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The annual Appalachian Awareness Day was on Feb. 10. The day-long event took place in the Bonnie Auditorium. The event, sponsored by Radford University’s Appalachian Events Committee, featured various speakers and performers.
As the day reached its conclusion, two artists were the last ones to give their presentations. They were Suzanne Stryk and Catherine Pauley. Stryk and Pauley are artists that have different backgrounds and unique approaches to making art. But by the end of each of their talks, it was evident that they have both been shaped by Appalachian influences.
First was Stryk, a visual artist living in Bristol, VA. She admitted that earlier in her career she had been resistant to being labeled an “Appalachian artist”. She assumed the title was exclusive to someone who did scenic paintings of mountains and tobacco barns or who had deep family roots in the area, neither of which applied to her. Only later on, after traveling to a show in Portsmouth featuring Appalachian artwork that she was being featured in, did she realize that Appalachian art is an area of growing diversity. “Appalachia is changing,” said Stryk, “It’s becoming more and more varied every day, and I’m a part of that. And that was cool that I realized that through some external thing coming back to me.”
Stryk pointed out that her work had two themes, universal and place-specific. The universal aspects of her work rely on natural imagery to showcase themes anyone could relate to, such as in her piece “Collecting the Wild” which is about the human tendency to collect things from nature and bring them indoors. The place-specific themes in her work are from the Appalachian elements that characterize so much of what she does. She explores all across the region for subjects to put in her work. And what some may call simply a bug, she can describe in meticulous detail as she described one of her pieces to the audience, “These aren’t just insects, these are aquatic invertebrates that I found in Big Laurel Creek on Whitetop Mountain.”
Stryk’s work has given her a unique perspective on the things that many of us overlook, which is why another theme of her work is to be aware of the living creatures we share the earth with. Her latest series, “Notes on the State of Virginia”, is inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s book of the same name. In it she reassembles topographical maps, her nature sketches and odds and ends she finds in her journeys throughout Appalachia in an attempt to showcase the birds, toads, snakes and insects that she considers to be the overlooked citizens of Virginia. Where humans all over the world have been notoriously exploitative of the natural resources we all depend on for survival, Stryk considers her work to be a form of protest. “I think it’s an act of civil disobedience to not turn on the news, not go out shopping… but to go out in nature.”
Catherine Pauley was the final speaker of the day. Pauley is a Floyd County-native and attended Radford during the 1960’s. “Art was not a thing that you looked at becoming what you were gonna do as a livelihood,” said Pauley. She became passionate about the subject after she took a required Art History course. When she decided to major in art, she said there were only about 15 students at the time.
Pauley established herself as a trailblazer early on in other ways, like when she became a feminist before she’d ever heard of the concept. She was driven by an event that happened to her as a young woman, in which she worked hoeing corn on her grandfather’s farm with her father, brothers and another man who was the hired help. She worked hard for three days and when they were finally finished, everyone except for her got paid because according to her, “the work of women was not valued as far as money… Right there is when I became a feminist. I don’t know if the word had been invented yet, but it made a difference in the way I approached the world from then on.”
During her time studying art at Radford, she learned not to have preconceived ideas about what should go on a canvas and to not take herself too seriously as an artist. She told the story of a piece she created in a sculpture class that was her take on the “Descent from the Cross” by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden. “It was a very lofty piece. I was really proud it was a very modern “Descent from the Cross””, said Pauley. When she took it home and showed it to her mother, who thought it was “a bunch of little monkeys”, the experience helped her learn how to laugh at herself.
Pauley told the audience that family played a big role in her artwork, along with other themes. She said that Appalachian art is different from other kinds of art because it is not easily defined. She said she’d once read an academic work stating that most Appalachian artists deal with four major themes of God, the earth, family love and death. Her initial reaction to the piece was to be a little resentful of these outside people that claimed to understand what her work and larger community was about. But eventually, she had a change of heart. “I kept thinking over my life span, and actually that is what I have done. To look at those images as I have grown both physically and mentally and emotionally and spiritually”
“The art becomes, for me as a springhead artist,” said Pauley, “a very personal adventure. But it’s a personal adventure with personal conversations about… God and my spirituality, about my family and love within the generations of family and about my husband, love of the earth and a conversation with death.” While some might not be familiar with Appalachian art, it’s these themes that make it something that everyone can appreciate.