Let’s talk about my competition. I’ve been wanting to publicly say this about “Country Christmases” for years, and I guess now is as good a time as any.
I’m an Appalachian. Born here, raised here, 4th generation American from Irish immigrants. I come from a long line of skilled stone-masons and carvers that brought the trade from County Limerick. The women made Irish lace and quilts, often selling their wares in town. I didn’t learn to “appreciate craftsmanship in Mountain Culture”, I was soaked in it like a coffee-biscuit from my cradle days.
I was at the Huntington Mall in Barboursville, W.V. this past Saturday, and noticed once more that an enormous amount of goods described as “Country” or “Primitive” was for sale in many shops. Everyone within reading distance knows just the kind of thing I am describing. This time of year, we see it everywhere, in stores, catalogs, online. It’s likely your children are selling it for school fund raisers. The last time I was at an outdoor craft festival, vendors were even selling that junk in booths right next to the tent where a man was describing our mountain culture as “rich with skilled arts”.
I’ve been in countless homes in Appalachia and drank coffee at kitchen tables absolutely surrounded by what the homeowners described as “Primitive” or simply “Country Style”. Imitation Amish dolls, dully painted wooden crows standing on bent wire legs, framed pictures of barnyards. They even speak of these things as “art”. Most of the time…it’s not. An artist, not a factory, makes art. And I’d like my fellow Appalachians to give that some serious thought this Holiday season.
If I’ve reached you before you’ve bought all your gifts, take a moment in the store to examine that painted wooden “Country” knick-knack, wall-hanging or framed picture. I challenge you to find one that isn’t stamped “Made in China”. It’s “Country” all right, just not your country.
When I needed to purchase a simple piece of pine to paint my ornament for Governor Tomblin’s Christmas tree, I noticed that all the unpainted wooden plaques, boxes and simple disks in a big chain craft store are produced in China. By this evidence, it is now cheaper to mill, cut and ship simple blank pine squares half a world away, than it is to cut down a tree in the United States. I really don’t understand that.
People who have never known anyone who paints, quilts, knits, carves, crochets or sews have an excuse to buy mass-produced junk with silk-screened details and call it “art”. They don’t know any better. Appalachians do know better. If we don’t practice a skilled craft ourselves, we know someone who does. So it’s worse when we buy it.
In my school days, I had a teacher, Mr. W, for a class called “West Virginia Studies”. I think of him often. At the time, I was one of those pasty misfits, before “Goth” even existed, and so I stayed in the back of the room and shrugged a lot. However, he really made an impression with his enthusiasm. He was always singing the praises of our heritage and talking about practicing good stewardship of our natural resources, and telling us that our culture was worth preserving. I don’t even know if public schools have a “West Virginia Studies” class anymore.
West Virginia has a vast wealth of skilled artists and artisans, who are perfectly capable of producing the sort of things I’m writing about, only with care and pride. I think it’s obvious that we are greatly underutilized. There’s not much call for real “hand-crafted” anything when cheaply produced imitations are so handy.
Here’s a funny thing. I’m writing this in my studio, surrounded by high grade art supplies. Most people who don’t create art don’t know this, but much of the finest papers, paints, brushes and the like are actually made right here in the United States. If you buy items to decorate your home from an artist who uses U.S. materials, you’ll be supporting the American economy in at least two ways.
West Virginians ought to at least try to let our actions and our dollars make a statement this Christmas. I hope you’ll give some serious thought to what you buy this season and in the future as well. West Virginia has a lot more natural resources than just coal. How can we expect the rest of the country to respect and embrace our culture if we don’t make the effort ourselves?
©Kathy Ferrell and “Big Cup O’Blog” (blog about Cup O Swank Studio), 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kathy Ferrell and Big Cup O’Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.