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Eastern Kentuckians work to preserve arts and culture in wake of floods

Stephanie Wolf

Eastern Kentucky is known for its rich arts and culture. But recent flooding has damaged important local archives, devastated arts businesses and left some artists worried about their livelihoods.

High flood waters ravaged the first floor of the Appalachian Artisan Center in Hindman, destroying classroom equipment, kilns, administrative offices and artist studios. As of Monday, much of the level had been mucked out, thanks to a restoration company that specializes in water damage repair, and mud-crusted debris was piled up outside.

Artistic director Renee Anderson said she feels bad mourning the loss of a newly painted mural and carefully curated artist studios “when so many people have lost so much… but it was very emotional coming in and seeing everything completely different from what I was used to.”

“As artists, we put so much thought into the stuff that we use every single day, and for that to be completely washed away in one night, it’s really heartbreaking to see that,” she said, adding that at least one of their artists also lost their home and was injured during the storm.

Anderson also coordinates the center’s Culture of Recovery program, which teaches art skills to people with opioid addiction to aid them in recovery.

The floods have disrupted that programming, and Anderson feels urgency to get it back up and running.

“Right now, the entire region is going through this terrible disaster where the ‘culture of recovery’ kind of takes on a different meaning, and we’re trying to recover from this awful thing that has happened to us.”

The center houses the Museum of the Mountain Dulcimer. Flooding was so fierce, it busted one of the museum’s doors off its hinges and broke through the front windows, carrying much of the collection away.

Douglas Naselroad said he’s been “too heartsick” to visit the museum and assess the damage.

Naselroad co-curated the collection. He also founded the center’s Appalachian School of Luthiery and directs the Troublesome Creek Stringed Instrument Company.

“We had an example of the first dulcimers ever made in the hourglass shape,” he said, referencing the distinct style of dulcimer developed in Knott County.

A few of the instruments have been recovered, but it’s unclear if they’re salvageable.

Naselroad has also been dealing with cleanup at the luthiery school, where people learn how to build and repair stringed instruments.

A sign outside promises, “We’ll be back,” and Naselroad said he’s determined to keep his employees on payroll, having them clean tools and equipment that might be recoverable.

“So my people are beat up by this, but they’re not going to be beat up by worrying about their jobs. Now it may be spring before we can even pretend to be building instruments,” he said. “I don’t know. I have never been through anything like this before… But in the meantime, it makes them feel better to see some modicum of normality returned to this mud hole.”

Some cultural institutions took massive hits to their archives, like Appalshop in Whitesburg and the Hindman Settlement School, which has a collection that’s more than a century old.

“Of course, human loss is the worst part of it. But those photographs and those letters and journals, those are proof of people’s lives over the last century,” novelist and writer Silas House said. “And so it’s a tremendous loss as well.”

House grew up in eastern Kentucky and credits the settlement school as an important part of his path to becoming a published writer. The school’s annual Appalachian Writers Workshop, intended to help Appalachian writers tell their own stories or the stories of their homeland, is considered not only an important contributor to the legacy of the literary arts in Kentucky, but to American literature as a whole. In the wake of the floods, the school has been providing shelter, food and supplies for those in need.

These collections, artists and arts organizations also highlight a more nuanced representation of the region.

“We’re often not represented in a complex way,” House continued. “In TV and films and comic strips and commercials and whatever form of visual media you can think of, we’ve been negated and/or erased. And so to have this accurate, historic record of us be so threatened is really devastating.”

The Kentucky Arts Council is working with culture groups in the affected areas, helping assess the damage and connecting artists and organizations with local and national resources.

Executive staff advisor Emily Moses said they were able to respond quickly.

“The unfortunate thing is that we learned a lot of our response techniques and methods from our response to the western Kentucky tornado disaster, which included significant effects to the arts and culture field,” Moses said, adding that they continue to work with artists and arts groups in that region as well. “So we had created processes during that time and were able to implement them immediately.”

The arts council has been coordinating calls between impacted artists and the National Coalition of Arts’ Responders and Emergency Preparedness. KAC has also compiled a list of grants and resources for artists on its website.

Meeting the needs of people impacted by the floods is a priority, Moses said. But she hopes people also see the value in preserving the region’s cultural heritage.

“When we’re talking about Kentucky, we’re talking about a place where arts and culture and artistic practices are essential to our daily lives… If you put [culture] too far down on the list, what you’re looking at is a complete and total loss. We have to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

Stephanie Wolf
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