As part of the work of one 2012 ArtPlace America grantee, the Higher Ground community performance coalition in Harlan County, Kentucky, the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College offered a summer class in visual art sponsored in part by the Robert E. Frazier Foundation and the Southeast Education Foundation. The visual art course was one of two Higher Ground-related courses offered during the summer of 2013, the other being a theater course in which students worked on the Higher Ground script and stage set. Visual arts students worked on two separate projects. Students working with SKCTC professor of art Joseph Scopa created nine four-foot by eight-foot mixed media panels incorporating found objects.
The panels became part of the Higher Ground 4: Foglights stage set. These panels, which drew inspiration from the art of Alabama-based artist Thornton Dial, combined old tires, refrigerator doors, toys, appliances, smokeless tobacco cans, miners uniforms, curtains, storm doors, and myriad other pieces of physical detritus collected in the community—and in particular in the old Rowlett Furniture building, the downtown Cumberland building the college is renovating to be the headquarters for creative placemaking in the Tri-Cities section of Harlan County. Students used liquid nails, zip-ties, screws and nails to fix their found objects to plywood and rabbit wire frames. Students then spray painted the panels with a black undercoat and white highlights. The young artists used a process developed by the Harlan County High School art department in the spring of 2013 in collaboration with Higher Ground. The resultant “junk art panels” were integrated into the multi-stage performance space created by Higher Ground in collaboration with Community Performance International, Higher Ground’s artistic partners in the ArtPlace America funded work. The panels became an integral part of the production, which is, among other things, a rumination on the future of Harlan County, a place defined by tradition. The panels served as a fitting backdrop as the play’s characters contemplate the script’s central question—what to keep and what to throw away as the community moves into the future.
The second project the summer 2013 students worked on was the creation of four seven-by-twenty-five foot murals, printed on cotton using inkjet transfer technology. The mural students worked in collaboration with guest artists Chris Dockery and Paul Dunlap of the University of North Georgia. Dockery and her UNG students use inkjet transfer and needle craft to create what she calls “communigraphics,” arts-based research projects that use visual art to explore aspects of community history and culture.
Higher Ground became aware of Dockery’s work through her participation in the Appalachian Teaching Project, an Appalachian Regional Commission supported project in which UNG, SKCTC, and eleven other Appalachian colleges and universities participate. Dunlap creates life-size portraits using his own photography, inkjet transfer, and quilting, appliqué, and other fabric artistry.
Higher Ground became aware of his work through an exhibition that was part of the 2013 Appalachian Studies Association conference. Dockery and Dunlap led SKCTC/Higher Ground students through a community photography process, and also worked with them to create collages in Photoshop of the pictures they took of both local scenes and found objects. The students combined their collages into four large-scale collages which they then printed one 11 by 17 inch sheet at a time and ironed onto large pieces of fabric. The collages incorporated family pictures, images of decaying buildings, pictures from the Higher Ground 4 performance sites, and pieces inspired by scenes from the play. The murals, once assembled and mounted on collapsible frames, traveled with the stage set to the four locations at which Higher Ground 4: Foglights was performed.