Elkhorn City Featured in Japanese Art Magazine?

Elkhorn City's Blue Line Trail project was the focus of an October '08 feature article in a Japanese publication called "PUBLIC ART magazine". The article, co-written by project artists Suzanne Lacy, Susan Leibovitz Steinman, and Yutaka Kobayashi, is an honest take on the 5 year long process of creating the work along the trail. Thanks to Suzanne Lacy for getting the magazine and a copy of the article in English to us!
The Blue Line Trail was a long running project that was dedicated on October 8, 2005. This project began as a collaboration between the ECAHC and Appalshop, from Whitesburg, and grew to include artists from Japan, California, Ohio, and Kentucky, not to mention dozens of local movers and doers.
The impact of this project on local planning and development cannot be over-stated. Seeds were planted that became the new Artists Collaborative Theatre building, the Russell Fork River Connection Watershed plan, the old-time jam, the Russell Fork Whitewater Initiative...you get the idea.
The pictures are the publication, we can't do much with the Japanese.
Beneath Land and Water - A Project for Elkhorn City
by Suzanne Lacy, Susan Leibovitz Steinman, Yutaka Kobayashi
The Rivers Make the Mountains and the Mountains Make the People
-Local folk saying
Rationale and Introduction
“The Appalachian Mountains shelter one of the most biologically diverse temperate rainforests on earth. Neighborhoods, carefully woven between the hills along the narrow “hollers,” are part of a…clearly definable regional culture, complete with musical, linguistic, and culinary accomplishments. As a relatively Western region with plentiful natural resources, Appalachiahas been strongly molded by individual ambition, corporate interest, timber and coal” -Julia de Bruicker, American Festival Project
We, the artists of this project, have often wondered what has taken over five years of work in this small town a continent away from our homes in California. and another ocean away, in Okinawa?
Each year for almost six years now we’ve returned, sometimes only once a year but more often two, three, even four times. Today the Appalachian Mountains are a vacation destination, and we have certainty spent many of our own vacations here, yet our time seems to end up in something more akin to labor—raking rocks, planting, painting, installing tile, working with students, attending meetings and returning to our hotel rooms to work late into the night. Often, when we are tired or out of money we wonder. what have we accomplished, why do we persist, has it been worth the effort and when is it complete?
This is to say that sometimes in an artist’s career, art works are not clear during their making, and the making itself becomes a question that begs answering. In replacing more traditional aesthetic valuations, progressive artists often seek to represent successfully engaged public art via a compelling visual, a clever metaphor, or a concrete result for a sometimes-sensationalized constituency. From the start Beneath Land and Water stubbornly resisted neat packaging or framing as a succinct and artful “image.”
One problem here—and in general with this kind of art—is that most of the experience takes place in private. The aesthetic, if we could describe it as that, is a compiled rhythm of countless, sometimes intimate, conversations, late night scheming, sudden insights, meetings, moments of awe, anger at injustices, coffee-fueled planning, and relationships, new ones growing into old. This story is not captured within the impervious built environment that remains, no matter how beautiful the product.
All this is not to say we weren’t successful, for the transformations we’ve witnessed over the past years are undeniable, as is a certain elegance of concept that has slowly emerged. But our successes weren’t necessarily our entire making, and some were quite serendipitous. If anything our project might be called a public performance, as it took place in time and was constituted of many “acts,” many not represented in the visuals we’ve left behind.
Another problem: whose imagery? When artists hop into an already moving boat, joining the journey rather than building their own craft, where is the art? When we arrived, it was not to an empty and devastated place, in spite of years of poverty, pollution and extraction industries. We came into a small town of 1000 people, a poor region economically and ecologically, but one with a tight knit community organization, and an ambitious grass roots development plan, ready for change and open to the arts. In an area where the natural resources have been ravaged, the assets of Elkhorn City include a visually intact landscape and a beautiful river that runs through the town. Another asset is the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council (ECAHC) whose leaders are eager to develop their town. We joined with the momentum of the community’s progress toward revitalization, building on the ideas already there, making friends, becoming part of the process, adding “art” to the work of local place-making and the dream of a sustainable tourist economy.
Our ability to move socially came from our status as outsiders, people without engrained alliances; our ability to offer “outside the box” suggestions was conceded because we were artists. We drew upon our own working class and rural roots to develop connections made real by our willingness to return, and return again. In the August sun, sanding concrete benches or planting a garden on fallow soil, we demonstrated our willingness to work. We worked like spiders weaving connections between ravaged natural resources and their restoration, between the town’s economy and the arts, between pride of heritage and “branding” for tourism. We helped strengthen bonds between the social organization and the natural one. We brought old residents to work together and new outsiders to donate energy. Over time, we made it clear that we would take nothing out of the community except our pleasure, memories and experience; that we would bring as much as we could—money, connections, labor, people and talent—to the civic table.
The skill in this work is the ability to recognize assets when they appear. At first we thought of city planning events, installations, starting entrepreneurial eco-businesses, and sculptures made with waste pulled from the river. We didn’t consider tile murals until we met Willa May, a high school art teacher with a kiln and a boundless enthusiasm for her students and for art. Halfway into our project, theater producer Stephanie Richards moved back home from Chicago to found Elkhorn’s first community theater, one that has become the placeholder for a growing identity of Elkhorn City as a town that nourishes the arts. This year the University of Kentucky Agricultural Extension Office hand-tailored the nascent position of County Arts Coordinator for her. Along with the Elkhorn City Heritage Council, Stephanie’s energy and Willa’s dedication are our insurance policy for the continuity of all that we began.
Made on a nickel, with creative juggling and a lot of manual labor, the project has taken its limited financial resources and poured them into the City, hiring local workers and enlisting children and senior volunteers. Beneath Land and Water has, over five years, has engaged scores of people from all over the world who have come to work in Elkhorn alongside residents.
Project Description
“Everything the eye can see” is a poetic definition for landscape. Standing at the largest intersection in Elkhorn City, the eye can see the landscape of this tiny town as its two bridges cross and re-cross the Russell Fork River. Along this line of sight, we have worked with local activists Nina Aragon and Tim Belcher, and National Parks Service programmer Peggy Pings to promote the development of this rural Appalachian community. The project that began in 2000 as a site visit by the American Festival Project at Appalshop has helped to shape a tourist profile for Elkhorn City, with artists working alongside planners.
We focused on townspeople’s personal experience of their land—as a site of heritage and as a generator of regional wealth—and their river—an indicator of ecological health and a moving force that connects them, upstream and down, with the rest of the country. Sponsored by the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council, the project reflects a need for collective stewardship of the land and water and a dream of an ecologically sound tourist economy.
Promoting connections between economic, cultural and ecological sustainability actually takes place in specific and local spaces, as small and unremarkable and precise as a tiny Kentucky mountain town straddling a river near the border of West Virginia. Our aesthetic decisions were framed as a result of specific geographic and social conditions.
The first decision was to build local assets, to take nothing away in the form of money or resources in a region of the country marked by exploitation by outsiders. Even the low profile of the project was appropriate: should we claim aesthetic prowess, or political correctness, by working in one of the poorest regions of the country? Even to exploit the region’s reputation for destitution seemed obscene. We used asset-based organizing strategies to spotlight what was positive, vibrant, and unique to the community, trying to ignore sometimes more compelling exposés of problems there.
The second decision was to work with our collaborator’s dreams, not our own images. This presented our artist team with dilemmas. Where we might have wanted a planning process-as-performance, they wanted something (quite literally) concrete. Where we might prefer an installation in an abandoned school bus, our collaborators wanted a waterfront park.
Economics loomed large in every idea, haunted by the specter of a history of transient takings by outside agents. We wanted our efforts to be more permanent than our own tenure there. We weren’t urban planners but knew enough to realize the cost of even modest permanent interventions into the built environment, was money we didn’t have. What people wanted existed for the most part in their imaginations, and our budget did not match the models these dreams were drawn from. Whatever we did, it couldn’t cost much.
It was also clear that the only ethical way to work here was to support economic vitality for local people. We thought of various small revenue generating interventions that might grow into local businesses, but found no takers. Youth we’ hope would be ready to take on new means of employment had either left the region or were, for the most part, not obviously entrepreneurial. This, and the guidance of the ECAHC, brought us to tourism.
How do you create a place that is worth visiting by strangers? The entire town took ten minutes to walk, from the waterfront across the trestle bridge to a small Main Street that was only fifty percent there. A few old buildings marked an earlier era (as remembered by long time residents) with its miners and loggers, train stations and Model-T Fords, barbershops and brothels. Main Street as a viable center of town lived for the most part in people’s memories. We developed an “urban trail” to unite the two populated areas that comprise the town around a recognizable entity—a walking path that featured local cultural and historical attractions for visitors. The circular trail, we hoped, might help create a “there, there” and call into being the town that exists in local lore and imagination. If we have made any metaphor at all, it is this trail as connection—using house paint and murals to connect Main Street’s miscellaneous buildings with the River, knitting together the built environment and the natural one.
At first the rivalries and enmities between the towns factions were impenetrable to us, their basis formed in childhood and carried long in memory that colored understandings of present motivations. It wasn’t until over a year after we arrived that we met the Mayor and two years before we went before the City Council. The trail metaphor extends to uniting sometimes-disparate efforts, a force in the recent life of the City, bringing new resources and uniting residents in a common cause to develop a sustainable tourism profile.
The project includes:
THE BLUE LINE TRAIL and signage. A circular loop knits the town’s natural and cultural histories, including the Riverfront Park, Main Street, and RR Museum.
RIVERFRONT HABITAT PARK: Sculptural seating with text from locals re river stories. Native plant garden supports butterfly and bird habitats, and reestablishes a permeable riparian zone to filter storm runoff.
COMMUNITY MURALS with tiles made by students and citizens that celebrate history and ecology, including a 15’x50’ Heritage Quilt Mural, waterfront habitat interpretive signs, and others.
• TOURIST BROCHURE, four-color glossy production that re-envisions the town’s tourist profile.
• WEBSITE as part of the Elkhorn City site, documenting our public art and oral history projects.
• FUTURE PLANS include the possibility of large-scale performance with shape-note singing.