Copious Notes

Affrilachian artists aim to increase awareness with book, exhibit

Asheville, North Carolina-based Affrilacian artist Valeria Watson with her work “Whole Earth Theory Teddy Bears.”
Asheville, North Carolina-based Affrilacian artist Valeria Watson with her work “Whole Earth Theory Teddy Bears.” Morlan Gallery

The Affrilachian Poets could not think of a better way to commemorate the group’s 25th anniversary than releasing a book.

“We wanted to do something big to celebrate a quarter-century of poets of color writing together, being an enclave in a community and calling the Appalachian region a home base,” group member Bianca Spriggs says. “It’s a cultural base, it’s a spiritual base, and we really wanted to celebrate that.

“What better way, as writers, than to put our work together in one place?”

The book, “Black Bone,” will be released this week with a series of events at Transylvania University, including an exhibit of work by Affrilachian artists at the school’s Morlan Gallery. For many people, this might be an introduction to the idea of Affrilachian artists.

“The Affrilachian Poets is a very tight, well-defined group of poets,” Morlan Gallery director Andrea Fisher says. “Affrilachian artists — there really is not a coherent or clearly-defined group of Affrilachian artists.”

We have to have the long view of building this idea of black artists here living in the mountains, just like the white artists, but not necessarily getting included in the major ways that Appalachian artists are promoted.

Valeria Watson, Asheville, North Carolina-based Affrilachian artist

The term Affrilachia was coined by poet Frank X Walker to describe people of African descent from the Appalachian region. Soon after that, he was one of the founders of the Affrilachian Poets, a group that included then-new member of the University of Kentucky faculty Nikky Finney, Crystal Wilkinson and several others.

Over the years, others have been invited to join the group, including Spriggs, who says she was part of a next generation of Affrilachian Poets.

The Affrilachian Artist Project emerged in Pittsburgh in 2012 through an exhibition at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. Its ranks included several names familiar to Central Kentuckians: University of Kentucky graduates Kelly and Kyle Phelps, Louisville’s Ed Hamilton, and former UK basketball player (and 1978 national championship team member)-turned wood carver LaVon Van Williams Jr.

The Appalachians cross 13 states from Mississippi to New York, and North Carolina-based artist Valeria Watson was thrilled with the unity fostered by the Pittsburgh event.

“That was the first time I had been together with a bunch of African-American artists from the Appalachian region,” says Williams, who will have a work in the Transy exhibit.

“That brand that Frank X Walker and the group created is exciting, and it gives us something to get behind when we try to explain and promote our careers. We have to have the long view of building this idea of black artists here living in the mountains, just like the white artists, but not necessarily getting included in the major ways that Appalachian artists are promoted.”

As a teacher and artist, Watson says, she has hit roadblocks trying to get her and her students’ work included in the marketing and exhibition of Appalachian art.

Fisher says, “Everyone wants to own a narrative of what life is like if you live in Appalachia. ... Frank Walker, in coining that term, is also taking ownership of that narrative. Not everyone who lives in this region of the country is playing the hammer dulcimer and making quilts. Maybe there are other cultural influences there as well.”

Fisher says that when she enters the gallery and sees the exhibit, “it is really uplifting.”

We wanted to do something big to celebrate a quarter-century of poets of color writing together, being an enclave in a community and calling the Appalachian region a home base.

Bianca Spriggs, Affrilachian Poet

Like any other culture, the Affrilachian community is not stagnant, and Spriggs says that’s evident in the growth of the Affrilachian Poets.

“I love how diverse it is ... in terms of genres,” Spriggs says of the writing in “Black Bone” and the exhibit. Spriggs and Walker are the two artists who have work featured in both, and the coming weeks will feature a Thursday night reading to launch the book and an artists’ reception for the exhibit. Several artists will return between this week and the close of the exhibit Feb. 14 for gallery talks.

Watson says she hopes awareness will continue to expand.

“It’s another vehicle to promote who we are. We’ve never had an Affrilachian show in Asheville,” she says. “But I think it’s a new vision for the South; a new, inclusive vision of the South. We’re writing this new history of the South rising again, and what is it about? It’s about this inclusiveness. All these people working away, working away, waiting for our moment to shine.

“I am always looking at how can we promote who we are and what we do in a more forward-looking way? And to me, that’s what this is about.”

Follow Rich Copley on Facebook and Twitter, @copiousnotes.

If you go

‘Black Bone’

What: An exhibit of works by Affrilachian artists

When: Through Feb. 14; gallery hours noon-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri. (closed Jan. 16 for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday)

Where: Morlan Gallery in Transylvania University’s Mitchell Fine Arts Center (on the Fourth Street side of campus), 300 N. Broadway

Admission: Free

Phone: 859-233-8142

Online: Transy.edu/about/arts/morlan

Exhibit events

Thurs.: Public reading by the Affrilachian Poets from the group’s new collection, “Black Bone,” followed by release party. 6 p.m., Carrick Theatre, Mitchell Fine Arts Center

▪  Artists opening reception for “Black Bone” exhibit. 7:30-9 p.m., Morlan Gallery.

Fri.: Lexington Gallery Hop, 5-8p.m.

Jan. 24: Tuesday Art Talk with Kiptoo Tarus, 12:30-1:15 p.m.

Jan. 31: Tuesday Art Talk with Natasha Giles, 12:30-1:15 p.m.

Feb. 7: Tuesday Art Talk with Angel Clark, 12:30-1:15 p.m.

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