When you think of classic fine art, works by Picasso, Monet and Dali may spring to mind. Art from Appalachia doesn’t tend to feature much in the mind’s eye. But that might change if you visit the Art Museum of West Virginia University.
More than 100 works from 25 Appalachian artists are on display at the museum. The exhibit was decades in the making and spans everything from sculpture to paintings and baskets.
It is full of color and expression, with a mix of pieces hung on walls and sitting on pedestals. One of those pieces is a sculpture of the steel-driving legend John Henry by an artist who lived and worked in Hinton, W.Va.
“This John Henry piece that’s carved by S.L. Jones is carved from walnut, so it gives it that dark, rich texture. And he’s just painted details of it. So he painted the hair black and the eyes of course white with a black outlines. He has blue eyes and pink lips and you can see how he carved in the teeth. It’s really set back in,” WVU Art Museum curator Robert Bridges said, describing one of the most famous pieces in Ramona Lampell’s collection.
“Ramona Lampell has been collecting Appalachian art since the late seventies and she has a strong interest in this region as well as educating the young children of the state and the region,” he said.
Lampell grew up as a coal miner’s daughter in Hanshew Hollow, near Lewisburg, but left West Virginia four days before her 17th birthday.
“And I went out into the world with my plastic hat box and my new pumps on a Greyhound bus to New York and went to modelling school,” Lampell said.
Ramona found success as a model in New York and met her husband there – Millard Lampell – an Emmy Award-winning screenwriter and playwright. He studied at WVU and first grew to fame in the 1940s as a founding member of the Alamanac Singers, alongside folk legends Pete Seeger and Woody Gutherie.
Millard and Ramona lived a jet-set life, travelling all over the world. Ramona said she always bristled at how the people she met viewed her home state.
“Nobody out there in the outside world would like to recognize us,” she said. “They thought it was ignorant and barefoot and white lightning and you know, whatever.”
Lampell said she was standing in Tiananmen Square, in China, when she came to a sudden realization. “And I thought, ‘You know something, I have to do something for Appalachia, I have to do something for West Virginia. I have to do something for the people.’”
That something was opening galleries in East Hampton and Beverly Hills, California to showcase the best artwork from Appalachia.
Although those galleries were successful, Ramona became ill and was forced to close them. Instead, she started a travelling exhibit of self-taught Appalachian artists’ work in 1979, with the goal of showing it at museums and galleries around the country. She started at a museum in Huntington, W.Va. Some of her Hollywood friends flew out for the opening and word spread. The collection has since been shown in 26 locations around the country.
A Permanent Home
When it came time to find a permanent home for her collection, Ramona said she got a lot of interest from around the U.S.
She chose WVU, though – first because she wanted the collection to stay in Appalachia, but mainly because of the university’s commitment to outreach.
“To teach our children art – from the heart. To teach our children and not tell them this is bad or this is good. Teach them that. Teach them what makes them feel,” she said.
Groups of middle and high school students have been touring Ramona’s collection since it opened in April. The exhibit is called “Independent Vision: Self-Taught Artists from Appalachia.”
Heather Harris, the WVU art museum’s education programs manager, spoke to a group of students from Barrackville Middle School earlier this year during their tour toured the collection.
“So, what does it mean to have an independent vision?” she asked.
One student in the group spoke up: “It means you’ve thought of it in your mind yourself and then you created it and it’s, like, all you.”
“Excellent. You’ve thought of it in your mind yourself, you created it and it’s all you. I love that sentence, it’s all you,” Harris said.
Conner Rush checked out the exhibit with the rest of his classmates.
“It reminded me a lot of the Tim Burton-type art style – of simplistic shapes that make very complex figures.”
Artists represented in the exhibit hail from all over Appalachia – from West Virginia and Kentucky to North Carolina and Alabama. Ramona Lampell developed close friendships with many of them over the years.
Her husband, Millard, died in 1997, but before he did, he helped her produce a table-top book about the artists in the exhibit and later a documentary called “O, Appalachia: Art and Lives of Self-Taught Artists”.
Ramona said those works have made a difference in how other people view Appalachia. It’s helped shed some light on the softer side of the culture and the generosity of the people here.
“They don’t worship things and money. But they worship things from the heart and from the community and from taking care of and loving each other,” she said.
Ramona said she hopes her collection also changes how Appalachians see themselves and the value of their own culture.
Ramona Lampell’s collection will be on display at the Art Museum of WVU until Dec. 15. The documentary “O, Appalachia: Art and Lives of Self-Taught Artists” next airs at 7 p.m. Aug. 30, and again at 9:30 and 2 p.m. Aug. 31, on the West Virginia Channel.