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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Affrilachia: Q&A with the Artists

One of Nancy Johnson's
One of Nancy Johnson's "Underground Railway" paintings. (Photo by Bob Cassell)
Additional photos below »

By Angela Wampler | May 27, 2008

Does the culture and geography of Appalachia influence your work? If so, how? What aspects of the culture? Describe your relationship with the area.

Fields: Our family home existed within a community beside the Norfolk and Western railroad tracks, not the ideal place one would chose to locate or build a home, with a railroad in front and a river that, all too often, overflowed in back. The community was predominantly black, dictated mainly due to either economics or the times, and that made it even more unique, because of the harmony that existed between the families, both black and white, that lived there.

In respect to Appalachian culture and influence, I incorporate the use of turn-of-the-century barn wood to frame my artwork, or as a background to photograph my leatherwork. To me, it is symbolic of something that will withstand the test of time.

Johnson: I feel that living in the Appalachian area does influence my work. Much of my work depicts the home and culture in which I grew up as well as the breathtaking scenery of Southwest Virginia. Through my art I chronicle my family's history as well as the history of my people.

Phillips: I would say the landscape has been inspiring more so than the culture, which I really don't know too much about. I've only been living in the area for about two years; I'm originally from Chattanooga, Tenn. Right after we moved here, my father and I spent a lot of time driving around, particularly to the state parks, and it was breathtaking.

The songs that I have written since I've been here do not speak directly of the landscape itself, but coming here was like starting on a clean slate. A lot of unfortunate events occurred in Chattanooga, and leaving from there to this beautiful place has made me become a better musician and has allowed me to concentrate more on where I want to take my music.

Wilson: I find this area of the country to be both a curse and a blessing. The beautiful mountains that surround us and draw persons to our area also isolate us in many ways. Materials, tools and general information that are readily available in larger cities are not easily accessible in our area. I love the beautiful scenery, which provides inspiration; the natural resources that provide me with materials; the people's foundation of faith and their belief in God provide me with hope; and the slow, somewhat relaxed, pace of this area also affords me the time to create. These are but a few of the advantages of this area. And the negative, the fact that information, materials, instruction and such are not always available or even accessible, has become a blessing in disguise because it affords me the opportunity to adapt, manipulate, and often create new techniques, or use unusual materials in my work that make them unique.

Do you have a political message in your work? If so, what is it?

Fields: My work speaks more to the spirit of man, than the political, and yet one cannot deny when you speak the truth, especially through art which has a tendency to speak to every aspect of life, either directly or indirectly.

Johnson: Some of my work is political. It expresses to the viewer the plight of my people during the time of slavery in this country, and then later segregation.

Phillips: Overall, my songs have a "me vs. the world" theme, and I tend to write songs in such a way that it can apply to anyone's situation. I grew up in the suburbs in a predominantly white setting. Everything was alright when I was younger, but once puberty hit, I lost self-esteem and self-worth due to the overwhelmingly Euro centric mainstream media. I was faced with the fact that I wasn't like the mainstream version of a "black" person, and my biological attributes were seen as not "white" enough.

I have had identity problems due to the fact that I grew up in a predominantly white middle-class area, and, as I went on through school, I was considered "acting white" because I didn't fit the stereotype of a black person. At the same time, I experienced covert racism; the neighborhood kids' parents were reluctant to allow me to associate with their children once puberty and middle school came about. I was extremely sensitive to it; thus, my self-esteem and self-worth dissipated. There I was living a privileged life, and I never could appreciate it.

I went into a period of self-loathing and resentment and never consciously understanding what was happening or why I felt the way I did. I went through a period of trying to hang out with any fringe group so I could feel like I belonged somewhere, but values always clashed. Since being in college, I have consciously realized what happened to me and how I let it get me down, and I am in the process of reversing my uncertainty to confidence. So, as a result, my songs are generally about trying to come to grips with my ambivalence in a world that has no straight answers.

Wilson: I do works that speak of and reflect who I am, what I believe, what I know, or where I have been. They are very personal and reflect things such as social issues, life struggles, firm spiritual foundations or just life experiences. Politics is rarely one of the subjects addressed. I focus more on the spiritual aspects in life as I feel this is a greater way to create change and touch people. The name of my business is Visual Voices, and all of my pieces have a message or a purpose; to give inspiration, tell a story, make a statement, initiate a debate, or draw upon a memory that will spark a smile or even a tear. The messages may be bold and visible. Others are subtle or left for the interaction and interpretation of the viewer. Yet others carry accompanying concept statements or stories that spell out the message and leave little or no room for misinterpretation.

Do you employ a certain aesthetic in your work? Are you operating from a particular literary or artistic perspective?

Fields: It is my hope that my work speaks to the beauty of the simple things in life that make life worth living — Faith, Love, Family and Friends — things far too many of us take for granted, all too often until it is too late, especially in this warp speed world we're living.

Johnson: No, I do not employ a certain aesthetic in my work. I do not operate from any particular literary or artistic perspective. I employ whatever method seems right at the time.

Phillips: I tend to be experimental when it comes to how I want the song to sound. I have some songs that have a Renaissance/Celtic sound, then I have some that have more of a soulful Southern sound, one that has a Middle Eastern sound, and even one or two with a jazzy sound. It depends on whom I'm listening to at the time I write something.

Wilson: I incorporate both the literary and the aesthetic. I am a "words" gal. I love the written word, a letter of type, a story in symbology, or the message in poetry and verse. I also love the communication of color, the mystery of a found object and the depth provided by texture. Most persons refer to my work using terms such as ethnic, organic, earthy and natural. I like this because I want my messages to be clear, and the pieces to be warm and inviting so that they draw one in with their beauty (aesthetic) and engage one's mind in thought as one constructs the message often found layered in the piece (literary). In my work, I try to balance any and all of these to create a visually stunning piece with a definite message.

Who are your role models/influences/mentors (whether alive or not, artists or otherwise, Appalachian or not)?

Fields: [Artists who have inspired me include] Charles White, Vincent Van Gogh, and the late Morton P. Traylor, former director of the Virginia Art Institute in Charlottesville, Va. I would also be remiss, if I did not mention fellow artist Ned Johnson, whose work I have admired for many years.

Johnson: My mother is my role model. I have also been influenced by other members of my family. Grandma Moses is one of my favorite artists. When I look at her work, I identify with it.

Phillips: Tori Amos is the reason that I wanted to be a songwriter. I found out about her when I was 14, and just the way that she crafted her piano playing with her voice and the lyrics, it was just awe-inspiring. Listening to her helped me become a better songwriter and musician. Other inspirations are Bjork, Loreena McKennitt, Nick Drake, Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading. I have a deep voice, so the latter two especially have a place in my heart.

Wilson: My influences are too many to list. They include our region with its beauty and natural gifts, the Holy Bible for its wisdom and answers, and my life struggles and blessings. My mentors are also many — Mary Sutton, Susan Scheer and The Artful Women group, James-Ben Stockton [art gallery owner in Greeneville, Tenn.], and fellow Christians — all of whom provide education, praise, criticism and advice, all necessary for the growth of any artist. I also want to mention the organizations (like Arts4Kids of Kingsport, as well as Girl's Inc.) who provide me the opportunity to share my gifts with others through teaching. It's the greatest learning experience for me, and I thank all of them.

What past or current literary or artistic or musical movements influence you? For example, the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, the Hip Hop Culture...Do any of their ideologies inform your work?

Fields: Several years ago I had the opportunity to see the work of William H. Johnson, as well as others who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, and was moved by the power of his work. In my office, I have a framed copy of a letter that Van Gogh wrote to his younger brother Theo, [saying] "If you hear a voice within you saying, 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced." There are times when I hear that voice saying I am not a painter, then I am reminded of Van Gogh's words, and so I paint, and that voice is silenced.

Johnson: I enjoy all types of music except Hip Hop and Rap. I am my own person and am not easily influenced by any movement. My art comes from experiences in my life.

Phillips: I just recently started reading in depth about the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Aesthetic, so that hasn't appeared in anything I've written directly, but I enjoy reading about contributions that black artists have made, because it reflects on the individuality of black people and breaks down age-old stereotypes of black people being lazy, dumb, and beast-like. I don't really listen to much Hip-Hop, with the exception of Outkast.

Wilson: I love words and messages. Poets like Ralph W. Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou are but a few of my favorites.

What role should artists play in society? Is this role different if the artist is one of color?

Fields: Long before there was TV, videos and the internet, artists were the recorders of history — "back in the day," we used to say. When they said "history," they actually meant "His Story, Not Ours" — the story of the contributions of the African American in this country have long been either ignored, or distorted.

I cannot presume to speak for all African American artists; however, I can speak for and about myself. In my youth, I spent so much time and effort into trying to be a Black Artist per say, as opposed to simply being an artist who God created to be Black, and paints life from that reality.

For many years — especially when I attended the Virginia Art Institute, where for the first two years I was the only black there — most of my work represented the Black Experience in life. It reflected the times that I grew up in, the reality of having to drink out of water fountains or having to use restrooms with the sign "Colored" above the fountain or on the restroom door. Therefore, I felt it a duty or responsibility to portray these injustices.

Later, I grew to realize that I was so busy trying to be a Black Artist, as opposed to an artist who God ordained and created to be a Black Man in America, who He gave a certain measure of talent to portray life from a Black Perspective, that hopefully speaks to the reality and Spirit of all men.

Johnson: An artist can be an educator. An artist can be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. An artist can be someone who helps bring about change. Art speaks to us about a variety of things and in a variety of ways. We can learn many things from art. Through art we can learn to express ourselves. A society without artists would be a dull society.

The role of an artist is different if that artist is one of color because we express things from a different perspective; but when you stop to think about it, we all express things differently based on our family background, geographical background, and educational background, just to name a few.

Phillips: Artists should be provocative innovators, create work that affects people to the point that their subconscious is jolted and they are forced to consciously think about their place in the world and everything that they've ever known. As an artist of color, I want to remind people that there is one race of humans, and ethnicities and cultures are not essentially bound to our skin tones.

Wilson: Artists should follow their hearts and be true to their own beliefs. Although I do not believe that art should be solely created to further a cause or initiate a change — it is inevitable. Art — good art — has a voice and it speaks to people. I should educate or make one aware but not dictate their views. If, in my art, I change a heart for the better, then that's just an additional payment.

What does it mean to be a black artist in 21st Century American society? In Appalachian society?

Fields: Speaking for this man who happens to be black, it means portraying the realities of a Black Man in America in an effort to give all who view my work an opportunity to reflect upon their own reality and bring them a little closer to God and each other, regardless of who they are, or where they are from.

For me being a black artist has been an educational, enlightening and satisfying experience. I have spent much time studying the history of my people so that I can depict our history in my art. I feel that being a black artist in the 21st century offers more opportunities than in times past. I feel that society has become more accepting of blacks in general and black artists in particular.

Being a black artist in Appalachian society has different challenges because there are still some barriers to overcome. We have come a long way, and if we continue to educate, we can go further. We definitely have more opportunities to expose the public to our artistic creations then we did in times past.

Phillips: For me, it means to be seen as an intelligent, creative human being, who, despite socio-political stereotypes and expectations, strives to become the best that s/he can be.

Wilson: To be a black artist in the 21st century is an opportunity. In mid 2000 I was fortunate to have myself and my work featured on Home and Garden Television (HGTV). The response to my work nationally was amazing to say the least. So much positive and not one word concerning that I was a Black American. I was just an amazingly gifted artist (their words, not mine). In Appalachia I have found that race has been a defining factor in my title as an artist.

I find in this area persons often consider it an oddity that a black person can create art. Some persons will apprehensively use the word artist with regard to my name or work but try, at the same time, to pigeonhole you into a group that is a little outside that group. They use terms as naive art or outsider art. Outside what? I am a mixed media textile artist, and I don't feel tags are necessary.

Are you aware of the term "Affrilachian" created by Frank X. Walker? If so, have you ever used it to identify yourself?

Fields: Not until this question was presented to me, although I look forward to learning more about Mr. Walker's work, especially since it seems his work about York, the Black Man who was an important part of the Lewis and Clark expedition, I believe will only validate what I mentioned earlier about history being "His Story, and Not Ours."

Johnson: I was not aware of the term "Affrilachian" until I was asked this question so, therefore, I have not used the term to identify myself. However, since this term suggests a blending of two different cultures, I would have to say that I can identify with it since I am an African American living in Appalachia and have roots in both cultures.

Phillips: I read about [Affrilachian] after being asked this question. I have never called myself that, but I think it would be appropriate to include the word in my vocabulary to bring about awareness to others.

Wilson: I am aware of the term but, again, I do not like being placed in groups or categorized especially by my race. While it is nice to be recognized as a Black American artist, I don't want my recognition or my work's value to be determined or influenced by that fact. I wish my work to be known for its artistic value and be able to stand on that alone. No, I have never used that term to identify myself.

Do you consider your work contributing to the African Diaspora? If so, how? How does your Appalachian identity intersect with this, if at all?

Fields: I have to admit that I found it necessary to go to the dictionary to define Diaspora, which refers to dispersion of folks. The only answer I can give or relate to the question is, as a result of a major flood in November of 1977, the families in my community beside the tracks were relocated. This dispersed people both Black and White who had learned to live side by side other with dignity and respect, in peace and harmony.

Johnson: I would like to think of my work as contributing to the African Diaspora, in that Diaspora is defined as a scattering of people with common origins, backgrounds and beliefs. I have sold my artwork to a variety of people from a variety of locations. Some of my work has traveled to places such as New York. I feel that my art educates those from different geographical locations. Not only do they learn about my African American background, but they also learn about my Appalachian heritage.

Phillips: That Diaspora question got me; I had to do some research on it. Even before I knew what the African Diaspora was, I was contributing, because I am inherently part of it. As an Appalachian transplant, I feel like I would be adding something new to the Diaspora.

What should great art do?

Fields: Inspire, educate and uplift!

Johnson: Great art should evoke emotion in the viewer. It should inspire.

Phillips: It should bring about a visceral reaction, and it should cause you to think critically about yourself, the people you know and care about, and the world at large.

Wilson: Great art should speak to the viewer and cause him or her to think and possibly react. It should also keep the viewer seeing it in a new light — discovering new things each time the piece is viewed. It should stay on the mind for years to come and be timeless in form, style, content and context. It should be art from the heart — the artist's heart. It should have purpose.

Do you have a particular objective in mind when you're creating or performing?

Fields: To glorify God and, in some small way, help folks reflect on what is really most important in life. In fact, that reminds me of a poem that I wrote after the flood: Thinking of the things we've shared, and reminiscing about the past, I wonder why we treasure most the things that never last.

Johnson: Sometimes I do have an objective such as teaching others the history of my people, or making a statement about the trials we have faced. Sometimes my objective is to preserve a childhood memory for future generations. Other times I just paint what I see or feel at any given moment.

Wilson: My objective is to create works that entice the eye, capture the heart and engage the mind in a nonverbal conversation between the artwork and the viewer.

Who is your audience? Do you have a particular audience in mind when you create or perform?

Fields: It is my hope that [those who view] my work will come away with smiles, not only on their faces, but within their hearts.

Johnson: I paint for old and young alike. My older audience can identify with my work because they have lived, or know someone who has lived, what I am painting. I paint for young people, to educate them about our heritage. I also hope to inspire them.

Phillips: I have played in front of middle-aged people, college students, and young children. Since I don't have much performing experience, I stay open-minded about opportunities. But when I am visualizing an audience, it is usually people within my age range. I would like to play in a seemingly neutral arena, nothing that is blatantly political or religious.

Wilson: My audience is any and everyone who has an appreciation for creativity and an eye for beauty. The works I create are personal and usually pertain to inspirational matters. In the years after my mother's death I have been faced with many challenges and things I never thought I would encounter. And, through my faith, I made it through. I feel I am led by God to create works for others in need of a message, hope and answers. I have been fortunate to see the results of my artwork touching others as they have embraced it and received the message.

What goals do you have for the future?

Fields: To take life "one day, one painting at a time," until either that voice Van Gogh spoke about, or mine, is silenced.

To continue to paint, improve, and enjoy every aspect of my life.

Phillips: To concentrate on my academic studies, and to continue playing music. I also want to write non-fiction related to the Arts and Sciences, particularly in the areas of history, social science, and philosophy.

Wilson: I have a degree in Biology and Communications. My goal or dream is to return to school to pursue a master's degree with a joint major in art therapy and nursing. I would like to share my artwork and talents to promote healing — socially, physically, mentally and spiritually in both children and adults — to provide hope for a hurting world.


"Strolling" by Nancy Johnson

"Maypole," by Nancy Johnson (Photo by Bob Cassell)

"Untitled — Dancers" by Nancy Johnson

'Untitled," by Nancy Johnson

"Meal Master" exemplifies William A. Fields' hope that his work "speaks to the beauty of the simple things in life that make life worth living — Faith, Love, Family and Friends."

"Down on the Tracks," by William A. Fields

"Home without Mother," by William A. Fields

"Mercy Seat," by William A. Fields

Ammythst Phillips is a 21-year-old guitarist, singer and songwriter who studied Bluegrass Acoustic Guitar under Jack Tottle, founder of the Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Program at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City. She is shown performing at ETSU as a solo artist.

Lydia Wilson's newest endeavor is bead embroidery as wall jewelry.

Wall jewelry by Lydia Wilson

An embellished collage by Lydia Wilson.

"Doll-Puckered Out," by Lydia Wilson