Morehead space program shows Eastern Kentucky can aim high

July 26, 2014

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Zach Taulbee, 21, of Prestonsburg uses a computerized CNC machine to make an aluminum part for a small “cubesat” satellite. Taulbee is an undergraduate and machine shop manager at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center.  Photo by Tom Eblen

 

MOREHEAD — When people talk about diversifying an Eastern Kentucky economy dominated for a century by coal mining and poverty, they often don’t aim very high: low-wage factories and corporate call centers.

But you can see another possibility at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center. Over the past decade, in partnership with the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. and the University of Kentucky, the center has become a world leader in designing and building small, high-tech spacecraft of the future.

One morning last week, I stood with Kris Kimel, president of KSTC, in the center’s control room as engineers used computers to locate two Morehead-built satellites now circling the Earth. Faculty and students use the control room to download data and upload instructions to the satellites as they pass within range of one of the world’s biggest space-tracking antennas, visible out the window on a nearby hilltop.

“This is a different kind of call center,” Kimel said.

Lexington-based KSTC was created 27 years ago as a non-profit corporation to develop innovation-driven, entrepreneurial companies in Kentucky. A decade ago, Kimel saw an opportunity to grow Morehead’s already strong astrophysics program in a new direction.

He realized that the micro-technology then revolutionizing computers and cellphones would also change spacecraft, especially as NASA was turning over much of its traditional work to private industry. Somebody needed to design and build this new stuff, Kimel thought. Why couldn’t it be done in Kentucky?

“We knew we had really smart people here; we knew we had smart students,” he said. “But we had to be aggressive and ambitious and move quickly.”

140721KySpace-TE0086KSTC set up a lab in California’s Silicon Valley. Benjamin Malphrus, chairman of Morehead’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, and UK engineering professor James Lumpp spent several weeks there in 2005 with about 20 graduate students, learning all they could about new satellite technology.

They collaborated with engineers at NASA and Stanford University. Among them was Robert Twiggs, who helped develop some of the first small satellites, including the CubeSat, which has become an industry standard. Twiggs left Stanford in 2009 and moved to Morehead to teach.

KSTC created Kentucky Space LLC in 2010 as a non-profit corporation to coordinate this university research with industry. Last week, KSTC created Space Tango, a for-profit enterprise, to commercialize the work.

Much of that work involves designing and building CubeSats, which are 10-centimeter cubes packed with off-the-shelf technology and powered by solar panels.

When launched from a rocket or the International Space Station, the satellites take advantage of space’s zero-gravity environment to gather a variety of scientific and commercial research data. Other CubeSat uses range from tracking ships at sea to making high-resolution photographs of Earth for mapping and surveillance. Almost all of Kentucky Space’s hardware and software is designed and built in Kentucky.

“We’re trying to develop a home-grown set of technologies that can integrate into spacecraft,” Malphrus said. “There’s an incredible variety of applications people have thought of, but we don’t even know what all the applications are yet.”

Another Kentucky Space product is the DM processor, whose development was funded by the Defense Department. It is a supercomputer — 20 times more powerful than a desktop computer — that can be built into a small satellite for such applications as on-board processing of high-resolution images. It weighs about 12 ounces.

Kentucky Space, Morehead and UK have had several experiments on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. They also have built two research platforms on the space station and are developing more.

“We’re clearly one of the global leaders in trying to work on and design this next generation of spacecraft,” Kimel said. “Our specialty is building small machines quickly.”

Kentucky Space also recently announced a partnership with FedEx Corp. to develop a Space Solutions division to help global clients safely move payloads between laboratories and launch sites.

Morehead’s space studies program now has about 60 students. This fall, it will start its first master’s degree program, in space systems engineering, with 10 students. While many are from Eastern Kentucky, about one-third of the students are internationals who sought out Morehead, Malphrus said.

140724KySpace0103Kentucky Space and Space Tango are small, with five contract employees and one full-time engineer: Twyman Clements, 27, a UK engineering graduate who grew up on a farm near Bardstown. But Kimel said a half-dozen small companies already have been created out of Kentucky Space’s work, and he said he thinks that is just the beginning.

Spacecraft might seem an unlikely Kentucky product, but it’s not. Aerospace products have become Kentucky’s largest export, edging out motor vehicles and parts, according to the state Cabinet for Economic Development. A diverse array of aerospace exports totaled $5.6 billion last year — 22 percent of the value of all Kentucky exports.

Economic development strategies are changing from the old model of luring corporate branch plants with jobs that are here today and may be gone tomorrow when incentives run out or cheaper labor is found elsewhere. There is more long-lasting economic impact in creating specialized knowledge and an environment where entrepreneurs can use it to create high-value companies.

“This is not just about education; we’re growing a new industry here,” Kimel said. “If we don’t commercialize this technology, these students won’t stay here, because there won’t be opportunities for them.

“I’m not one of these people who thinks everyone should stay in Kentucky; they shouldn’t,” he added. “But for those that have the opportunity and want to, great. And we want people to come here from other places who are interested in this industry. We want them to say this is the place to be.”

Eastern Kentucky has a long way to go in creating the workforce to support many high-tech companies, but Kentucky Space shows what is possible. It isn’t the only answer for the region’s economic challenges, but neither are low-wage factories and call centers.

“Kentucky historically has done an excellent job of putting together other people’s ideas,” Kimel said. “What we need to start doing is building our own ideas, because that’s where the value proposition is. We have to find things that we can do better than anybody else.”

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War on Poverty vets see lessons for today’s Appalachia reformers

May 13, 2014

BEREA — The War on Poverty’s 50th anniversary has reignited debate about its effect on places such as Eastern Kentucky, where President Lyndon B. Johnson famously came to launch the “war” from a Martin County laborer’s front porch.

Like the real wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to declare the War on Poverty a costly failure. America still has plenty of poor people. Eastern Kentucky continues to lag the nation in education, health care and job prospects beyond a boom-and-bust coal industry where little of the wealth ever trickles down.

Declaring failure is easy, but it isn’t accurate. The National Bureau of Economic Research recently published a study that estimated without the government anti-poverty programs since 1967, the nation’s poverty rate would have been 15 percentage points higher in 2012.

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Bob Shaffer of Berea holds a photo of himself with a mule presented to the Republican Governors Conference in Lexington in May 1969 by Wanita Bain, Knox County, Secretary of the Kentucky Poor People’ s Coalition, which he organized and advised. Photos by Tom Eblen

Eastern Kentucky is significantly better off than it was a half-century ago, thanks largely to government-funded infrastructure and assistance. But the question remains: Why wasn’t the War on Poverty more successful?

I recently posed the question to two aging veterans of that war. Their observations offer food for thought as Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers ramp up their Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative, the latest in a long series of efforts to “fix” Eastern Kentucky’s economy.

Robert Shaffer, 84, is retired in Berea. In 1963, he accompanied his father to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was inspired to public service by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.

The next year, after the Economic Opportunity Act was passed, Shaffer began working with poor people in new community action agencies in his native New Jersey. He was recruited to Washington, but wanted to work on the front lines instead. After reading Harry Caudill’s book,Night Comes to the Cumberlands, he told federal officials, “I’ll take the job if you’ll send me to Kentucky.”

Hollis West, 83, is retired in Lexington. A coal miner’s son from southern Illinois, he served in the Air Force and went to college on the G.I. Bill. He worked in community action and job-training agencies in Michigan, New York and West Virginia before coming to Knox County in 1965.

Although the War on Poverty is often portrayed as welfare, Shaffer said, “It wasn’t welfare. It was using social services for economic development and ownership.”

West and Shaffer worked with community groups to start small, worker-owned companies, mostly in furniture, crafts and garment-making and train workers to do those jobs. They said they created hundreds of jobs, although many were later lost as U.S. manufacturing jobs moved overseas.

Their biggest accomplishment was creating Job Start Corp. in 1968. It evolved into Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., which has created more than 18,000 jobs and is recognized as one of the most enduring legacies of the War on Poverty.

“I think we made a significant change in parts of Eastern Kentucky,” West said. “I brought the toughness, and Bob brought the brains.”

Toughness was important. West said he often traveled with an armed bodyguard. A key principle of War on Poverty programs was that poor people should have a voice in decisions that affected them. Local politicians and power brokers saw that as a threat.

Hollis West

Hollis West

“These people weren’t used to other people having money to work with that they didn’t control,” Shaffer said. “It was a pretty hostile environment.”

Shaffer said Gov. Louie B. Nunn stymied War on Poverty efforts and tried to get West fired. Officials resisted giving poor people a voice on the Area Development District boards that allocated federal money. Then, as now, many of those boards were controlled by good ol’ boy networks.

Shaffer and West think the War on Poverty would have had a bigger impact had Richard Nixon, a Republican, not been elected president in 1968 and scuttled his Democratic predecessor’s programs. But the ideas behind the War on Poverty still have value today, they said.

“You’re never going to change the culture of Appalachia until you have a legitimate organization of the poor and their allies,” Shaffer said. “The majority of the people in the mountains are just as capable as anyone else if they have the same education and economic opportunities as anyone else.”

What are the lessons of the War on Poverty? Not that poverty can’t be overcome, or that government efforts won’t work. It is that change will never come from people with a vested interest in the status quo.


If SOAR wants to get off the ground, it needs diverse leadership

March 25, 2014

When Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Hal Rogers launched their Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) project last year, they promised it would be different.

They said SOAR would succeed in bringing economic vitality and diversity to long-troubled Eastern Kentucky, where so many past efforts have failed, because it would seek new ideas and leadership from a broader representation of the region’s people.

So far, it isn’t looking much different. Beshear and Rogers announced a leadership team Monday to guide the SOAR process. The list raised eyebrows not so much because of who was included as who was excluded, which was pretty much everybody outside Eastern Kentucky’s establishment power structure.

“It was a missed opportunity, for sure,” said Justin Maxson, president of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Development, which has been working on innovative economic development strategies in Central Appalachia since 1976.

SOAR_logoMaxson would seem a logical choice for SOAR’s 15-member executive committee or to chair one of its 10 working groups. But the only person with ties to MACED on the SOAR leadership team is Haley McCoy of Jackson Energy, an electric cooperative in Jackson County, who also happens to serve on MACED’s board.

Maxson praised McCoy’s selection, and that of SOAR’s interim executive director, Chuck Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute. “He understands that a region needs a diverse set of economic development strategies,” Maxson said of Fluharty. “But it’s unclear what his role will be.”

If Beshear and Rogers really want new ideas, MACED would be a good place to look. “We’re not afraid to say hard things,” Maxson said. “Most of the solutions the region needs are not going to be easy.”

Excluded from SOAR’s leadership is anyone from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a citizens group with more than 8,000 members statewide. KFTC has been working effectively in coal-dominated Eastern Kentucky since 1981.

“I’m trying to be nice about this, but everything they do, it seems like it’s the same old, same old bunch,” said Carl Shoupe of Harlan, a KFTC executive committee member. “We’re a little bit too progressive for them, maybe.”

In addition to McCoy, SOAR’s executive committee, co-chaired by Beshear and Rogers, includes coal executive Jim Booth of Inez; Pikeville banker Jean Hale; Rodney Hitch of Winchester, economic development manager for East Kentucky Power; entrepreneur Jim Host of Lexington; Tom Hunter of Washington, D.C., retired executive director of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission; Ashland lawyer Kim McCann; and Bob Mitchell of Corbin, Rogers’ former chief of staff and a board member of the Center for Rural Development that Rogers created in Somerset.

Four elected officials are ex-officio members: House Speaker Greg Stumbo of Floyd County; Senate President Robert Stivers of Clay County; and county judge-executives Albey Brock of Bell County and Doc Hardin of Magoffin County.

Former Gov. Paul Patton, 76, of Pikeville, leads the Futures Forum committee “responsible for framing and advancing the long-term vision of the region.”

Among the 10 people appointed to chair working groups is Phil Osborne, a Lexington public relations executive. He chairs the Tourism, Including Natural Resources, Arts & Heritage group. Osborne is a talented marketing executive, but his appointment to head that group sends a strong message of its own.

Osborne was a key leader in Faces of Coal, the coal industry’s multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign to block federal enforcement of environmental laws related to mining. The “war on coal” divisiveness that campaign fueled in the region is one of many obstacles SOAR must overcome.

In an interview, Shoupe of KFTC read key passages from the report by SOAR’s consultant on takeaways from a public forum Dec. 9 in Pikeville, where more than 1,500 people gathered to launch the initiative:

“People appreciate the governor and congressman, but fear entrenched interests will wait them out. … Folks want the dialogue deepened and broadened. … Next generation leadership is essential. The young men and women of this region must feel a stronger sense of SOAR engagement than is currently evident, moving forward. Specific leadership attention to this dimension of governance and program design and delivery is so critical to SOAR’s mission achievement.”

“And what did they do?” Shoupe said of the leadership appointments. “They did everything backwards.”

Maxson and Shoupe said they have been assured that SOAR working groups will listen to everyone’s ideas and perspectives. That’s not good enough, and Beshear and Rogers should know it.

If they want new ideas and the broad public support and credibility SOAR needs to succeed, they must be willing to give some seats at the decision-making table to people besides Eastern Kentucky’s Old Guard. Otherwise, SOAR won’t be any different than the failed efforts of the past.

 


Could Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields learn from Eastern Germany?

January 25, 2014

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An old mine in eastern Germany is used for a film screening.  The metal construction is the retooled front end of an overburden spreader that will function as a pier once the lake in the former mining pit has filled.  Photo by Frank Doering

 

Coal is still mined in this region, but the industry employs only a fraction of the people it did for more than a century. Huge tracts of damaged land must be reclaimed. Leaders struggle to build a new economy, create jobs and keep young people from leaving.

Eastern Kentucky? No, eastern Germany.

Frank Doering, a German-born freelance photographer who has lived in Lexington for nearly two decades, spent three years documenting the land and people of eastern Germany’s Lausitz region.

Except for the flat topography, this area the size of Rhode Island has much in common with the coal-rich mountains of Central Appalachia. And it could offer a few ideas for Kentucky leaders grappling with the same issues, Doering said.

Coalscapes, an exhibit of Doering’s compelling photographs, opened last Thursday at Institute 193, the small, nonprofit gallery at 193 N. Limestone. The free show continues through Feb. 26.

140123FrankDoering0006Doering, 55, grew up in western Germany and earned degrees in German literature, history and philosophy. He came to this country to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he met his wife, Wallis Miller, an architectural historian.

They lived for several years in Europe, where Doering worked as a cognitive science researcher at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Miller was hired in 1994 by the University of Kentucky, where she is an associate professor of architecture.

Doering taught philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cincinnati before quitting in 2000 to pursue photography, a hobby since his youth. He now works on personal projects between commercial commissions.

The Coalscapes project grew out of a 2004 trip to Canada, where the couple visited a huge, open-pit asbestos mine.

“It was visually overwhelming,” Doering said. “I’ve always been interested in the industrial underpinnings of society and the scale on which it happens. This was a chilling landscape because it was all manmade.”

The experience made Doering want to photograph large surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, but the mountain topography and lack of access made that difficult.

When Miller made a research trip to Berlin, Doering discovered the Lausitz region, less than two hours away. It had been an industrial powerhouse of the former East Germany, but state-owned industries there all but collapsed after German reunification in 1990.

Only three of 17 former mines still operate there, he said, but they are vast. More than 136 villages have been obliterated by mining, and more are targeted by Germany’s decades-long mine-planning process.

The region has some of the world’s richest deposits of lignite coal, used primarily to fuel nearby electric power plants. Despite Germany’s ambitious commitments to solar and wind energy, it uses a lot of coal and will for decades.

Still, Lausitz is economically depressed. Since the Berlin Wall fell, many former miners have been employed by the government, which has spent billions to dismantle old industrial plants and reclaim former surface mines.

“Many people there feel they have gotten the short end of the stick since reunification,” Doering said, adding that the region has a stigma within Germany similar to what Appalachia has in this country. “There is a distrust of outsiders.”

But the more trips Doering made to Lausitz, where he rented an apartment, the more locals opened up to him and the better his pictures got. The project was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation in Chicago.

Although initially attracted by the raw landscape, he said, “The project took on much more of a human side. The industrial history and the people’s life stories are unbelievably interesting.”

Doering’s photographs document efforts to restore old mine pits as lakes that will attract tourists. Former mines have even been used for concerts and film screenings, and even public art installations.

There is also a push for “industrial” tourism — with mining companies building observation platforms so visitors can watch the mining process, which Doering said is fascinating because it is done on such a super-human scale. For example, the conveyor assemblies that remove soil above the coal seams are twice as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall.

“People from different backgrounds come and look at stuff they wouldn’t normally look at,” he said. “It starts some unexpected conversations” about balancing energy needs and the environment — conversations that rarely happen in an Appalachia polarized by “war on coal” rhetoric.

One metal fabricating company, which used to make industrial buildings, now makes innovative housing for locals and vacation rentals. It reminds Doering of the UK College of Design’s efforts to retool idled houseboat factories near Somerset to make energy-efficient modular housing.

Doering said his photos have been used in Germany to both document and promote the sparsely populated region, where leaders realize they must rebuild to high standards. “It had better be cutting-edge stuff, because that’s the only way to attract outsiders who might pour some money into the area,” he said.

Doering said he doesn’t know enough about Eastern Kentucky to say what lessons its leaders might learn from Germany. But he said the keys to progress there have been locals and outsiders overcoming traditional fault lines to find creative solutions.

“They have forged some odd alliances,” he said. “They have found a way to work together and get stuff done.”

 

If you go

  • What: Coalscapes, a photography exhibit
  • Where: Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone.
  • When: Now until Feb. 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and by appointment. Admission is free.
  • More information: Institute193.org, Coalscapes.com, Doeringphoto.com
Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/01/25/3052745/tom-eblen-eastern-germany-eastern.html#storylink=cpy

 

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Berea College archive preserves the sounds of Appalachia

December 29, 2013

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Renfro Valley radio show cast at the old barn stage in the early 1950s. Left to right are Ray Sosbyee, Linda Lou Martin, Claude Sweet and Glenn Pennington. Photo courtesy Berea College Special Collections and Archives.

 

BEREA — As soon as sound recording equipment became small enough to fit in a car trunk in the 1950s, academics began racing around the mountains, trying to preserve the music and stories of a disappearing Appalachian culture.

Now archivists at Berea College are in another race against time: to preserve those old recordings for the 21st century and beyond and make them more widely available through the Internet.

Over the past eight years, sound archivists John Bondurant and Harry Rice have digitized more than 3,000 hours of recordings. Bondurant figures they are about halfway through the archives’ current holdings.

Some of that material, as well as a more limited collection of digitized video and photos, can be seen and heard on the archives’ website:Libraryguides.berea.edu/soundarchivesguide.

131120Eblen-Berea0001The collection includes an impressive array of traditional Appalachian music, oral-history interviews, ballads, folk tales, old radio programs and black and white religious music. Plus, there are recordings of events, speakers and performances at the college going back to at least the 1960s.

Many of the recordings came from a collection started by Loyal Jones, who from 1970-1993 headed the college’s Appalachia Center, which is now named for him. But, over the years, many more collections have been donated to the college, providing a rich tapestry of authentic, one-of-a-kind sound.

The Appalachian music archives includes collections of fiddle, banjo and dulcimer tunes, band performances and recordings of Berea’s annual Celebration of Traditional Music, which began in 1974. Several collections focus on religious music, from Old Regular Baptist hymns to gospel music radio performances and Sacred Harp singing in rural black churches.

The archives also include broadcasts of John Lair’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance and related radio programs, which were broadcast between the late 1930s and the late 1950s on Cincinnati’s WLW-AM, Louisville’s WHAS-AM and the CBS Network. Although less famous than the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM-AM, the shows had a huge impact on the development of country music.

131120Eblen-Berea0002Much of the radio collection was donated to Berea in the 1980s, when WHAS changed ownership and moved studios after the breakup of the Bingham family’s Louisville media empire.

“They called here and offered us these, implying that if we didn’t take them they would be thrown out,” Bondurant said. That archives included 1,500 16-inch transcription disc from the 1930s through the 1950s that were meant for short-term rebroadcast or advertiser verification.

“Like most media, it was never intended to be saved,” Bondurant said, so the transcription discs have been a challenge to copy before they disintegrate. “For most of these old programs, these are the only copies that exist.”

Those discs included episodes of Circle Star Ranch, a children’s radio show from the 1940s that featured a cowboy singer and the predecessor of WHAS-TV’s famous kids’ show, T-Bar-V Ranch, which had a loyal following among Louisville baby boomers.

Bondurant works in a tiny studio with a reel-to-reel tape player and a specially a specially modified turntable with a variety of sizes of phonograph styluses. Both are hooked up to a computer with digital sound software.

“Some of these materials, you have one shot; we play it to copy it and it should never be played again,” he said. “I’m trying to get the cleanest signal so it sounds like the original document.”

Bondurant, an amateur guitar player, worked in music licensing for Broadcast Music Inc., better known as BMI, in Nashville before earning a master’s degree in library science at the University of Kentucky.

Bondurant said the digital technology he uses to copy archival recordings has improved dramatically since he joined Berea College in 2005. And, unlike other preservation methods, digital copying makes it safe and easy to share material with researchers and other interested listeners more widely.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that digital technology is changing so fast, it will be a constant challenge to keep material preserved and accessible.

“The digital life cycle is a lot shorter than the analog life cycle,” Bondurant said. “We can still play recordings that are century old easier than we can play some DAT (digital audio tape) recordings from the 1990s that have essentially erased themselves.”

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Will SOAR be a new beginning, or just more talk about Appalachia?

December 8, 2013

You have to wonder: Will the Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit Monday in Pikeville be the start of something big, or just another feel-good effort that doesn’t amount to much?

More than 1,500 people have registered to attend the conference called by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who said they wanted ideas from throughout Eastern Kentucky for strategies to diversify the region’s economy.

There have been dozens of conferences on this topic over the years, but this one offers some hopeful signs. For one thing, it is the first high-level, bipartisan effort. Politicians who usually dance to the tune of the all-powerful coal industry are actually asking other people what they think.

But once the talking is over and the reports are written, will leadership, public investment and private capital get behind the good ideas? Will anything really change?

soarlogoCreating a sustainable, broadly prosperous economy in a region that has never really had one will be a monumental challenge.

Eastern Kentucky has never lacked for intelligent, hard-working people. But it has been handicapped by isolation, lack of education and opportunity, corrupt politics and powerful economic forces beyond its borders and control.

Since the late 1800s, the region has gone from subsistence farming to large-scale timber extraction to increasingly destructive methods of coal mining. The result has been a classic colonial economy, where most of the wealth flowed out of the region, or to a small local elite, while a large underclass survived on welfare and charity.

This cycle of poverty and dependence has led to hopelessness, drug abuse and other social problems, as was outlined in the most recent chapters of the excellent series Fifty Years of Night, by Herald-Leader reporters John Cheves and Bill Estep.

Can a new and different chapter be written for Eastern Kentucky?

In calling this summit, Beshear and Rogers cited the loss of more than 6,000 coal jobs over the past two years. But they wisely avoided their usual “war on coal” rhetoric, which blames the industry’s problems on long-overdue environmental regulation and enforcement.

The main reasons for declining coal production are cheaper Western coal and even cheaper natural gas. Besides, coal employment in Eastern Kentucky has been falling for three decades, from a high of 37,505 in 1981, primarily because of industry mechanization and a shift from deep to surface mining.

Eastern Kentucky’s current coal employment is 7,951, the lowest in generations, and that is unlikely to improve much. Coal will continue to be a presence. But because the large, easy-to-mine reserves are gone, most of the coal jobs will never return.

There are no “magic bullet” solutions to replacing Eastern Kentucky’s coal-based economy. (Not that coal itself was ever a magic bullet. Even when coal employment and production were at their peaks, the coal counties were still among the nation’s poorest.)

The citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has some good ideas about what a new Eastern Kentucky economy should aspire to. Those principles would be a good starting point for Monday’s conversations.

KFTC’s vision calls for a “just” transition that promotes “innovation, self-reliance and broadly held local wealth.” It urges more citizen participation in decision-making, and calls for restoration and protection of the environment and public health. It also urges leaders to “consider the effects of decisions on future generations.”

Tourism and outdoor recreation are often mentioned as potential economic opportunities, but that will require cleaning up some of strip mining’s environmental damage. Kentucky should lobby for money to do that work from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, which could keep thousands of former coal miners employed for years.

Home-grown entrepreneurship and technology jobs are other often-mentioned possibilities to building Eastern Kentucky’s middle class, but they will require serious state investments in education and infrastructure to attract private capital. Kentucky’s tax-phobic politicians and the citizens who elect them have never been willing to make such serious investment, and that must change if anything else is to.

Shaping a new Eastern Kentucky economy will require a lot of creativity, commitment and hard work, not to mention leadership, inclusion and accountability.

There will be many obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is cynicism. It will be a long process. But Monday in Pikeville is as good a time and place to start as any.


UK historian Ron Eller leaves big shoes to fill; who will?

November 13, 2013

Ronald Eller, a University of Kentucky history professor and outstanding writer who has focused on Appalachia, was honored last Friday as he donated his papers to UK Special Collections in preparation for his retirement at the end of the year.

ellerEller came to UK in 1985, succeeding Harry Caudill, the Eastern Kentucky lawyer whose 1962 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, focused national attention on the exploitation of Appalachia. Eller picked up where Caudill left off, analyzing the forces that have shaped Appalachia’s evolution.

Eller’s 1982 book, Miners, Mill hands and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A 2008 book, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, is the best book I know of about the region’s modern history.

No word yet on the Appalachian scholar UK will hire to succeed Eller in the history department, but he or she had better be good. We cannot really understand modern Kentucky without understanding Appalachian history.


Thirty years after closing, Hazel Green Academy lives on in memory

August 13, 2013

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More than 100 people attended Hazel Green Academy’s annual reunion in the Wolfe County town of Hazel Green. They signed in by decade on an old classroom chalkboard. The boarding school for Eastern Kentucky children closed 30 years ago. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

HAZEL GREEN — As we drove into this Wolfe County town of 228 people, Bob Tutt asked me to pull the car into a hillside cemetery so he could find Henry Stovall’s grave.

Beside the headstone stood a granite monument that former students had erected to the memory of the longtime director of Hazel Green Academy.

“He had a big influence on my life,” Tutt said of the tall, tough Mississippian who instilled character and discipline in students without ever raising his voice.

“The first time you got in trouble, you had to talk to Mr. Stovall.” said Tutt, a student in the early 1940s. “I had to talk to him one time, and if there had been a crawdad hole I would have gone in it. I’ve never forgotten it, and I’m almost 85.”

At the boarding school’s old campus Saturday, we found more than 100 other former students. Many had their own stories of long-ago teachers, mentors, life lessons and life-changing experiences.

Founded in 1880 by local residents, Hazel Green Academy was one of the few comprehensive schools available to young men and women in this part of Eastern Kentucky’s mountains.

The Disciples of Christ adopted the school in 1886 and operated it as a mission, with tuition and boarding costs offset by outside donations and work scholarships for students. The academy’s motto was, “Where we find a path or make one.”

When they weren’t in the classroom building or dormitories, or studying industrial arts or home economics, Hazel Green’s boys and girls worked on the school farm, in the dairy and around campus. There were basketball and baseball teams, and folk dancing was a popular pastime.

As public schools were established in the area, the academy stopped teaching the first six grades in 1929. But under Stovall’s leadership in the 1930s and 1940s, course offerings and community services grew.

The school had its own water and power plants, which supplied electricity to the town into the 1930s. At various times, Hazel Green Academy also provided the community with a library and a small hospital. When World War II ended, the school’s farm donated more than six tons of food for European relief.

“It was the lifeblood of Hazel Green,” said Ralph Locker, 93, who moved to the town and opened a store after serving in the war under Gen. George S. Patton.

But the academy’s role declined as roads and public schools improved. In 1965, grades 7 and 8 were discontinued. The high school closed after the class of 1983 graduated.

Over the years, many students went on to college, especially Berea College, which was similarly designed to educate the children of mountain families of modest means. Hazel Green produced many teachers, doctors and community leaders.

The Bickers brothers — Don in South Carolina, Bob in Idaho and Jerry in Winchester — came back to the reunion because Hazel Green Academy was much more than a school to them.

“We came from a broken home in Owenton, and this became our home,” said Bob Bickers, a retired AT&T technician. “Three meals a day, a bed and friends. It turned our lives around. We all went on to make something of ourselves.”

Since the academy closed, the denomination and Hazel Green Christian Church have managed the campus, which is now used for conferences and events. The buildings had fallen into disrepair over the years, and that bothered Rita Rogers, whose husband, Roy, attended the academy.

“Even though I went to the rival high school,” she said, “I recognized what a special place this is.”

Rogers helped organize an alumni effort to restore the main classroom building. Now, each room has been “adopted” by groups of alumni, cleaned and decorated with old school memorabilia. She and others eventually hope to restore other campus buildings.

“Hazel Green Academy was just a special thing to be a part of,” said Scott Lockard, who graduated in the last class in 1983 and is now Clark County’s public health director. “It was so much more than a place to fill your mind. My spirit was filled here, too.”

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How to improve Appalachia? Create more local entrepreneurs

July 21, 2013

Thomas F. Miller thinks he knows how to make Eastern Kentucky’s economy more vibrant, diverse and sustainable: create more entrepreneurs. How could that be done? Well, he has some ideas about that, too.

Miller, 67, has been thinking about these issues since 1971, when he left a Big Eight accounting firm to move to Eastern Kentucky and work for what is now Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp.

From 1973 to 1981, Miller was president of Kentucky Highlands, one of the most successful initiatives to come out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty.” Miller later worked in economic and community development in San Francisco, his native Tennessee and for the Ford Foundation in New York and Africa.

130717TomMiller0010Miller recently sent me a report that summarizes his four decades of thinking about Eastern Kentucky’s economic challenges. We met last week in Berea, where he has lived since retirement, to talk more about it.

“I can’t let go of the big conclusions I’ve come to about the development challenges around here,” Miller said.

Eastern Kentucky’s economy has been dominated for more than a century by extractive industries — coal, timber, oil and gas. Production costs were kept low and most profits went elsewhere.

Those dominant industries and geographic isolation limited diversification and civic engagement. Eastern Kentucky’s economy became almost solely dependent on the boom-and-bust coal industry — and government transfer payments.

Efforts to bring industry from elsewhere into Appalachia has had limited success for a variety of reasons, and most of those jobs have paid low wages. Many of Appalachia’s talented and ambitious entrepreneurs have left for better opportunities elsewhere.

You can’t just throw money at the problems, Miller said. That’s why the billions of public and private dollars that have gone to Appalachia in the past half-century haven’t solved the problems. More important than having capital, he said, is having people who know how to successfully put capital to work.

Kentucky Highlands and other similar organizations in Central Appalachia have done some good work in this area. But they simply haven’t been big enough to make the impact that is needed, he said.

Miller proposes creating an Eastern Kentucky Venture Fund, led by a half dozen or so senior Kentucky business people with exceptional talents. They would need to raise at least $250 million in public and private equity and debt to create and nurture entrepreneurs and to invest in new businesses, often through existing organizations such as Kentucky Highlands.

And an important focus would need to be creating businesses that bring new money into the region by producing products sold elsewhere.

“While government has a role to play, this kind of development strategy can’t be led by government,” Miller said. “Government is about trying to please a lot of constituencies. Private investment is about saying ‘no’ 99 percent of the time.”

Because this kind of fund would be more about regional development than quick profits, it would be hard to attract most private equity. But, with the right kind of leadership and vision, Miller thinks, a number of big foundations would be willing to invest. So would regional corporations and utilities that stand to benefit from an improving Eastern Kentucky economy.

“We must make the most of the entrepreneurs we have, bring more of them into the region and grow them at home,” Miller said in his report.

The best Eastern Kentucky entrepreneurs are likely to be homegrown ones — people who have a passion for the region and don’t want to live anywhere else, he said.

This effort would require culture change in a region where work has often meant working for someone else. And it would require extensive training in economics, entrepreneurship and business skills, from elementary school through college, both in the classroom and through extracurricular activities such as Junior Achievement.

“You would try to do everything you can do to increase people’s ability to think like entrepreneurs and, more importantly, give them opportunities to practice,” Miller said.

“There are no silver bullets,” he said. “It’s probably a 50-year strategy, at best, and the first 10 years aren’t going to be pretty. But we know that this investment strategy works in Eastern Kentucky, that betting on the people here is the thing to do.”


Becoming a Kentucky writer, by way of New Jersey and New York

January 23, 2013

Writer Joseph Anthony. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

What, exactly, is a Kentucky writer? Is it a writer from Kentucky? One who lives or has lived in Kentucky? Writes about Kentucky?

That idea has been discussed a lot since the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning began a project last year to celebrate Kentucky writers of the past and present, and to promote Lexington as the “literary capital of mid-America.” On Thursday, the center will name the first six inductees into its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

With all of this in mind, I went to talk with a talented Kentucky writer who took a roundabout journey to get here.

Joseph G. Anthony was born in New Jersey and raised “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Camden, which seemed to him like a no-man’s land between New York and Philadelphia.

Anthony said he lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a dozen years, managing an off-track betting parlor and teaching English part-time at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University.

Then, at age 33, he was offered a teaching job at Hazard Community College in 1980.

“I knew nothing about Kentucky, except the Derby happened here,” he said with a laugh. “I found it to be a great adventure.”

After five years in Hazard, Anthony moved to the humanities faculty of Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington.

As he nears retirement, Anthony, 66, has had a burst of literary output in the past year: a novel,Pickering’s Mountain, set in Eastern Kentucky, and a short-story collection, Bluegrass Funeral, set in Central Kentucky.

With those two books and his first novel, Peril, Kentucky, published in 2005, Anthony considers himself a Kentucky writer. (He also published a short-story collection in 2009,Camden Blues, set in New Jersey and New York.)

“I’ve really bonded with Kentucky,” he said. “I get angry at it, like you only can at a relative. I really love so many things about it. We’re so lucky here in so many ways. Kentuckians understand their identity. I come from Jersey, where we didn’t.”

Anthony enjoys seeing Kentuckians meet for the first time and do what he calls “the county dance:” figuring out where each is from and what connections they might have. “We never did the county dance in New Jersey,” he said.

The states do have similarities, he said. People in both states tend to feel outside the American mainstream. And both are often stereotyped by outsiders.

Insiders and outsiders are a recurrent theme in Anthony’s fiction. He doesn’t avoid stereotypes, but he tries to play off them to show readers that things are always more complicated than they seem.

This is particularly true in Pickering’s Mountain, in which a young New Yorker comes to a small Eastern Kentucky town to take a job as a newspaper reporter.

Sam Weatherby and his family are thrown into complicated situations involving families, religion and coal mining. The outcomes are anything but predictable.

“Things get complicated, because there’s real people involved, real dilemmas,” he said. “Eastern Kentucky is a very complicated place. I wanted to write about the complexity of it.”

Anthony faced the same challenge for Bluegrass Funeral, whose stories are set in Lexington and a fictional Godard County. The stories include explorations of the region’s complicated history with race and class.

Anthony will be reading from and signing Bluegrass Funeral at 6 p.m. Friday at Wild Fig Bookstore, 1439 Leestown Road, and at noon Jan. 30 in the lobby of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, 470 Cooper Drive.

The Bluegrass Funeral stories led Anthony to his next project, which he says will be either a collection of short stories or a novel set in Lexington during the civil rights era, between the 1940s and the 1960s. He has been preparing to write by researching that era and listening to oral history interviews.

“I want it to be fiction,” he said. “I really feel fiction can tell a story in a way journalism can’t or essays can’t.”

After three Kentucky books, Anthony said, he sometimes feels as if he’s just getting started as a Kentucky writer. There is so much interesting material to explore.

“We’re called a border state,” he said. “I don’t think anybody else is like us. We’re not the border. We’re it.”


New Hindman Settlement School director hopes to build on legacy

January 13, 2013

Brent Hutchinson is the new director of the 110-year-old Hindman Settlement School. Symbolizing the school’s past and present are the circa 1913 log cabin, right, that houses the school’s offices, and the Knott County Opportunity Center, left, on the school’s campus at the forks of Troublesome Creek. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

HINDMAN — Brent Hutchinson knew he had big shoes to fill. And if he had any doubt, more than 100 people have told him so since he arrived in October to become director of Hindman Settlement School.

Hutchinson succeeded Mike Mullins, 63, who died unexpectedly last February. During 34 years as director, Mullins transformed the 110-year-old school to keep its mission relevant to changing needs.

The institution now provides arts programming and dyslexia services to schools in Knott and some surrounding counties. It also runs two acclaimed summer programs: the Appalachian Writers Workshop and Appalachian Family Folk Week.

Mullins left things in good shape, financially and otherwise. How does Hutchinson plan to build on that success? He isn’t sure yet, but he plans to do a lot of listening to the scores of people throughout the region who will help him figure it out.

“We have a lot of flexibility,” Hutchinson said of the school. “I want to figure out what people here really need more than asserting areas of interest to me.”

Hutchinson, 38, has the benefit of coming in as both an outsider and an insider.

His mother was born in Germany, but she moved here when her mother married an American soldier from Knott County. Displaced by the Carr Creek Lake project in the 1970s, the family moved to Whitesburg. He was raised in Louisa, graduating as valedictorian of Lawrence County High School in 1992.

“I grew up driving past the settlement school and never dreamed I would end up here at this point in my life,” said Hutchinson, whose twin brother, Brian, is athletic director at Morehead State University.

Hutchinson and his wife, Gwen, who is from Floyd County, graduated from Morehead State. They moved to Lexington in 1997. She earned a master’s in social work at the University of Kentucky and led an Alzheimer’s day care program. He earned a master’s in family studies at UK and worked in ministry and counseling.

They left in 2001 for Nashville, where she did social work and he was in ministry, most recently at Rolling Hills Community Church in Franklin. They have two sons: Adam, 9, and Miles, 5.

“I think it’s difficult for a lot of people who leave Eastern Kentucky to get it out of their blood,” said Hutchinson, who is finishing a doctorate in leadership studies from Dallas Baptist University in Texas. “We always thought we would come back. We didn’t expect it to be this soon.”

Hindman Settlement School was founded in 1902 along the banks of Troublesome Creek by two progressive women from Central Kentucky. Its original mission was to provide basic education and health services to people in this then-remote corner of the mountains, but its role has changed as the area has developed.

“Being a part of social change is something that’s always been important to me,” Hutchinson said. “I knew Hindman Settlement School was a place that did that.”

Glenn Leveridge, a Lexington banker and chairman of the school’s board, said Hutchinson stood out among 34 candidates as being well-suited to both carry out the school’s missions and figure out new ones in the future.

“Every spoke of the wheel was tight,” he said of Hutchinson’s background and qualifications. “But the thing that really sent me over the moon was when he called toward the end of the process and asked, ‘Am I going to be able to dream?’”

Hutchinson eventually wants the school to broaden its scope throughout Eastern Kentucky by partnering with other organizations to enhance education, arts and heritage programs. Rather than just try to help solve problems, he wants the school to be a positive force in shaping Appalachian culture.

More immediately, Hutchinson is looking forward this summer to Appalachian Family Folk Week and the Appalachian Writers Workshop. The workshop has become famous because of the participation of such literary icons as Harriette Arnow and James Still, who worked at the school for many years.

Kentucky-born author Barbara Kingsolver will be the featured lecturer at this year’s workshop. And, despite her recently announced move from UK to South Carolina to be closer to aging parents, award-winning poet Nikky Finney will be back at Hindman, Hutchinson said. This will be the third year she has led a special workshop for young Kentucky writers.

“I was told by people that there’s some magic that happens on the banks of Troublesome Creek,” Hutchinson said. “The more I’m here, the more I realize that people really do believe that.”

 


A glimpse behind Dollmaker author’s creativity

November 8, 2011

It is tempting to assume that great authors just sit down and write great books. The writing is so good, they make it look easy.

“Mrs. Arnow writes so well, with so little apparent effort, that critical examination seems almost irrelevant,” author Joyce Carol Oates once wrote about Harriette Simpson Arnow’s most famous novel, The Dollmaker. “It is a tribute to her talent that one is convinced, partway through the book, that it is a masterpiece.”

But nothing came easy to Arnow (1908-1986), a native of Appalachian Kentucky whose five novels, three non-fiction books and many short stories earned her acclaim as one of the 20th century’s great American writers.

Arnow was a tiny, tough woman whose prolific literary output was a testament to determination. She overcame many obstacles, from economic hardship and the sexism of her era to the everyday distractions of being a wife and mother.

Evidence of Arnow’s struggles will be on display soon at the University of Kentucky’s Margaret I. King Library. The exhibit marks the completion of a 20-year effort by UK’s Special Collections Division to sort, catalog and, in some cases, make sense of 145 boxes of Arnow’s personal papers.

The exhibit opens with a program that includes remarks by Appalachian Journal editor Sandy Ballard, who is writing a biography of Arnow, and Gurney Norman, a UK English professor and former Kentucky poet laureate.

Later in life, Arnow became an encouraging but demanding teacher at writing workshops in Murray and Hindman, where Norman became her friend. “She could be very intimidating,” he said. “She was not, shall we say, a warm and fuzzy personality, but she was very generous.”

Arnow’s books are not warm and fuzzy, either: most are gritty tragedies about mountain people struggling against their circumstances. Don’t expect happy endings. In The Dollmaker, Gertie Nevels leaves her beloved Kentucky farm to follow her husband to a factory job in Detroit. They find only hardship and despair.

Still, in a 1979 Kentucky Educational Television documentary, Arnow insisted to interviewer Al Smith that she was not a pessimist. “If I were a pessimist,” she said, “I would have never have tried to write, because writing is such a gamble.”

The UK exhibit, organized by graduate student Amber Surface, uses notebooks, drafts and letters related to Arnow’s novel Hunter’s Horn to show her creative process. Memorabilia from The Dollmaker will be used to show how that novel was prepared for publication and became a best seller.

Arnow’s papers include the dime-store composition books she used to write first drafts in barely legible pencil scrawl, and her intense correspondence with editors. She made notes on both sides of everything. Her manuscripts show exhaustive rewriting and rearranging — cut-and-pasted paragraphs with editing marks everywhere. Her children drew pictures on some manuscripts.

Norman said Arnow’s jumbled papers could never have been made useful to scholars without 20 years of hard work by Kate Black, curator of UK’s Appalachia collection, and a parade of graduate students.

“It was as if someone had taken all of these papers and thrown them up in the air,” Black said. “We did a lot of piecing together.”

Black also found a carefully arranged scrapbook of reviews, letters and memorabilia related to publication of The Dollmaker in 1954. She said a family member must have put it together; it was too organized to have been Arnow’s work.

The collection includes Arnow’s baby shoe, diplomas, fan mail and an odd assortment of news clippings, saved perhaps as inspiration for future stories. Arnow also kept her membership materials from the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Civil Liberties Union. “She was a complicated woman,” Black said.

The papers offer a glimpse into the intense ambition and conflicted emotions of this early feminist — who did not call herself a feminist. Writing masterpieces while caring for husband Harold, a newspaper reporter, daughter Marcella and son Thomas made for a demanding life.

“I may be more housewife than writer,” Arnow told Smith in their 1979 interview.

On the back of one page of manuscript, UK archivists found this scribbled note from her husband: Harriette — The burners on stove do not work. The oven does work: Can you cook a bite in it? H.

If you go

An exhibit and program marking the opening of the papers of Harriette Simpson Arnow

When: 4 p.m. Nov. 17

Where: The Great Hall, Margaret I. King Building, University of Kentucky

Click here for more information.

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A new voice in Kentucky public policy debates

January 11, 2011

A new think tank has been created to study Kentucky issues and analyze the public policies being developed to address them.

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy is a project of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, which has a long track record of producing quality research on issues affecting Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia. The center’s Web site is at: www.kypolicy.org.

The center’s first report looks at how $3.4 billion in federal stimulus money shored up Kentucky’s budget — and how the state will be affected now that stimulus spending is coming to an end.

“Kentucky relied heavily on Recovery Act dollars to plug holes in the 2009-2010 state budget and to craft a balanced budget in 2011-2012,” the center’s director, Jason Bailey, said in a news release about the report.  “Those funds dry up this year, however, at a time when the economy remains in a deep hole.”

Click here to download the report. You can sign up to receive future updates at the Center’s Web site.

Expect the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy to provide some progressive balance to the conservative Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, based in Bowling Green.


Website focuses on Appalachia’s economic future

June 7, 2010

Apologists for mountaintop removal and other destructive forms of surface mining often rationalize it by saying that digging coal by any means is essential to Eastern Kentucky’s economy, even as the number of mining jobs steadily declines.

A new Web site hopes to foster more public discussion about creating a sustainable, healthy and environmentally friendly economy for Central Appalachia.

The Web site, www.appalachiantransition.net, was created by the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development and the social-justice group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

“We believe the old extraction-based mono-economy has produced poor results and offers a very limited future,” said Jason Bailey, MACED’s research and policy director. Besides, coal reserves are dwindling.

“We know that transitioning to a new economy in Central Appalachia will not be easy or quick,” Bailey said. “But we believe with a clear vision and a steady approach, together we can move to a new economy that sustains the people and the land.”


Artist who usually helps others shows his own work

January 17, 2010

Bruce Burris is best known in Lexington for helping other people create art — and for pushing the boundaries of what art is and who artists are.

He directs (with Crystal Bader) the Latitude Artist Community on Saunier Street, which for nearly a decade has helped people with disabilities express themselves through visual art. Latitude artists’ work has been displayed at galleries in New York and Paris, France.

Burris started ELandF Gallery, a “small-projects accelerator” for art in public spaces. It has sent poets to read in nursing homes and on LexTran buses. And it has paid small honoraria to people who wrote winning essays about why they wanted to watch clouds or read a book while sitting in a streetside parking space.

At the height of the controversy over Dudley Webb’s now-stalled CentrePointe development, Burris paid performance artists to publicly “mourn” the demolition of the block’s old buildings and to walk Main Street as “town criers,” giving dramatic readings of a defensive speech that Webb made to the Urban County Council.

Away from Lexington, Burris has gained notoriety for his own art. He has had solo exhibitions in San Francisco, Philadelphia and cities in California and Michigan, but never in Lexington. Until now.

“Nobody really knows about that aspect of his personality,” said Phillip March Jones, who organized Burris’ first solo show in a decade, which opened Thursday at Institute 193 and continues through Feb. 20 (Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.).

Jones opened Institute 193 last fall at 193 North Limestone. It is a little gallery with big ambitions: to showcase the work of this region’s unsung contemporary artists.

“Everything with Bruce is about Latitude or ELandF, but it’s never about him. … His own art never gets presented,” Jones said. “And, for me, it’s some of the most interesting stuff he does.”

The show is called We Will Someday, Someday We Will. The name was inspired by this season of New Year’s resolutions, when we all promise to become better people.

Burris’ sculptures, drawings, paintings and installation pieces use humor, irony and parody to comment on and raise questions about community dynamics and cultural stereotypes. He wants his art to promote activism and awareness of regional issues including poverty and mountaintop-removal coal mining. His art isn’t intended as decoration; he wants it to make viewers think.

One piece, Welcome to Lonely Mountain Community Center, is a bulletin board filled with fictional news and notices that speak to issues, concerns and cultural conflicts in contemporary small-town Appalachia.

Burris is as much a storyteller as an artist. He densely weaves words and messages into his paintings and drawings, some of which are reminiscent of funk-art album covers from the 1970s.

“What really carries the work is this text,” Jones said. “He’s dealing with the very problems we’re dealing with every day. These are serious issues, but he deals with them in a visually lighthearted way to get people into them.”

I met Burris for lunch at Third Street Stuff on a cold, snowy day. The first thing he wanted to do, before talking about himself, was to show off drawings and paintings by Latitude artists on the wall behind our table.

Burris, 54, grew up in Wilmington, Del., seeing art in everyday life. His mother was constantly taking him to museums and cultural events, “which, of course, I didn’t appreciate at the time,” he says.

He also was influenced by a boyhood neighbor, the famous artist and illustrator Frank Schoonover, who was well into his 80s but still painting and teaching. “He had an open studio where neighborhood kids could wander in,” Burris said.

“I grew up feeling like the visual arts were an approachable thing,” said Burris, who studied at San Francisco Art Institute. “But the better way for me to make art is not in an isolated environment. Collaboration and community and support; it’s a very natural thing for me.”

That belief, and a public service ethic picked up while attending Quaker schools, led him to a career that has combined art, community and social work — working with homeless and abused children in San Francisco and with disabled artists in Kentucky.

Burris moved to Lexington 16 years ago with his wife, Robynn Pease, who came to the University of Kentucky to earn a doctorate. She is now UK’s director of work life, teaches sociology and social work, and was elected last year as staff representative on the university board of trustees. They live near Southland Drive.

Originally, Burris thought he would be here three or four years then move back to San Francisco. “So I stored all my unimportant stuff in a friend’s garage,” he said. “I hope he’s had a big yard sale by now.”

After his last solo show a decade ago at a major San Francisco gallery, Burris said he ran out of steam and stopped creating work for several years. He resumed only recently, sparked by concern about mountaintop-removal mining and other issues.

Burris’ art, like the projects he sponsors through ELandF, are reactions to what he sees around him.

“I like all the projects I’ve done, but I know in my heart that they’re not innovative enough,” he said. “I don’t always feel like taking risks in this environment. You won’t see people taking these risks here; it’s a small town. But we should take risks.”

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Television highlights Kentucky, for good and ill

February 24, 2009

This seems to be Kentucky month on the small screen. If you didn’t like Diane Sawyer’s view, KET has something completely different.

Our Kentucky, an hour-long video valentine to the state’s scenic beauty, debuts on KET1 Saturday at 8 p.m. as part of the network’s annual on-air fundraiser. In tone and content, it couldn’t be more different from Sawyer’s report on systemic poverty in Appalachia for ABC’s news magazine 20/20.

It’s coincidence that these TV programs came out within two weeks of each other. In many ways, they represent the two sides of Kentucky’s coin — both begging us to scratch below the surface.

In Our Kentucky, KET’s videographers visited Kentucky’s most beautiful places, bathed in golden sunlight and rendered in high-definition splendor. We see panorama after panorama, set to majestic music and evocative narration by Nick Clooney.

There are fawns grazing in mountain meadows at sunrise, geese flying in formation framed by the setting sun, egrets swimming in misty cypress swamps. The camera lingers on such places as Chained Rock in Bell County, Natural Bridge in Powell County and Pennyrile State Forest in Christian County.

We see historic homes, foals romping across manicured Bluegrass pastures and the awe-inspiring cathedrals of Covington. There’s the 21st century skyline of Louisville, the 19th century skyline of Augusta and distilleries as noted for their quaint charm as for their fine bourbon.

It’s an idyllic view of Kentucky — true, as far as it goes.

Sawyer’s documentary, A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains, follows the lives of several poor children and young people in Eastern Kentucky. They’re shown trying to survive in a seemingly hopeless environment of poverty, drug abuse and a lack of enough good food, healthcare, education and economic opportunity. The report is true, as far as it goes.

The documentary attracted 10.9 million viewers nationwide when it aired Feb. 13 — the biggest 20/20 audience in more than four years. As expected, it drew fire from some Kentuckians who saw it as nothing more than a rehash of old stereotypes. After all, Sawyer could have found plenty of poor people on the cab ride out of New York to catch her plane.

Some complained that the program and a brief ABC News followup didn’t do enough to highlight progress and the efforts Kentuckians have made to help their less-fortunate neighbors.

Others, however, have responded with introspection, asking what more Kentuckians could do. Some of the most thoughtful reaction I have seen has been on WYMT-TV in Hazard, which could teach many big-city stations a thing or two about public-service broadcasting.

Appalachian scholar Ron Eller of the University of Kentucky, who appeared briefly in the documentary, wishes Sawyer, a Kentucky native, had focused more on the root causes of Eastern Kentucky’s problems and why so many efforts to solve them have failed.

“On the other hand, I think the program was quite successful at drawing attention to the persistence of poverty and social inequity in the Commonwealth,” he said.

National attention is helpful, Eller said. Ultimately, though, Kentuckians must create the modern economy, honest government and adequate infrastructure needed to lift Appalachia.

I missed Sawyer’s documentary when it first aired, so I watched it online Monday evening, immediately after viewing a preview DVD of Our Kentucky. In an odd way, watching them together made both more thought-provoking.

You won’t see any strip mines in Our Kentucky, no scalped mountaintops, factory hog farms or polluted streams. The Bluegrass meadows aren’t bordered by strip malls, big-box stores, McMansion cul-de-sacs or sprawling developments of cookie-cutter homes.

“The aspects of pride we have in who we are and where we live are often at odds with the way of life we have chosen for ourselves,” Eller noted. “But out of that strong sense of place could come actions to protect that land and the quality of life.”

Neither Sawyer’s documentary nor Our Kentucky tell the whole story. It would be asking too much to expect them to. But they’re both worth watching, because together they show Kentuckians what needs fixing — and why it’s worth the effort.


Ashley Judd speaks out on mountaintop mining

February 17, 2009

As I drove to Frankfort early Tuesday, punching the buttons on my car radio, I came across one of those feel-good spots from the Kentucky coal industry. It ended with this line: “Never underestimate the power of coal.”

That’s been good advice in this state for more than a century. And never more true than inside the marble walls of the building where I was headed.

I came to the state Capitol on this sunny day to witness a different kind of power — the growing public sentiment against coal-mining methods that blast away mountains and fill headwater streams with the debris.

More than 500 Kentuckians — from toddlers on their parents’ shoulders to seniors in their 80s — marched up Capitol Avenue and gathered on the Capitol steps for the annual I Love Mountains Rally. The citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth organized the rally to push for legislation that would ban the burying of headwater streams with mining waste.

The marchers carried signs proclaiming “topless mountains are obscene” and urging “not one more mile” of streams be destroyed. They lacked the coal industry’s economic or political power. Instead, they sought to harness moral power.

Ashley Judd added glamour to the event. The Kentucky actress, famous for reciting other people’s words in movies, gave a 20-minute speech of her own that was passionate and eloquent. It was no celebrity puff piece, but a sharp critique of mountaintop-removal mining, the coal industry and the endless cycle of poverty she said coal has brought to Appalachia.

“There is no doubt that there is a crisis in Eastern Kentucky,” Judd said. “The crises are systemic, and the system at the root of our 100-year-long crisis is the unchecked power of the coal companies.

“They assured us that each reform … would be the end, the death of the coal industry,” Judd said. “Well, by golly, what do you know. Here the coal companies still are — bigger, and badder and richer than ever. … Make no mistake about it: The coal companies are thriving. Even in this bleak economy, they are thriving. What is dying is our mountains. And they are dying so fast, my friends, so shockingly fast.”

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville pledged to fight mountaintop-removal mining through federal clean-water legislation. That may be necessary. The state “stream saver” bill, sponsored by Sen. Kathy Stein of Lexington and Rep. Don Pasley of Winchester, is getting the usual cold shoulder from legislative leaders with close ties to the coal industry.

Silas House, a best-selling author from Eastern Kentucky, said he was disappointed Gov. Steve Beshear declined to attend the rally, even though it was just a few steps from his office.

“I think Gov. Beshear is a good man and I don’t understand why he won’t come out and listen to us,” House said, noting that many of his neighbors also are afraid to cross King Coal. “We’ve had a hundred years of being told not to speak out against the coal industry. It’s hard to break out of that culture. We’ve been taught to feel powerless.”

Mickey McCoy, a high school teacher from Inez in coal-rich Martin County, agreed: “It’s a terrible thing when you can’t get a single senator or representative from the coalfield counties to represent anything but the coal industry.”

Beshear’s spokesman, Jay Blanton, said the governor was in an important economic development meeting that had been scheduled weeks earlier, but left it to meet with Judd and a small group of KFTC members after the rally. Blanton said Judd spent Monday night at the governor’s mansion where she and Beshear “talked at some length about these issues.”

KFTC said nearly 500 Kentucky mountains have been destroyed by mountaintop-removal mining. It cited figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that more than 1,400 miles of headwater streams in the state have been buried or damaged by mining since 1981.

The coal industry, which says it provides 17,000 jobs in Kentucky, argues that the “stream saver” legislation would virtually halt surface mining in Eastern Kentucky. And it notes that coal provides more than 90 percent of Kentucky’s electricity at some of the nation’s cheapest prices.

There’s no doubt Kentucky needs coal — at least until we can develop alternative energy sources, hopefully before all of the coal runs out. But that doesn’t mean coal must be mined by the most environmentally destructive methods. Electricity is cheap only if you don’t include all of the hidden costs to Kentucky’s land, water and people.

In the short run, economic arguments always seem to trump moral arguments, even when people know in their hearts what is right. In the long run, though, moral arguments usually prevail.

A few decades ago, it was blasphemy to speak out against the health dangers of smoking, because tobacco was so important to Kentucky’s economy. A century and a half ago, many people argued that the economy couldn’t survive without slavery.

“The environment is not a place where we go hiking; it’s a place where we live,” said Sam Avery, who came to the rally from Hart County, where he lives in a solar-powered home.

“When you grind up a mountain just for the coal, you destroy the trees, the animals, the insects, the water supply. The living world is that much smaller,” Avery said. “From a Biblical perspective, it’s an abomination to the creator.”

Click on photos below to enlarge


Services tonight, Thursday for Verna Mae Slone

January 7, 2009

A public memorial service is planned at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Hindman Funeral Home for Verna Mae Slone, the well-known Knott County author, quilter and dollmaker who died Monday at age 94.

Mike Mullins, director of the Hindman Settlement School and a close friend of Mrs. Slone, said the program will include music, remembrances and time for people in the community to share their memories of her. The service also will include a message from her longtime pastor and friend, Lawrence Baldridge. Visitation begins at 5 p.m.

The funeral is planned Thursday at 11 a.m. at the funeral home chapel, with Old Regular Baptist ministers officiating, Mullins said. Burial will take place in the Slone Cemetery at Garner. Following the burial, a meal will be provided for the family and friends at the Hindman Settlement School’s May Stone Building.

Despite steady rain, more than 200 people attended a family service for Mrs. Slone on Tuesday night, Mullins said. She is survived by five sons, 17 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren and 9 great-great grandchildren.  Slone was photographed (above) in 1993 by Barbara Beirne.


Appalachian author Verna Mae Slone dies at 94

January 5, 2009

At a point in life when most people slow down, Verna Mae Slone found her voice.

She was a quilter, a dollmaker and the mother of five sons. But after Slone found her voice, she also became the author of six books, the best known of which was her first, What My Heart Wants to Tell.

In simple language, Slone wrote about life and the importance of family, community and the fast-disappearing culture of her beloved Eastern Kentucky mountains.

On Monday, her voice fell silent. She was 94 and had lived almost all of her life in the Knott County community of Pippa Passes.

“I often referred to her as the Grandma Moses of the mountains,” said Mike Mullins, longtime director of the Hindman Settlement School. “She loved to expound on the virtues and values of people from the hills in a very positive light.”

“She had a great sense of tradition and family … and a natural, wonderful way of expressing herself,” said Loyal Jones, retired director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College.

“Verna Mae Slone was a gracious, dignified, intelligent woman,” said New Jersey photographer Barbara Beirne, whose 1993 portrait of Slone became the centerpiece of her exhibit Women of Appalachia at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

“What I especially remember about Verna Mae is her pride in being Appalachian,” Beirne said Monday. “Everyone who views her photograph seems aware that they have been introduced to a very special person.”

Slone was born Oct. 9, 1914, in Knott County. Her mother died when she was 6 weeks old and she was raised by her father, Isom “Kitten Eye” Slone.

She married Willie Slone and had five sons, whom she cared for alone during the week while her husband was off supporting the family. He drove a bulldozer all over Appalachia, carving roads through the mountains to lay natural gas pipelines. He died in 1989.

Their oldest son, Milburn, said his mother completed eighth grade but didn’t move on to high school until he was old enough to go. They were in the same class until she became pregnant with his youngest brother, who was 13 years behind the other four.

Slone, 71, said his mother had a photographic memory and a lifelong love of reading she passed on to her children. Her hands were always busy, making thousands of cloth dolls she gave away and more than 1,800 quilts, many of her own design. Fifteen of those quilts decorate the walls of the main hall at Hindman Settlement School.

“Making a quilt is a lot like living,” Slone once wrote. “When we are born we are given a bundle of scraps; the way we put them together is left up to us.”

Mullins said he met Slone in 1972 when he was directing an oral history project at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes. “It seemed like every time we had a topic, she would give us an unbelievable interview,” he said.

As the interviews were transcribed, Mullins gave Slone copies. Those interviews sparked her interest in writing, and she wove them into a book about her father and the joys and hardships of old-time mountain life. She had 100 copies printed to give away to family members.

Somehow, Mullins said, a copy of the book found its way to a writer, who read excerpts on National Public Radio. New Republic Books published the book in 1979 under the title What My Heart Wants to Tell, and it has sold widely ever since.

Milburn Slone said his mother received fan letters from around the world about that book, but the one that meant the most to her came from a leper colony on an island off the coast of Africa. A copy of the book had made it there. “They said that book, second to the Bible, gave them a reason to live,” he said. “It told how you could survive under any circumstances.”

Slone went on to write five other books, including the novel Rennie’s Way and a book about Appalachian language called How We Talked. For many years, she wrote a column called Now and Then for a local newspaper, the Troublesome Creek Times.

Mullins said Slone’s home was a regular stop for visitors seeking to learn about mountain culture: “There were literally thousands of people who sat at the feet of Verna Mae and listened to her talk about life in these hills.”

Slone’s health began declining after a fall six months ago, but she was alert until 15 minutes before she died, her son said.

Mullins last visited Slone on Dec. 23. She was in bed, breathing with the help of an oxygen tank, but she recited a long poem she had written.

“She encompassed love of family, love of the hills, love of the values and traditions, and she had the ability to translate that through her crafts and her writing,” Mullins said. “Just to look into her eyes and have her look at you with that smile on her face was one of the most inspiring things.”


Holiday reading: Appalachia explained

January 5, 2009

I had eight vacation days to use or lose, so I was off for the past two weeks.  I had great Christmas and New Year’s celebrations with my family, ate too much, took a cold bike ride, hiked at Raven Run nature preserve and made a start on the big stack of books I bought at the Kentucky Book Fair in November.

The best thing I read during my break was Uneven Ground, by Ron Eller, a University of Kentucky history professor.

Eller has been researching and writing about his native Appalachia for three decades, and Uneven Ground is an outstanding analysis of the region’s history since 1945.  Eller covers a lot in 260 pages of well-chosen words. It is highly readable and often profound.

Appalachia’s lack of progress has sometimes been blamed on its inhabitants’ cultural differences or fear of change. But Eller thinks it has a lot more to do with money and power. For most of the past century, Appalachia has been run like a colony, with outside interests owning most of the wealth, reaping most of the profits and leaving behind an impoverished population and a wasted landscape.

This paragraph on page 223 offers a concise summary of why a half-century of focus on improving Appalachia has made limited progress:

The Appalachian economy, for example, had always been tied to national markets, despite popular images of the region as isolated and underdeveloped. The postwar effort to modernize the mountains came at a time of rapid transition in the national economy, but politics and misperceptions of the region’s history limited the actions of planners and policy makers to playing games of economic catch-up rather than to designing a sustainable, place-based economy for a changing world. During the 1970s and 1980s, as promoters of Appalachian development were building industrial parks, supporting the expansion of coal mining and chasing runaway branch plants, the United States was undergoing a fundamental change from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy. At a time when Appalachian leaders were struggling to recruit labor-intensive, low-wage manufacturing plants to an underdeveloped region, technology and globalization were moving these older forms of industrial growth abroad. Traditional industrial recruitment strategies not only perpetuated the long pattern of wealth flowing out of the mountains, but failed to provide a sustainable economic foundation or to protect the region’s sensitive environmental resources. Branch plant economies provided jobs but created little permanent wealth in the communities where they operated. As the rest of the nation invested in expanding higher education, improving environmental quality, and ecouraging creativity for a higher-tech and more service-based world, the core communities of Appalachia remained tied to the old, extractive economy.

Uneven Ground should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the region that includes so much of Kentucky.