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Artists Inspired by Appalachia

Members of the MICA community share what sparked their inspiration from one of America’s most forgotten regions

Posted 03.15.12 by MICA Communications

Aaron McIntosh, "Bedroom Buddies," 2010.


Whether the Appalachian region is considered "home sweet home" or other pursuits have led them to the mountains, these MICA staff , faculty, and alumni have taken inspiration from one of America's most forgotten regions.



James Veenstra '87, No Such Thing, woodcut, 2011

James Veenstra '87
Hoffberger School of Painting alumnus James Veenstra '87 counts southwest Virginia's scenic beauty as one of his artistic inspirations. In fact, the New Mexico native describes some of his paintings as "Jappalachian," a mixed media style that takes traditional Japanese painting attributes-such as working in panels-and then adds elements like duct tape around the edges.

A teacher at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, Virginia and the nearby University of Virginia's College at Wise, Veenstra said the term "Jappalachian" was inspired by his students' interest in Japanese pop culture in lieu of the regional culture. "There is a striking similarity of cloud and mist formations in the valleys here to the Japanese ‘floating world' paintings so-with my wry sense of humor-I wanted to combine the two cultures."

Besides teaching, Veenstra has worked as a muralist for the past 18 years, with works at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and Harborplace in Baltimore, plus many other institutions, commercial spaces, and private residences. "Many of the technical skills I learned at MICA and as a commercial muralist, have influenced the way I work," said Veenstra, who added that studying with peers from other backgrounds and countries was one of the highlights of attending MICA.

Rachel Sitkin '02, Logan, WV, gouache on paper, 2009Rachel Sitkin '02
Staff member and MICA alumna Rachel Sitkin '02 is a landscape painter who was inspired to begin exploring industrial, residential, and agricultural geometries after reading Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, a novel that explores the idea of how our planet would respond without the presence of humans. After researching the region, she applied for a small grant to travel to West Virginia to see the mines firsthand.

"With the workers' conditions and lax environmental laws in mind, I expected to be disgusted by what I saw when I made that first visit," Sitkin said. "But the enormity of the mines and the graceful, sweeping curves dug out of the hillside were just so impressive and beautiful as a representation of our ability to manipulate our surroundings. I found that work that addressed this dichotomy added a depth that was lacking in a didactic approach that merely reiterated what we are ‘supposed' to think about environmental devastation."

In her projects Surface Mining and So This is West Virginia, Sitkin depicts the outcome of human presence on the landscape-what she sees as the simultaneous beauty and destruction humans are capable of. Her work has been featured in New American Paintings, City Paper, and Style magazine, among others, and she has shown throughout the mid-Atlantic region as well as in Lima, Peru and Cortona, Italy.

"I learned so much at MICA, most importantly the value of research in creating a new body of work and sparking ideas," said Sitkin, who is now an assistant director of career development at the College. "The technical skills I learned enabled me to clearly and sensitively render these unique landscapes, but more importantly the confi dence and work ethic I acquired during my time as a student prepared me to have a long and versatile career as an artist," she said. "I know that if I have a sincere interest and drive, I can realize most any project I dream of."

Jackson Martin '07, Theshold, burlap, jute twine, grommets, soil, juniper trees, 2009Jackson Martin '07
"Growing up in Appalachia has had everything to do with shaping my work, but I've only come to realize this in the last few years," said Jackson Martin '07, who lived on a commune on the very edge of the region until age 10. The insight he gained as a child is immediately evident in the Rinehart School of Sculpture graduate's installation and sculptural works, which blend the natural elegance of organic materials with the finite modernity of man-made mediums.

Among other accolades, Martin's work was chosen by the Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan for display during ArtPrize 2010, and he was invited to install one of his works in the sculpture park at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. His work was also featured in Sculpture magazine in both 2008 and 2009.

Martin now lives with his wife and daughter in Charleston, South Carolina where he teaches at the College of Charleston and works for the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. He considers the skills he learned at MICA to be the foundation of his ability to be a good teacher and guide. His plans for 2012 include an installation titled Moving Mountains for South Korea's Jara Island International Baggat Art Exhibition as well as several other shows.

"Appalachia will always influence my work because it is at the foundation of who I am, and I will never escape that," he said. "I look forward to my new surroundings, not because I hope to get away from who I am, but rather because I am excited about how it will merge and meld with what I already bring to the table."

Aaron McIntosh, Bedroom Buddies, 2010Aaron McIntosh
"For me, being from Appalachia is defined more by family, culture, and tradition than by geography," said Fiber Department faculty member Aaron McIntosh, who grew up in the Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee. "I come from a family of quilters, tinkerers, hobbyists, and hoarders," he said, adding that his family's Depression-era frugality left them reluctant to throw anything away. "Discarded materials make up a base of my visual vocabulary, including piles of moldy fabric, yellowed newspapers, canning jars, rusty tools, and other relics."

"Often in my work I begin by looking at a traditional art form, object, or artifact from my upbringing or family lore that has stuck with me through the years and then find ways to insert my own contemporary voice," McIntosh said. "For instance, in a recent set of works I took traditional quilt patterns and embedded large images of desirable men into the piecing. This contrast of subjects subverts the surface meanings we bring to quilts-that they're purely decorative, homespun objects of women's adoration."

McIntosh's teaching experience also includes positions at Virginia Commonwealth University and James Madison University. "MICA is the first school I've taught at where I've felt comfortable creating entire projects that revolve around narrative," he said, adding that the final project in his Pattern/Digital Print course involved students pairing up to swap stories, and then translating those stories into patterned cloth and creating an object commemorating their partner's story. "The results were fantastic, the students really enjoyed the exchange, and we all learned something about everyone's background."

Daniel Shea '07, Removing Mountains, 2007Daniel Shea '07
A drive to find the source of the energy he uses is what first led Daniel Shea '07 to the coal mining region of Appalachia. "It's such a bizarre thing, to be so distant from the process behind the light switch," said Shea, who received the 2007 Meyer Photography Traveling Fellowship from MICA and ended up spending three years documenting the coal industry. "Over the years, the project took on a much different scope as the multiple political and cultural circumstances surrounding modern coal mining practices proved much more interesting," he said.

Shea surveyed the social and political institutions surrounding mountaintop removal for his series Removing Mountains (2007) and later went up river to Ohio to complete a follow-up project, titled Plume (2009-10), which focused on the communities that live in the shadow of coal-fired power plants. The resulting photographs have been extensively exhibited nationally and internationally, and featured in publications including City Paper, Vogue (Korea), and Urbanite, as well as online on NPR's The Picture Show and Photography for a Greener Planet. Throughout the project, Shea maintained a more sculpture-based studio practice and photographed editorial content for publications such as TIME, Dwell, Wired, the Wall Street Journal, Popular Mechanics, and many more.

Shea teaches at Columbia College Chicago and is currently enrolled in an interdisciplinary MFA program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he works mostly with sculpture and installation. "I don't know if I'll go back to Appalachia anytime soon, but my new work explores the post-industrial ruin, inspired by years of traveling to the region to deal with a massive entity like the coal industry."


Photo captions: James Veenstra '87, No Such Thing, woodcut, 2011; Rachel Sitkin '02, Logan, WV, gouache on paper, 2009; Jackson Martin '07, Theshold, burlap, jute twine, grommets, soil, juniper trees, 2009; Aaron McIntosh, Bedroom Buddies, 2010; Daniel Shea '07, Removing Mountains, 2007