BY SALLY BROWN DESKINS, EXHIBITS COORDINATOR, WVU LIBRARIES
The West Virginia University Center for Resilient Communities opened in the Department of Geography and Geology in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences last year. The Center’s mission focuses attention on cultivating the capacities of an ever-growing circle of grassroots leaders and collaborators by engaging in collective inquiry, developing participatory action research and strategies for social transformation. As part of this, the Center also serves as a space for inquiry through art exhibitions.
The first display, up now, features the photography of Raymond Thompson, Jr., a Master of Fine Arts student in photography at WVU. WVU Libraries Exhibits Coordinator Sally Brown Deskins interviewed the Center’s Director Bradley Wilson and artist Raymond Thompson, Jr. about this artwork and its relationship to the work happening at the Center.
Sally Brown Deskins: Bradley, the mission and programs offered by the Center are vast—all it seems, around social and collaborative action. Can you speak to your various programs and how the exhibit space and Raymond’s exhibit plays a role in this?
Bradley Wilson: At the founding of the WVU Center for Resilient Communities, we wanted to invite an artist that challenges us.
Remembering the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster asks us to consider the decisions of the engineering company, the sacrifices of black miners and erasure of their memory from the public record. With Appalachian Ghosts, Raymond Thompson exhumes their lives from the few available resources in a visceral way. The life-sized figures of miners who suffocated to death from silica dust exposure in the Hawks Nest Tunnel smile, peer and look out at passers-by. They are human beings. They may be brothers, parents, friends, coworkers. They ask for our attention. They hold us accountable to bring about change. They remind us of our calling.
Appalachian Ghosts, at once haunting and humanizing, invites us to confront the inequities of our past as a fundamental practice in enacting a more just future. As Susan Sontag said in Regarding the Pain of Others:
“Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead. So the belief that remembering is an ethical act is deep in our natures as humans, who know we are going to die, and who mourn those who in the normal course of things die before us—grandparents, parents, teachers, and older friends. Heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together.”
SBD: Raymond, how did you get involved with the Center?
Raymond Thompson, Jr.: For over a year, I have been talking to Bradley about the goals of the Center and the ways art could play a role in community resiliency. I think we both agree that both art and storytelling play a major part in creating and fortifying community agency. Bradley asked me to prepare a small exhibition of Appalachian Ghosts for the Center’s opening.
SBD: Raymond, how do you see your work as it relates to the mission of the Center?
RT: I believe that in order for people to see their individual importance to a community they need to see themselves in its culture and history. The role of African Americans in West Virginia history runs deep. I believe Appalachian Ghosts could be the first of many stories that reach into the forgotten and neglected narratives of Appalachia.
After the 2016 election, J.D. Vance’s widely read cultural memoir Hillbilly Elegy became the de facto primer for understanding Appalachia. The book painted the region as a Mecca of whiteness, to the exclusion of all the other cultures that shaped Appalachia. My work focuses on memory, race, representation and the archive.
SBD: Raymond, what’s next for your artwork – specifically Appalachian Ghosts?
RT: I would like to have Appalachian Ghosts installed in Hawks Nest State Park and in the areas surrounding the tunnel’s location. I envision elements of this work existing as a form of place-based public art. If you visit Hawk Nest State Park you would have a hard time finding the single plaque that tells a truncated story about the disaster. I imagine that the park’s overlook gets hundreds of visitors each day. It would be amazing for visitors to catch a glimpse of these life-size figures peaking between the trees, haunting the park as a reminder of what happened.
For more information on the Center, visit https://resilientcommunities.wvu.edu/about/principles.
For more information on Raymond Thompson, Jr., visit http://www.raymondthompsonjr.com/.
Sally Brown Deskins currently serves as Exhibits Coordinator for WVU Libraries. She also creates art and writes about art. She has been published in Hyperallergic and Woman’s Art Journal, among others. Find her online at https://sallydeskins.wixsite.com/feministart.