By Kate Mauer, Photos by Jesse Jarrold-Grapes
The Women of Appalachia Project (WOAP) and its biannual fine arts exhibition communicates the soul of Appalachian femininity through the power of art. The exhibition is made up of various mediums, from paintings to sculptures, and even includes multimedia work.
The fine arts exhibition takes place every two years at the Dairy Barn Arts Center in Athens.
Pieces for the exhibition were handpicked by several jurors chosen by Dairy Barn Exhibition Director Keri Anne Wolfe. Wolfe says the criteria to submit artwork to the exhibition was lenient.
“The artists had to be women-identifying who had a personal connection or some kind of tie to the Appalachian area,” she says. “Their work [also] had to be made in the past two years.”
The WOAP’s beginnings
Kari Gunter-Seymour, founder of the WOAP, was fed up with being constantly overlooked by mainstream media.
“I got it into my head that I could do something about the stereotyping and the marginalization that was happening,” she says. “I had this degree in graphic arts, and I worked in communications marketing. I decided if mainstream America didn’t want our work, then I could create a space for it.”
Gunter-Seymour approached Ohio University’s Multicultural Center about the stigmas and discrimination she and her peers faced as Appalachian women. After putting together a proposal, she was approved by the Center to create the exhibition using its gallery space for the show and a reading.
In March of 2009, the WOAP was born. Five visual artists and four poets, all from Athens County, participated in its inaugural event.
For Gunter-Seymour, this seemed like the end.
“I got emails and people stopped me on the street, and so I thought, ‘Well, I guess I have to do this again,’” she says. “I set up a website and started posting on social media about the opportunity to submit. The second year it branched out of Athens County to surrounding counties. 15 years later, and WOAP grew into a traveling art exhibition”.
Gunter-Seymour found herself at a crossroads after about 10 years.
Gunter-Seymour wanted to prioritize her writing, so she decided to pass on a portion of the project.
She approached the Dairy Barn about the fine arts section of the exhibition, who agreed to host the Women of Appalachia Project Fine Arts Exhibit biennially. Gunter-Seymour continues to stay active in the WOAP, editing and producing the anthology series Women Speak each year.
“I was working and juggling a traveling art show and a traveling literary journal, and I just realized I can’t do this anymore,” she says.
Project pursuits and purposes
This year’s fine arts exhibition at the Dairy Barn expands on WOAP’s legacy. As the second year it was housed in the venue, this year’s exhibition featured 67 pieces from 46 exhibiting artists – roughly 5 times bigger than its first year – and has only continued to grow.
“It’s different from our other exhibitions because it is so unique and targeted to one region, but I think anyone who is interested in Appalachia or lives in this area should come in and see what women have to say, what we’re trying to express, who we are and what our stories are,” Wolfe says.
The WOAP has since expanded its focus in the past decade to include the entire region of Appalachia — all 432 counties. Its goals include celebrating Appalachian culture and heritage, uplifting disenfranchised voice and putting stereotypes to rest.
“The Women of Appalachia Project has a mission … to encourage, enrich and empower Appalachian female voices and artists and our communities, because all of us have been shamed,” Gunter-Seymour says. “We’ve all been shamed for so long that now part of our mission is to go around within Appalachia and lift ourselves up, and we do that with our art.”
Sarah Heink, whose artwork was featured in this year’s exhibition, says the project proved all the negative stereotypes wrong.
“[The] artists included in this show [represent] Appalachia in such an extraordinary way,” she says. “It’s really awesome to have a space for women of Appalachia in particular, who definitely have carried the burden of these stereotypes maybe the most.”
Heink drew inspiration for her piece Partly Sunny from the scenic nature of Appalachia, particularly that of Strouds Run.
“Strouds is a place of peace and divinity to me,” she says. “It connects [us] to each other and the beautiful Appalachian scenery.”
Artist Mallory Stowe had three pieces featured in this year’s exhibition. Her piece, Stole My Ma’s Lipstick, was granted a juror’s award. Stowe took inspiration from her own dual identity growing up around Appalachia.
“Growing up, I wanted to be beautiful and I wanted to be an actress, [but] I also felt very tomboy-ish,” she says.
Stowe believes the WOAP has “continued to reinforce in my brain how vibrant the art community of anywhere can be if it’s supported in the right ways.”
Juror Miyuki Akai Cook believes that this exhibition helps to reduce the stigma surrounding Appalachia.
“[Appalachia is] so often under looked, [people think that] we’re poor, and uneducated, and not interesting people or not forward thinkers, but that’s not true,” she says.
The WOAP will continue to prove that being an Appalachian woman is not something to be ashamed of, but rather, something to take pride in, Gunter-Seymour says.
“I can look back, I can see all these amazing, sassy-ass women who made it through some incredibly hard times and worked so hard so that I get to be a poet,” she says. “How can you not be proud about that? How can you not speak up about that?”