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
July 19, 2012

Led by The Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College, The Higher Ground Project is a participatory community arts project and the coalition behind it will transform spaces to catalyze economic development by connecting art, design and commerce in a rural Appalachian coalfield county.

ArtPlace recently spoke with Robert Gipe, the coordinator of the Higher Ground project in southeastern Kentucky, about elevators and vibrancy.

ARTPLACE: What is your elevator pitch when you describe your project to people?

GIPE: When you asked this question, I didn’t know how to answer. We are in the Appalachian coalfields of southeast Kentucky, and when I ride an elevator, which is not often, I am usually by myself. And it’s usually a one-floor ride. But last week, our guest artists from the University of Kentucky College of Design and Community Performance International (CPI) were in town to look at sites for potential ArtPlace transformation. They are working with us on a new community play, our fourth, and the first to be performed inside the county but outside the community college campus. Our plays involve upwards of a hundred community residents, and our cast crosses the bounds of race, socioeconomic strata, age, and county section. The plays are full of music and humor, but don’t shy away from hard issues. In the process of making plays about drug abuse, mine disasters, outmigration, and land use, we have developed a strong community organization, one that finds hope in addressing problems together in a way that celebrates strength rather than enabling hand-wringing. Our ArtPlace project will take new work to non-traditional theater spaces throughout the county, and combines the re-development of those sites with experiments in youth programming, arts education, and historical tourism. One of the sites we are considering is among the oldest buildings in downtown Harlan, right on the courthouse square, a former synagogue and furniture store. When we got in the freight elevator, Valerie Rowe, a former student of mine and manager of the property, told me NOT to push the down button. I thought she said TO push the down button. Valerie, CPI artistic director Richard Geer, and I got trapped in the elevator. We were having a discussion about the importance of listening to the community when making decisions about which way to go when Rebekah Ison, UK College of Design faculty member, noticed a hinge on the top of the elevator cage. The hinge was attached to a door in the cage through which we climbed to safety. Rebekah’s observation reinforced the belief of everyone involved in the importance of design in transforming community. I hope this answers your question.

ARTPLACE: How do you expect to increase vibrancy in the place you are working?

Approximately 28,000 people live in our county. Since we received our ArtPlace grant, nearly a thousand coal miners have been laid off. Families are leaving the county by the dozen this summer to find work, to settle somewhere else in time for the start of school. Times were tough before these layoffs. Now they are tougher. Our visiting artists this past week made note of the beauty of the fog that lay on the mountains, especially in the morning. They also noted the steel, the industrial skeleton that undergirds so much of the county’s coal mining infrastructure. Fog and steel. It’s pretty foggy in our county right now, and the future is hard to see, but we will try to use our ArtPlace project to not only help our community find its way, but to remind ourselves that if it’s foggy, it’s probably still morning. We are far from the end of the day. As for the steel, we are blessed in this community with steely men and women, boys and girls. Making do is something people here have always done. A man once told me that a duck can make mud on a flat rock. He said it with admiration for the duck. I think he appreciated the duck’s ability to create what he (or she) needed. In the picture below, CPI playwright Jules Corriere (left) is with Higher Ground cast members Rut Melton (center) and Tara Smith (right) at the East Kentucky Social Club in Lynch, another of the sites we are considering for ArtPlace. The Social Club is an African-American organization in our community made up of thousands of current and former residents of Harlan County. The Club has chapters all over the United States and coordinates reunions in both outmigrant cities and in Harlan County. The Club is self-supporting and has been responsible for catering many a group function in our county. The East Kentucky Social Club is just one example in our county of the power of people who refuse to give up on the idea of community, and one of our models and inspiration for increasing the vibrancy of place.

PHOTO: HARLAN, Kentucky. July 10, 2012. Robert Gipe and Valerie Rowe discuss the importance of listening while stuck in an elevator. Photograph by Richard Geer (also stuck in elevator).