Friday, August 9, 2013

THE VIRGINIA HIGHLANDS

Heartwood, SW Virginia's Artisan Gateway
Abingdon, Virginia

Tennessee is a long, narrow state that is bordered by eight states with interesting sites that can be reached within a four or five hour drive from Sewanee, Tennessee where we reside half the year.  The bordering states that we don't frequent because they entail longer drives are Arkansas and Missouri, but during the past six years we've covered the art scenes in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Virginia. 

We've just returned from Abingdon, Virginia where the Virginia Highlands Festival went on for sixteen days.  The Festival, dubbed "The Jewel of the Blue Ridge," showcased Appalachian arts and crafts – juried arts shows, antiques markets, Celtic and Blue Grass music, tours of the famous William King Museum, quilting exhibits, and, of course, the famous Barter Theatre.

The Barter Theatre is eight decades old and is touted as the most famous stage in Virginia, as well as winner of the Tony Award for Regional Theatre.  During the Highlands Festival, the Barter featured a full venue of plays, and we enjoyed The Blonde, The Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, a one-woman performance in which Tricia Matthews played the parts of a wife, a husband, a lover, a child, a neighbor, and a shop girl in two acts.  We've seen a lot of Little Theatre plays, but this was a stunning professional performance by a versatile female actress who is the resident acting coach at the Barter Theatre when she isn't performing.   Her acting performances are diverse, ranging from Amanda in The Glass Menagerie to Miss Hanningan in Annie.

Although "The Heartland" featured the biggest array of crafts in Abingdon, we spent more time sampling the farm-grown food and playing the CD's of blue grass music – we had missed the usual Thursday night performance by famous and soon-to-be famous blue grass musicians. Docents encouraged us to follow "The Crooked Road," Virginia's Heritage Music Trail, 333 miles through the mountains of southwest Virginia where there are miles of music venues and wayside exhibits, but we didn't venture that far afield.

I was attracted to the exhibit of the Virginia dulcimer in the William King Museum and stood before a video of blue grass music that featured dulcimers, creating my own lyrics while the musicians did their bowing, strumming, and picking.  "You should write lyrics for country music," my friend Victoria told me as I improvised lyrics.  "Yes, Nashville is full of wannabes like me who think their spontaneous song making will catapult them to Grand Ole Opry fame," I said wryly, but went on singing improvisations in a high, lonesome-sounding voice reminiscent of blue grass performers.  I'm sure the docent who had greeted us when we entered the museum caught my act on her desk monitor!

The dulcimer, a teardrop-shaped instrument, arrived in Virginia via immigrants from Germany, Scotland, and England, and since my Scots ancestors settled near Fredericksburg, Virginia, I suppose I could claim some inheritance of appreciation for the dulcimer.  One dulcimer in the exhibit was reserved for strummers, so I picked a tune with it and wished that I had been able to attend an earlier lecture about this fascinating musical instrument.

Wm. King Museum graffiti on
storage building
Another intriguing exhibit at the William King Museum, entitled "UNshelved," featured artists who're interested in textbook images – seeing books as art objects and working on paper in alternative ways.  They're billed as collectors of images, publications, stories that inform their artistic work.  One artist, Nick DeFord, collects maps and books, mixes art supplies with office supplies, references art history, popular culture, and places where mysterious events take place in his exhibit.  Travis Head of Blacksburg, Virginia, uses his sketchbooks for exhibits, documenting events from his life through notes and meticulous drawings that reminded me of Da Vinci's notebooks.  As we left the museum, a docent told us to notice the arresting graffiti mural on a storage building that an artist had done, using spray paint in cans.


This account only highlights a few of the attractions at The Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon, Virginia, but it was refreshing to visit a hotbed of Appalachian culture and a community of vibrant artists, even though we developed a case of "visual overwhelm."  Festival administrators attributed the success of the 65th Anniversary Celebration to the all-volunteer committee members who helped visitors explore "The Jewel of the Blue Ridge." 
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