at it on a piece of paper. They really started to understand texture and brushstroke.”
The interns directly applied this newfound appreciation of art in documentaries they produced over the summer, a major objective of the program. Taking on such topics as transgender discrimination and police brutality tied to the Black Lives Matter movement, the students reflected on social issues through a refreshed Appalachian lens.
Next year, Fowler and Newton plan to continue to raise consciousness in Appalachia, using the lessons learned from this year’s pilot to bolster the urban-rural exchange. “I think we underestimated how transformative the gallery time would be,” says Newton. “Next year we plan to further embrace the museum’s galleries as classrooms.”
They also hope next year’s batch of Pittsburgh interns will have the chance to visit Whitesburg, to fully experience the rural side of Appalachia, and spend time at Appalshop, the local media and arts center that’s home to AMI. While meeting the other interns informed their understanding of the southern reaches of Appalachia, there is no substitute for first-hand experience, says Fowler, noting the impact traveling to Pittsburgh had on the Whitesburg youth. “Leaving sometimes gives you a stronger perspective on your home.”
This summer, as part of a cultural exchange program called Envisioning Our Future, Carnegie Museum of Art and the Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop worked with rural and urban Appalachian youth to learn storytelling. As part of the program, students were given the opportunity to explore concepts of place, identity, and economic transition through filmmaking, photography, podcasting, and creative writing—all with the galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art as the backdrop and inspiration for their learning. To learn more, visit the Envisioning Appalachia story archive.
Envisioning Appalachia is an ongoing series that explores concepts of place, identity, and economic transition in the region’s urban and rural areas. The series is produced in partnership with the Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop.
This essay was a finalist for a 2017 Golden Quill Award recognizing excellence in regional journalism.