Theresa L. Burriss is an assistant professor at Radford University. She is currently working on a book entitled Women of Change, Women of Courage: Appalachian Activists, to be published by the University of Tennessee Press.
Natural beauty abounds in Appalachia, and it inspires artists and scientists equally. In a discussion at Radford University entitled “Saving Place: Artists on the Environment,” an artist, a writer, two actors and a biologist shared the stage to discuss that inspiration and nature’s inevitable, if overlooked, presence in our lives.
The panel discussion featured Suzanne Stryk, painter; Jim Minick, writer; Elizabeth McCommon, singer/songwriter/actress; Meredith Dean, performance artist; and Frank Taylor, biologist.
Images of Suzanne Stryk’s naturalist paintings flashed on a stage screen. While some paintings conveyed overt political messages, others held subtle gems within their compositions. To demonstrate the former category, Political Science, a rendering of an American flag, portrays chloroplasts in plant cells for the flag’s stripes while various species serve as stars. Suzanne explained that if humans pledged allegiance to nature as they do to nation, we would not find ourselves in our current environmental predicament. If it weren’t for the microcosmic chloroplasts that existed billions of years ago, Suzanne continued, humans wouldn’t have even made an appearance in the course of evolution.
In the latter category of subtlety, Suzanne chose Perfect Stranger, a mixed media piece featuring a crimson salamander painted on the page of a field notebook. The notebook sits squarely atop a US Geological topographical map decorated with vivid green fern, rust leaf skeletons, and dry wild weeds. The words “Appalachian Trail” peek out inconspicuously in the bottom right corner. The salamander, according to Suzanne, is a perfect specimen, exhibiting all that is great in nature with its long presence in the Appalachian Highlands. Though she identifies the salamander as a stranger in this art piece, she employs irony with this designation. Most residents of the region are unaware of this tiny creature because they don’t look for it. In actuality, the salamander occupies no other place on earth as it does the Appalachian Highlands, an area known as the salamander capitol of the world due to its great number and diversity of species.
During the panel discussion, biologist Frank Taylor confirmed that the Appalachians are known for salamanders. “I guess I’m up here to keep things grounded,” he added. “I’m a trained biologist and I took p-chem.” On a more serious note, Frank shared his teaching philosophy as it relates to the panel title and as he educates Radford High School students. “Saving place is a direct link to saving special places in the environment. As a teacher with my biology students, I teach about how important certain places are to preserve because they have unique habitats with unique organisms in them. To me this ties into artists because artists are great observers and translate their observations into some kind of a medium to share with others. I know I and my students miss a lot of stuff [that artists see].”
Frank doesn’t miss much, however. Not one to remain in the classroom, he frequently escorts his students through Wildwood Park, down the New River, or simply outside school walls. And because Frank creates opportunities to intimately connect with nature, the students directly experience their place, a necessary component in fostering a desire to save it.
Jim Minick discussed “saving place” with this analogy: “The idea of saving place when I was growing up meant you had room for everyone at the table and you asked your sister to save a place beside her so you wouldn’t have to sit beside Uncle Harry who spit. So that idea of saving place at the table is worth thinking about for everyone here if you consider the table being our world. So the words in the title, as far as place and art and activism, for me all those concepts are linked through love. Through the fabric, the thread of love is how we need to approach this table, this place, our world. […] But to love a place you have to know it.” And one way to know it is to walk it. After sharing many of his own walking and observing stories, Jim asserted, “We hike the mountain, so the mountain is in our muscle. And I think if we can remember that, we are not severed from that mountain but it is in us.”
Serving as the wise woman of the panel, Elizabeth McCommon recounted her 40-year evolution as an environmental artist and activist. While she was in her twenties, when her children were young, Elizabeth’s husband died of cancer. She was convinced that his death was due to his employers’ negligence and thus embarked on a mission to make the world safe for her children. Though at first she thought others shared this same mission, she realized many did not. So she thought, “’If I don’t make it safe, maybe no one else will.’ And part of that is what stoked the fires of my creative energy in writing songs when I came to Southwest Virginia and became very disturbed by what was happening to waterways, to the coalfields nearby. […] But I just came to own it all, which is sort of a dangerous thing for anyone to do because then you feel that this is mine and no one else can. And you eliminate the possibility of community. […] So, I got a little tired of spewing venom after a while. It lost its attraction. And I realized that I wasn’t accomplishing that much through my efforts to ‘save the world’ for my children. [Now] I have retreated into a quieter place in my life, and it involves words still. But it’s more an effort to express from my heart how I feel about my world. Which indeed I share with many American Indians; I have a feeling that it’s my mother. This earth produced me and sustains me, as it does all of us.”
Meredith Dean echoed this feminist sentiment while rounding out the diversity of the panel’s talent. As an organizer and activist for the last twenty years, Meredith has focused her energy on Appalachia, from which her ancestors hail. She explained, “I’ve been working in a million different ways to lift up the voices of Appalachian women as we have attempted to save place; and we define that as saving our homes, saving our families, saving our children, saving our water, and now saving our mountains. […] What has really had the most impact on the women in the group as well as those we’re trying to reach has been art.” Involving musicians and performance artists enabled Mountain Women Rising, a part of the Appalachian Women’s Alliance, to truly touch people’s hearts as well as their minds.
This outreach to other humans unites all the panelists. They all strive to spark awareness of place, which engenders attachment to place, which in turn inspires love and protection of place. Suzanne Stryk poignantly captures these efforts as she reveals, “I attempt to bring the ‘rest of the living world’ back into human awareness, a place equally endangered as any land.”