The arts community in Mercer County is growing. Artists have three new venues to display their talents. Local art boosters say they hope to create places for aspiring youndmind to express themselves; something missing from many of the southern West Virginia communities.
Lori McKinney has helped to organize Culturefest for 5 years. The Appalachian South Folklife Center hosts the festival just across the Mercer County border. The stage is nestled in a bed of mountains. Just behind the stage, visitors can see the rolling hills surrounded by the white and blue sky. And as they drive up to the center, they are greeted with signs of saying things like "Smile, Have Faith" and "together we can change the world."
McKinney says events like these are even more important in rural areas like Mercer County.
"You kind of have to dig back, a lot of it’s buried yeah know back in the hills or inside people’s homes and there are tons of artistic peole around here it's just not in the forefront like it is in the city."
But Culturefest isn’t the only place you’ll find McKinney’s work. In March 2007, McKinney and her boyfriend Robert Blankenship opened an art gallery in Princeton called the RiffRaff. After spending her senior year of college in London, McKinney was inspired to bring artistic opportunities back to her hometown.
A few miles away in downtown Bluefield, Gary Bowling opened the House of Art this past April. Visitors are greeted by statutes, sculptures, paintings and pictures. The artists all live within a 300 mile radius of the gallery.
"Our emphasis is on our local talent," Bowling said. "I tell people you’re going to meet your neighbor whether you like it or not."
Bowling has always lived in Bluefield, West Virginia. He says he knows what it’s like to feel like you don’t belong because you are creative. He says at times he felt like an outcast in Southern West Virginia but he hopes the gallery will create a place where young artists can feel at home.
"They’re young artists," Bowling said. "They have a voice and we’re here to showcase that. We’re not here to showcase just couch paintings."
But the newest and largest center for the arts in Mercer County is the Chuck Mathena Center in Princeton. The multimillion dollar facility is equipped with a state of the-art theatre and an art gallery shaped like a rotunda. Spring Turner is the executive director. She ALSO can relate to Bowling’s thoughts on growing up in Southern West Virginia with a passion for the arts.
"There was something for everyone except this one group of kids," Turner said. "We wanted to do something and develop a place where they can grow and learn."
When the doors to the Chuck Mathena Center opened in July, Turner believes the door to more opportunities opened for her neighbors.
"Being in Southern West Virginia we are already faced with attitude of poorer education," Turner said. "I think the programs will work to enhance their education opportunities to advance their careers."
All three representatives see their facilities as part of something bigger, a growth spurt in the arts community of the region. They hope to shine a spotlight on what was once hidden deep in the hills of the southern part of the state.
We're all just paving the way now," McKinney said. "We all know that the world needs to change and everthing is changing and you can't really follow the old formulas anymore."