Amanda Fickey: Artists must carve out role in building local economies

December 8, 2013 

Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, I frequently interacted with basket makers, square dancers, dulcimer players, storytellers and other "traditional" Appalachian artists. Such interactions shaped my sense of place and personal identity.

Over time, my notions of traditional art were challenged by the region's artistic diversity.

While serving as the arts and culture outreach coordinator at The Center for Rural Development, I found eighth-graders sketching Japanese Manga for 4-H art fairs, jewelers drawing upon historical female figures beyond the reach of Appalachia to create innovative designs with complex meanings, weavers producing messenger-style laptop bags and oral historians using collections of lived experiences to write meaningful theatrical plays and social commentary.

As a doctoral student with interests in alternative economic practices and regional development, I spent a great deal of time traveling in Eastern Kentucky and collecting work biographies of craft producers. I quickly learned that diversity exists within distribution practices as well.

Some crafters are self-sufficient entrepreneurs making craft production their primary source of income, while others rely upon craft production to make ends meet and provide additional income to cover household expenses in addition to money earned through retirement or state-based assistance.

Cooperative forms of production and distribution also exist in the region, allowing individuals to collectively open shops and share surplus.

Existing craft production and the arts in general should be included in our efforts to engage in creative place-making and building strong local economies.

Within such efforts, a full range of handmade products, beyond those typically portrayed as traditional, must be valued. We must also strive to create a conversation in which the arts are defined as development "worthy" endeavors for financial and cultural reasons.

We are fortunate to have a number of organizations to help us achieve such goals including the Kentucky Arts Council, Kentucky Craft Marketing Program, Kentucky Historical Society, Kentucky Oral History Commission, Kentucky Craft History and Education Association and the Kentucky Folklife Program, to name a few.

I have presented my work with craft producers in places as far away as Scotland and Switzerland and am proud of the craft producers of my home place as well as organizations which assist with efforts to foster the arts.

Community-based artists and leaders will ultimately need to direct the conversation if we are to pursue meaningful arts-related development strategies. Colleges and universities can play a key role in providing assistance with such efforts.

Schools such as Union College, which recently adopted Appalachian Studies as one of its four areas of emphasis, have supported local folklife festivals for years and will play a key role in fostering an alternative dialogue regarding economic development in the region.

Amanda Fickey is the incoming assistant professor of Intercultural Geography and coordinator of Appalachian Studies at Union College in Barbourville.

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