The Higher Ground Project

Higher Ground Coalition/The Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College

Funding Received: 2012
Cumberland, KY
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
April 13, 2013

In late January, 2013, Robert Gipe of the Higher Ground project in Harlan County, Kentucky attended the Creative Placemaking Summit organized by ArtPlace. ArtPlace asked Gipe about the connections between what he saw and heard at the Summit and the work he saw when he got home as part of Higher Ground, a community-based art project coordinated by the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College. Gipe said:

When I returned to Harlan from the Creative Placemaking Summit, I found our community members about the business of fostering our own creativity, and creating something new, while figuring out how to hang onto what we love. The Crawdad youth arts group organized an acoustic event in late February in the Godbey Appalachian Center Gallery in Cumberland. The event grew, in part, out of work Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College students have been doing in their music classes and their collaborations with the University of Kentucky College of Design in thinking about venue, about the importance of space in creating a scene.

In another class, an Honors class last fall, students began exploring the work of grafitti artists—including Shepard Fairey and Jean-Michel Basquiat—as well as the work of Alabama painter and sculptor Thornton Dial. That exploration, coupled with conversations with our production partner on the new play, Community Performance International, led to the “What We’re Made Of” project. The carpentry, theater, and art programs are working together with Appalachian Studies classes to create sculptures that will be used as part of the theater sets. That work has started and will carry forward in the summer and fall.

A group of Higher Ground cast members (Theresa Osborne, Ronnie Walker, Alex Hamm, Carrie Billett, Elana Scopa) is sifting stories, working on the script for the new Higher Ground play. They reported on their work to cast members and performance site representatives at a potluck dinner on February 21st.

Our long-term vision, a creative development center, took a leap forward in March when we announced the first two Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College courses to be offered by the Creative Development Center in the Summer of 2013. Both courses are keyed to the premiere of the fourth Higher Ground play at four locations throughout the county in Fall 2013. One of the summer classes will be taking place in a space downtown and will focus on creating sculptural work that is part of the combined exhibit/performance spaces we are creating for the play. The other course is a theater class that will be working on set design, and building mobile sets to travel to the four locations in the fall.

Work in these courses will overlap and concern itself with fostering our creative community and that community’s commitment to generating long-term vibrancy. Ultimately, the creative development center will also serve as a venue, a place to convene, and work in partnership with people in communities all over the county towards a greater community vibrancy.

At the center of the center will be a secondary/postsecondary partnership offering educational opportunities for high school and college students, credit-bearing courses leading towards degrees in creative fields. So at the most basic level, the Center will be an art school. But this Center will build on what has already been accomplished in our community in connecting artmaking to community building.

march 2

Returning to Harlan from the Creative Placemaking Summit, I was struck by the range of people in Harlan—most of whom do not make their living by the arts—who are involved in using the arts to give their lives and the lives of their neighbors the kind of openness and sense of belonging that the Knight/Gallup “soul poll” suggests hold people in place. Harlan County already meets one of the poll’s major criteria for attachment—that of physical beauty. Ours is a naturally beautiful place, but we continue to find our way in fostering our community’s sense of “openness” and the creation of the types of activity that will draw (and hold) people here.

[In his next blog post, Gipe discusses how ArtPlace work going on in the public schools in Harlan County is part of Higher Ground’s longer term effort to promote to a sense of attachment to community.]