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Appalachia Inspired

Mountains Piled Upon Mountains: Appalachian Self-Reflections



Living in the mountains of Appalachia, the nature that surrounds us often becomes a mere backdrop. We expect it to be there, so we forget about it. 

In the new book “Mountains Piled Upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene,” nearly 50 writers focused on the natural world of Appalachia using place-based fiction, literary nonfiction and poetry. 

The current geological age is known as the Anthropocene — the period when human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment. 

The writers in the new book from West Virginia University Press, “Mountains Piled Upon Mountains” examined human experience and influence on the mountains that make up Appalachia. 

Jessica Cory, the book’s editor, teaches in the English department at Western Carolina University. She grew up in southeastern Ohio, then lived for a while in a very flat geography along the eastern coast. She described a kind of hill-sickness she got in the flat lands, or a longing for that folding geography. It was alleviated when she moved to the mountains of North Carolina. 

Jessica Cory, editor of Mountains Piled Upon Mountains. Photo: John McHone

“I moved out here and just fell in love,” Cory recalled. “Oh, I’m home. I’m home. There are hills, there are shadows. There’s topography. It feels like home.”

Cory said she noticed a shared sense of rootedness and tie to place in the author contributions to the book.

“Everybody seems to have that idea that this is home, this is what home looks like.”

After moving back to Appalachia, Cory had come to notice she couldn’t find a compilation of writings that focused on the overall Appalachian region, as place. 

From that seed, “Mountains Piled Upon Mountains” was born. 

Moving beyond nature writing, much of the writing in the book discusses issues facing the region.

Ann Pancake is the West Virginia University Humanities Writer in Residence and a contributor to the book. 

“I’ve been writing about the natural world in West Virginia for a long time,” Pancake said. “And many people in West Virginia, I would say, have a deep ambivalence about the natural world here. They love it and at the same time, there’s pain about the way that it’s hurt and also the pressure to destroy the place in order to make a living.”

Here’s an excerpt from her contribution:

“Dear West Virginia, what kind of writer would I have been if I hadn’t been raised to love you? Taught to love you by my family and by the culture, by school, and even by church, but taught to love you also (and here taught is too innocent a word: seduced? ensnared?) by the land of you yourself. Pull of you, draw of you, hold of how you won’t let us go, and why, when almost everyone else I know is also decades from their childhood places, I’m about the only one who still calls that place home?

And through you, West Virginia, I have also learned how the ferocity of any love is hotter-fired by threat of loss. To grow up in you, West Virginia, was to be nurtured by what was also continuously being taken away, from the days stood, six years old, in the picture window of our middle-class home and Nicholas County in view of bulldozers stripping a mountain, to the day I stood, thirty years later with another generation of West Virginia children at the turquoise-goo toe of a seeping mountaintop removal valley fill. West Virginia, how profoundly beautiful. How profoundly vulnerable, Loving you accompany to always by witnessing, by bearing up under, your destruction. Clear-cut, strip mine, gas well, chicken factory farm, pipeline, power line, subdivision of second homes, whatever the appetites of people not of this place who don’t it won’t have to look at what was sacrificed for what they have to have.”

Rick Van Noy is another of the roughly 50 contributors. He wrote about the rivers that run through the mountains. And the calming effect they can have. 

“Wilderness certainly, I think, sustains us and in various ways enriches us provides a kind of joy,” Van Noy said. “I think those bubbling rivers just provided an endlessness, or repeated cycle.”

Other contributors to “Mountains Piled Upon Mountains” write about experiences from northern Georgia to upstate New York, inviting parallels between a watershed in West Virginia and one in North Carolina. They emphasize connections between Appalachia and more distant locations, emphasizing the need to understand the nature around us.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Appalachia Inspired

Truth, Imagination, and Vulnerability: The All-American Town Photobook



“We can concern ourselves with presence rather than with phantom, image rather than with conjure. Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world.” — Dorothea Lange and Daniel Dixon, Photographing the Familiar: A Statement of Position, Aperture, 1952.

The closing statement of The All-American Town: A Photography Project by The Rural Arts Collaborative, Bellaire High School, a 60-page photobook (some may call it a zine), reads: “These photographs and statements are a sharing of our collective truth and imagination.” And it is striking.

I spend a good deal of time looking at photobooks. For me, it’s important that photographs make their way to print and become something other than pixels stored on hard drives or posts on social media. To be intentional about printing photographs and then structuring those pictures into something that makes sense, that pulls a viewer in, that begs the viewer to return over and over again is not necessarily an easy thing to do.

I first learned of the project, led by Wheeling, West Virginia-based photographer Rebecca Kiger, on Instagram some time before Christmas last year. I had no idea the images I would see unfold in their feed would result in such a thoughtful and beautifully produced photobook.

Despite Kiger’s proximity to Bellaire, Ohio, she was well aware that her presence would be that of an outsider. It took her months to establish trust with her students, which anyone who has worked with teenagers can attest to, and rightfully so. Some were resistant right up to the end. During the year-long project, Kiger developed a rapport with the students.

“My motivation with this project is to let them know their voices matter, their lives matter,” she told me on a call last week. “I feel the length of the program was important because it allowed for the development of trusts and knowing and forming relationships. This is an essential part to creating photography with depth and hopefully healing wounds,” she added.

“Art is the first thing to get cut,” Kiger noted referring to shrinking budgets in schools. So, it was with funding provided by the Benedum Foundation, the EQT Foundation and Oglebay Institute, the Rural Arts Collaborative was able to produce the work and ultimately the photobook in an edition of 500 copies.

Lindsay Hess, a student in the project, wanted to take a photography class, but had no idea of where the class would lead. “It was difficult in the beginning. We don’t really open up that easily to outsiders. Once we realized Rebecca’s idea was great, we opened up and showed her what was around here,” she said. “She (Kiger) really helped open our eyes to what was around.”

When asked about what she hoped others might take from the project, Hess said, “I kind of hoped that it would change people’s stereotypes of the area. For me, I tried showing that we have really good roots and that we still have beautiful surroundings.”

“It’s not just drugs and all the horrible things. It’s not a lazy, dusty old town that people might think it is. There are still good things in this place,” she added.

Judy Walgren, a Pulitzer prize-winning photographer and professor of Practice, Photojournalism and New Media at Michigan State University, served as the photobook’s editor.

“This body of work was like a dream come true,” Walgren shared with me. “For me to be able to be part of it, because I’m an outsider, is a huge honor. The project speaks of Rebecca’s ability to motivate people and, in turn, their ability to turn this into a work. Every student has at least one photo in this book. That’s really uncommon.”

Kiger has worked with Walgren for years on various collaborations. With no background or concept of the project, Kiger asked her to look over a large batch of images and edit them down to a reasonable number. “As I started looking them over, she started telling me more about the project. I had a really hard time narrowing the edit down. I could feel the weight of these lives and shared experiences,” Walgren said.

Walgren’s words resonated with me because I’m guilty of sometimes not being a good listener when it comes to teenagers. More than once I’ve been humbled by the vulnerability and depth of my own children at times in their lives when most adults were quick to dismiss them, let alone give weight to their thoughts or opinions.

For me, the pictures are decoded fragments that show me something familiar. They speak to me in a way that means something I can identify with despite knowing very little about the place. You’ll find no pretense in the pictures, but rather little windows in which we are all invited to look at not only a place, but at ourselves. These are intimate pictures that seem as if in their making and in our viewing, the photographers move about freely in their world, in their community in a way photographers “not from here” have tried to do since the first camera was deployed in search of other places. They show us what we can’t see but what we can certainly identify with and relate to.

Throughout the photobook, statements from the students are mixed in with the photographs.

“I have grown up being thankful for small things.”

“I used to let my anxiety control me.”

“I am good at keeping secrets.”

“I am afraid of the dark.”

“I’ve had to learn that you can’t trust anybody, not even your parents.”

“I will save others before myself.”

In light of two recent school shootings– STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado and the University of North Carolina Charlotte–where students were seemingly the first and last lines of defense and attacked the gunmen head on, ultimately saving lives, this statement is especially poignant. But each felt like a punch in the gut.

“The finished book affirms the risks they took in sharing their lives. The fact that they took those risks, and were vulnerable, makes me very proud of them,” Kiger said. “Even though the subject matter is hard and sometimes dark, it showed them that sometimes opening up like that and sharing is what really reaches people.”

The All-American Town is available for purchase here. Follow the Rural Arts Collaborative on Instagram at @ruralartscollaborative. Follow Rebecca Kiger on Instagram at @rebecca_kiger.

The students of the Rural Arts Collaborative at Bellaire High School in Bellaire, Ohio.

Author’s Note: I received a complimentary review copy of The All-American Town.

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Appalachia Inspired

Modern Business Reimagines Traditional W.Va. Folklore



Liz Pavlovic working on a poster she designed, featuring Mothman and Flatwoods Monster. She says those two characters are best friends in her artwork. Photo: Caitlin Tan, WVPB

Greasy pepperoni rolls, pungent ramps, sweet apple butter, shaggy Big Foot, scruffy Mothman – these are all symbols that represent West Virginia. Local treasures that began from traditions and legends from long ago that are getting a modern flair, thanks to a graphic design artist in Morgantown.

Liz Pavlovic’s business “Liz Pavlovic Design and Illustrations” recreates West Virginia’s mementos with an endearing modern, cartoonish flair.

The Studio

Her studio is nestled in a bright corner of her living room.

Everything is colorful and quirky, like Pavlovic herself. She sports a rainbow-hued T-shirt, a Mothman tattoo and bright purple hair.

A doll head that looks like Pavlovic sits on the windowsill.

A doll with an uncanny resemblance to Pavlovic. Her work space is decorated with fun, bright artwork, such as this doll, cat cartoons, various Mothman depictions, etc. Photo: Caitlin Tan, WVPB

“I found that in a thrift store and I was like I can’t not buy it,” Pavlovic said.

But what stands out the most is Pavlovic’s art. On her computer screen is a work in progress featuring two West Virginian monsters. Below the illustration is the words “not all who lurk are lost.”

“That’s a new poster I’m working on. It’s Mothman and Flatwoods Monster – I have them hanging out a lot. They’re kind of the best friends of the group I guess,” she said.

Pavlovic keeps stockpiles of her artwork on her bookshelves, neatly organized. She has become somewhat of a West Virginia celebrity for her state-themed graphic designs.  

The Art

Her art is mostly featured on pins, stickers and posters. There is a food collection, including pawpaws, apple butter, ramps, buckwheat cakes and pepperoni rolls, which are a bit controversial. Her design includes cheese, which for pepperoni roll purists is not traditional.

“The next round of pepperoni roll pins I might remove the cheese, there’s been some debate about it,” Pavlovic said.

Some of Pavlovic’s designs featured on stickers. Her West Virginia collection includes cryptids or folklore creatures, as well as state foods like the pepperoni roll. Photo: Caitlin Tan, WVPB

Another popular design is her West Virginia hotdog, or better known as the slaw dog. It’s topped with mustard, chili, coleslaw and onions. The slaw dog is thought to only be loved below what’s known as the “slaw line,” or everything south of milepost 111 on Interstate 79.

“Occasionally, people will come to my table when I’m vending and say that’s disgusting,” Pavlovic said. “People get really heated about it — more than the pepperoni roll.”

Some of Pavlovic’s favorite designs are the area’s cryptids, or animals from legends that may or may not exist (creatures like Bigfoot). However, Pavlovic likes to focus on more unique and local characters, such as the Flatwoods Monster, named for the West Virginia town where it was sighted.

“I believe it was the 1950s when it was seen in the woods there by some people who saw bright yellow eyes, and I guess it had a coppery smell,” she said.

Often her cards and posters will feature cryptids with a pun. For example, her headless Grafton Monster valentine’s card reads, “I’m headless over heels for you.”

One of Pavlovic’s “cryptid valentines” featuring Bat Boy. Pavlovic has been running her own business for two years. Photo: Caitlin Tan, WVPB

Pavlovic explains that the Grafton Monster was supposedly seen by a news reporter, “and he described him as being like 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide with seal skin and basically no head.”

Those descriptions might seem creepy, but Pavlovic’s designs render these monsters as adorable oddities. Her Mothman is a fuzzy, black being that is often doing everyday activities, like surfing the web or riding a bike. On one sticker, Pavlovic includes the words “live, laugh, lurk,” with Mothman confidently laying on his side.

“He’s in sort of a model, sassy pose. Some people say it’s like a ‘draw me like one of your French girls,'” she said.

How she got here 

Pavlovic studied graphic design at West Virginia University and graduated in 2010. Two years ago, she opened her own business. The pepperoni roll pin was the first design she sold.

She grew up in Alabama, but as a child, she visited her West Virginia family every year and says she’s always felt connected to the state.

“I grew up eating pepperoni rolls. My mom made them at home even when we lived in Alabama,” she said. “I guess there was a big part of my life that was West Virginia that I didn’t even realize.”

It took about a year for Pavlovic’s business to take off. At first, she said, she was just trying to break even. Now, after two years, she says her art sales make up her income. She does half of her art sales through her online store.

Pavlovic’s sales follow a national trend. According to the Hiscox Online Art Trade Report, a little less than half of art buyers choose to purchase their art online, which is in itself more than a $4 billion industry.

“Instagram has been a huge part of it for me because there’s a lot of artists on there and just a big community. And it’s easy to share your art there, obviously,” Pavlovic said.

Instagram launched in 2010. And today, the majority of people who manage art galleries say Instagram is the best way to promote their art. Even more, the majority of consumers under 35 years old say Instagram is how they discover new artists.

Pavlovic’s pins at her vending booth. The first design she made for her business was the pepperoni roll pin. Photo: Caitlin Tan, WVPB

Pavlovic has a lot of fans. She has a respectable 2,836 followers on Instagram, including Candace Nelson, the author of “The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll” book.

“Anytime I see any art or products, or anything even remotely related to the pepperoni roll, I get really excited,” Nelson said.

She fell in love with Pavlovic’s pepperoni roll collection. One of her favorites is Pavlovic’s Valentine’s Day cards.

“One of them said, ‘Pep rolls before bros,’ and I thought that was really funny,” Nelson said.

Selling to the People

Pavlovic also sells her work in boutiques and tourism shops around West Virginia and Ohio, but she also does a lot of in-person vending.

Recently she sold her merchandise at a music show at Morgantown’s Retrotique store. Several bands played, including the local punk-rock duo Haggard Wulf.

Pavlovic vending her artwork at Morgantown’s Retrotique store. She sells everything from stickers to posters to pins to sweatshirts all adorned with her graphic designs. Photo: Caitlin Tan, WVPB

Her booth was a long table filled with all of her stickers, pins, T-shirts and posters with twinkling lights weaving through the items.

People of all ages stopped by, including one young boy named Devlin, who purchased a bedazzled Mothman pin.

“I like Mothman and also I like sparkly things,” he said.

It is through the little designs on pins, cards and stickers that Pavlovic is able to capture a part of West Virginian culture. Nelson, the pepperoni roll fan, says Pavlovic’s art takes traditional West Virginian things and adds a sense of humor.

“I love that she draws on these almost inside jokes that we have as West Virginians and turns it into something beautiful,” Nelson said. “I like that it’s almost as though you have to be in on it. You have to know West Virginia culture to really truly appreciate it.”

And Pavlovic says she hopes to keep up with it. The motto for her business is “Keep on Creepin’ on.”

Be on the lookout for her newest cryptid, the Ogua. According to local lore, this 500-pound serpentine creature can be spotted swimming in the Monongahela River.

This episode is part of an Inside Appalachia episode exploring folklife and material culture in Appalachia. 

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Appalachia Inspired

How Writing, Faith and Landscape Guided Author Karen Spears Zacharias Home to Appalachia



Karen Spears Zacharias. Submitted photo

Karen Spears Zacharias grew up in a military family and spent a portion of her childhood traveling the country as her father was assigned to new posts, but it was her time in Appalachia, specifically in Georgia and her parents’ childhood homes in East Tennessee, that not only shaped her writing, but defined her, she said.

“I was exposed to many landscapes, but home to me was always crossing the Holston River [in Tennessee] and up through those hills,” Zacharias said.

As the 2018 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence at Shepherd University, Zacharias’ work was celebrated at the recent Appalachian Heritage Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Her 2013 novel “Mother of Rain,” a Weatherford Award winner, was also chosen as this year’s One Book, One West Virginia Common Reading selection.

Zacharias’ father was killed in combat in the Vietnam War and his death had a huge impact on her family.

“Prior to my dad’s death, everything in my life revolved around [him]. Where we would live, schools we would go to, where [the] next deployment would be,” Zacharias said. “This man was the center of our lives for all those previous years and we didn’t even speak his name once he was buried.”

Zacharias said as she was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s in the South, there was a culture of not discussing things that were upsetting or unpleasant. So the family fell silent. She only ever heard stories about her father from her paternal grandmother.

It wasn’t until Zacharias became a mother herself that she realized that at that age, her own mother’s world “fell apart” with her father’s passing. Writing became the catalyst for helping Zacharias process the struggles of her youth. It also gave her a pathway to remain connected to her Appalachian roots.

“Writing gave me an order to all the chaos,” Zacharias said.

This coping mechanism led Zacharias to become a journalist, nonfiction writer and novelist. “Mother of Rain” depicts a young woman’s struggle as she settles in Appalachia.

Faith also played an important role in Zacharias’ storytelling. Church became a safe place in her childhood after her father’s death, when her own home no longer was, and when school felt unstable during the Civil Rights Movement, church gave her a sense of community, which she said is what “Mother of Rain” is all about.

Church is place that can give hurting people hope, Zacharias said, but cultural changes have diminished that role in the eyes of Appalachian communities, leading hurting people to turn to other forms of comfort, such as opioids.

“Hurting people will always seek solace. It’s a matter of who is going to be there to offer it to them,” she said.

In “Mother of Rain”, Zacharias aimed to preserve the language and culture of Appalachia that she knew so intimately as a child. It began while attending a conference in South Carolina. It was then that Zacharias was gifted a dictionary of Smoky Mountain English and it revived the voices from her childhood, as well as inspired a “calling back to the time and place and people in my life that had brought healing to me and had given me a sense of home and a sense of belonging.”

She took that dictionary home to show to her own children, who did not grow up in the region. Zacharias’ work uses the elements of her childhood to show her children part of not only her history, but their history as well.  

Zacharias’ other works include “After the Flag Has Been Folded: A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost to War—and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together” (2006), “Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide” (2010), “A Silence of Mockingbirds” (2012), “Burdy” (2015) and “Christian Bend” (2017).


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