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Appalachian Youth Respond to the Museum as Classroom

This summer Carnegie Museum of Art’s publishing program piloted a cultural exchange program with the Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop, a storied media-making organization based in Whitesburg, Kentucky. The program, called Envisioning Our Future, brought together rural and urban Appalachian youth to learn storytelling as a tool of individual expression and empowerment. As part of the program, students were given the opportunity to explore concepts of place, identity, and economic transition through filmmaking, photography, podcasting, and creative writing—all with the galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art as the backdrop and inspiration for their learning. In the program’s inaugural year, seven youth interns from Whitesburg and three youth interns from Pittsburgh, ranging in age from 16 to 22 years old, participated in the program. In addition to the learning opportunities in the galleries, the youth interns took field trips to artist communities in Braddock and Wilkinsburg, where they learned how art is being used as a tool for social and economic change.

The interns, coming from various identities and backgrounds, had one important commonality going into the program—they had never really experienced art. At least not like this. Many of the interns had never been to an art museum, nor a city as large as Pittsburgh. Others, like Pittsburgh intern Lakshmi Ilango (who is originally from Boston), were familiar with both the art and big city the program had to offer, but found a new appreciation for both. “I’ve always liked art but have many times questioned its purpose or necessity,” Ilango said. “This program showed me how great the subject of art is and how necessary it can be. Art can help build up a struggling community and help people understand each other. I learned a lot about different neighborhoods in the area and how art can be a way to transform a neighborhood.”

Kentucky-based intern Elyssia Lowe described the experience of visiting Carnegie Museum of Art, her first museum visit, as “surreal,” particularly from her perspective as an art major: “[You] read and study about these works of art and their creators. To see it all in person was a life-changing event that I will be forever grateful for.” Oakley Fugate, a youth intern from Kentucky, was equally awestruck. “I had never been to a museum before,” he said. “To have gone would have easily cost more than my mother makes in two or three months and that’s not counting the second trip. To say that I would have never set foot in Pittsburgh is the understatement of the century. I was completely overwhelmed. I got to experience so much in such a little span of time. If I had my way, I’d still be there and likely be broke with all the souvenirs I wanted to take home.”

After the inaugural year of Envisioning Our Future concluded last month, we asked the youth interns to share their most memorable moments from the program. Included below are testimonials from the group, which offer unique perspectives on their individual experiences.

Left to right: Oliver Baker, 18, Whitesburg, Kentucky; Aaron Combs, 21, Vicco, Kentucky; Jaydon Tolliver, 17, Whitesburg, Kentucky.

Oliver Baker

After a roughly six-hour drive we finally came upon a tunnel, and going through it I thought I was prepared for what was on the other side. Then we broke through. A vibrant and massive city was before me. Absolutely stunning. I was entirely culture-shocked by how many people suddenly existed together. The art, the sounds, the people—it was extraordinary. I was in Pittsburgh now. The heart where Carnegie was from. The past and present existing together, good or bad. We checked into Hotel Indigo, which was classy. The next day I dove into the Carnegie Museum of Art. I was immersed in history, art, and cultures from all over. I walked everywhere I could, I was like a child in a candy store. There was so much beauty and imagination and thought. It was breathtaking. Not only did I get blown away by the museum, but I realized so much happens in Pittsburgh. I love it. We strolled through several different places experiencing daily life, and as I witnessed how people were trying to get the community together, I was inspired. Walking through the town with my friends just talking and having the times of our lives, I made memories I’ll cherish forever. It was the best summer I’ve ever had hands down. I loved this place. I was thankful for what it taught me. How it helped me grow and gave me new perspectives about culture, people, art—everything.

Aaron Combs

My experience at the Carnegie and in the big city of Pittsburgh was amazing. I had never been to a city that massive, and we saw all types of people and places on our journey. The museum was beautiful and full of history and art that I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Jaydon Tolliver

The trip to Pittsburgh was a very enlightening event for me. Something clicked in my head seeing all of the different art exhibits and spending time with everyone there. It made me realize that there is so much beauty everywhere. Not just in other places, but at home too. This was my first time in an art gallery. And my sense of imagination and creativity ran rampant the entire time. I didn’t know what to look at. The trip to Carnegie Museum of Art really opened my eyes to new things and shed light on the things that I thought I knew. It was truly a life-changing trip.

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Joshua Taylor, 20, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Joshua Taylor

My favorite part of the experience was getting in touch with other youth, sharing ideas, and relating to people outside of my usual environment. Being around other artists and those who share a creative vision is always exciting. The workshop started out with a tour of the museum and a couple of exercises to get us introduced to each other and really set the tone for the rest of the time we spent together. Exploring the museum was awesome; being able to see all of the amazing works of art was interesting and inspiring.

I also loved exploring Braddock and Wilkinsburg. Seeing the shape these communities are in and meeting the people who are trying to restore and revive them was a thought-provoking experience. Hearing the input from the other youth from Whitesburg really drew a lot of interesting parallels of how the struggle in these communities is very similar to the ones in Whitesburg. Meeting all of these wonderful people and seeing how they are actively working to change the status quo was probably the most inspiring part of the workshop. It really has driven me to try and make a difference in my life and in the lives of others around me, whether it be small or large. Being able to film and take photographs in these areas was amazing too, being around other creatives, and having all of this inspiration around us was fantastic. Overall the experience was one of the biggest highlights of my summer. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

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Joshua Collier, 16, Waco, Kentucky.

Joshua Collier

I am a person that loves both the culture I come from and to travel and experience those of other places. As I get older, I am growing to better appreciate our differences as humans and cherish our similarities. I found that I had much in common with the people of Pittsburgh.

I am from semi-rural Kentucky in what I would consider the borderlands of Appalachia. I live 12 miles from the nearest “city” of 30,000 people and within a half an hour’s drive of Lexington, a metropolitan area of 150,000. While I am fairly close to Lexington, we rarely go to the city. Perhaps the biggest change I experience when going to a big city is the sheer difference in population. Though Pittsburgh is a city of over 300,000 people, it really didn’t feel as big as some other cities do. Each neighborhood felt like its own little town and there was plenty of green space where we stayed. The juxtaposition of skyscrapers and a mountainous background was a nice change from the monotony of home. Even positioned in Appalachia, Pittsburgh offered a mix of mountain culture, worldly foods, and a bit of a Yankee accent not heard at home. For an educational, recreational excursion, the city was more than I ever expected.

The most impacting part of our visits, in my opinion, was to see the gentrification of the city and opposing anti-gentrification forces. It was empowering to see citizens defend their homes. Seeing that there are people with hope of making their communities new again and that several have already taken the initiative to start small, sustainable businesses was both eye-opening and reassuring. My region has now lost their sole source of livelihood—coal—and many are struggling to find a replacement. Knowing that Pittsburgh has lost their main industry and has suffered similar consequences offers some empathy; seeing that the city is working towards a new future offers some hope. I now have some realistic examples of the future I have always yearned for. The only question now is whether we have enough willing individuals to make it happen; I believe there may be enough for more than plausibility, as long as everyone will put in the work.

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Jade Slone, 19, Knott County, Kentucky.

Jade Slone

Driving six hours would exhaust even the most energetic of people, but driving into the city of Pittsburgh for the first time wipes all that away. So much happens all at once and it’s honestly a beautiful sight to behold. Staring mouth agape was the only response I could manage. Very similar to my response to the museum. Even in the dark and pouring rain, just the very blurry shape, is awe-inspiring. Stepping inside I was automatically astonished at the beauty held in one space.

When we came back to see it in all of its well-lit glory, I was taken aback. From Monet to the most exquisite sculptures, even just walking into such a historical, important place is priceless. It’s something that can never be precisely relived, but you can remember exactly how it felt. It’s an experience I will forever be grateful for and will not soon forget.

Lakshmi Ilango

The collaboration between CMOA and Appalshop gave me the chance to explore many different places throughout Pittsburgh and learn its rich history. For starters, we got a chance to go around the art museum and look at the multitude of pieces. Our field trips had a general emphasis on the pieces that reflect the history of Pittsburgh’s steel industry. Coming from Boston, I didn’t know much about Pittsburgh. Even the origin of the name of its football team, the Steelers, was a mystery to me. But this internship showed me how much of an economic impact the industry had in the past, and how much of an impact it has culturally in the present. Most of the art and movies we saw revolved around the steel industry, from graffiti at Carrie Furnace to John White Alexander’s The Crowning of Labor found on the museum’s Grand Staircase.

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Lakshmi Ilango, 19, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Via Boston, Massachusetts).

Aside from art, I learned a lot about different neighborhoods in the area and how art can be a way to transform a neighborhood. This fact was emphasized by the various artists and people we met during our neighborhood tours. In Wilkinsburg, the artist Dee Briggs (or Ms. Dee as her neighbors call her), is a well-known, highly valued, and much-loved community figure in this poor and struggling neighborhood. Her massive art projects that incorporate steel and metal attract folks from all over the area. Her projects even tend to unite these folks as they help and work with her to complete them. For example, she bought an old abandoned house and proceeded to create the “House of Gold.” People were confused by it at first but then grew to love the idea and even helped Ms. Dee in this endeavor. Everyone got so invested in it, and thus, the art united the community as new neighbors met and worked together. The purpose was to get different people talking, break down barriers, and increase the sense of unity. And the fact that Ms. Dee was able to turn an eyesore into something beautiful is also pretty awesome.

Art was used in the neighborhood of Braddock, too. Within the walls of its public library is a significant amount of free space dedicated to allowing community members to come in and work on art projects. From its free ceramics studio to its printing press, the idea is to supply as many resources as they can to the general public and encourage creativity and innovation.

This program showed me how great the subject of art is and how necessary it can be. Art can help build up a struggling community and help people understand each other, and in turn decrease the amount of violence we see in the world. It is kind of ironic or silly when art and music programs tend to be the first to be cut in impoverished schools. I’ve always liked art but have many times questioned its purpose or necessity. Coming from an Indian family where math and science seem to be the highest regarded, it was hard to justify my dreams of being an artist or cinematographer. Meeting many experienced artists and understanding what they do for the community changed my perception and enforced the idea to pursue my passions. This was a timely realization for I am approaching my second year of higher education, so I need to narrow down what it is I want to study. The youth in Whitesburg also only reinforced my determination to follow my interests, because coming from the South, education or art is not always appreciated, and their bravery to also follow this goal was very inspirational. It’s awesome to be surrounded by such like-minded people, especially a group of such colorful, unique, and entertaining individuals whose creativity and intelligence I admire tremendously. Overall the program was a great success, despite having to make adjustments in the itinerary, for it accomplished the goal of emphasizing the importance of the arts and its value within a community.

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Left to right: Elijah Bedel, 22, Adams County, Ohio; Elyssia Lowe, 22, Grayson, Kentucky.

Elijah Bedel

My time at Carnegie Museum of Art was quite enjoyable. It opened my eyes to such a fantastic world of culture that very few get to see. I felt privileged to be invited to the museum and was very grateful for the warm welcome and hospitality we received during our visits. I learned about many different artistic styles while touring the museum and got to observe the artwork from cultures and individuals spanning the globe. We were encouraged to delve into pieces that peaked our interest and this challenged me to add my own creativity to existing artwork. It was quite inspiring to learn about myself through the work of a master. Seeing such amazing diversity in art and culture made me think about the culture of Appalachia and the many artists who call it home. I realized that there are many people in Appalachia with amazing talents and artistic skill who might not be as well-known as the artists we observed in the Carnegie Museum but have work which offers no less inspiration. Appalachian artists, as well as the natural artistic beauty of the region, could really help to bring more attention from the rest of our nation to the needs of Appalachians and the many skills of the people here. I hope to see more recognition and appreciation of Appalachian art and culture within the region as well as outside in the future.

Elyssia Lowe

Pittsburgh was the first city I had been to in five years. It’s also the only city where I felt comfortable and at home. The life it holds and the vibe it puts out makes the difference. Being surrounded by mountains, while also experiencing another culture is the best of both worlds and it is truly a beautiful place.

Carnegie Museum of Art was the first museum I had ever been to. Surreal for sure, however I can honestly say I will never forget the joy I felt when we first visited the museum. As an art major, you read and study about these works of art and their creators. To see it all in person was a life-changing event that I will be forever grateful for. I learned so much about who I am and what I can and will do in my future, thanks to Pittsburgh and Carnegie Museum of Art.

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Oakley Fugate, 22, Letcher County, Kentucky.

Oakley Fugate

A chance of a lifetime is a phrase often overused. But this was a trip of a lifetime. Not only did I get to go to my very first museum, and with some of the best people I have ever met, but I got to see this wonderful place with a program that has literally changed my life. I got to see the town. I got to see Braddock and Wilkinsburg. I got to see priceless works of art that I never would have dreamed of seeing in person.

I had never been to a museum before. To travel would have easily cost more than my mother makes in two or three months and that’s not counting the second trip. To say that I would have never set foot in Pittsburgh is the understatement of the century.

Pittsburgh is easily the biggest city I have ever been to (prior to that was Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, with a population of 6,000). I was completely overwhelmed. I got to experience so much in such a little span of time. If I had my way, I’d still be there and likely be broke with all the souvenirs I wanted to take home.

The trip to Carrie Furnace was amazing. I am a sucker for old factories and that place was beautiful. I could easily spend a week there just to examine it. We got to visit the streets of Braddock where, for the first time ever, I was asked about my accent (turns out not everyone says “you all”). I got to see beautiful graffiti. I met some of the nicest strangers I think I will ever meet. I know I keep repeating that I wish I could stay there, but it’s true. Those were the fastest six days of my life. To quote Metallica, “as soon as I belong, it’s time I disappear.”

My highlight was of course the Carnegie Museum. It was far better than I thought it was going to be. I saw priceless paintings. I saw suits of actual medieval armor. I saw dinosaur bones. The 10-year-old obsessed with Jurassic Park in me was screaming! The mural in the staircase was amazing. Everything was mind-blowing, from the sculptures to the fancy elevator.

My secondary highlight was The Andy Warhol Museum. That place was amazing. It was everything I had hoped it would be and so much more. I spent so much time in there, but I sadly didn’t get to do a film test (easily the biggest bummer of the trip). I broke my “no more than $20 a day” rule and bought a wonderful winter hat during the hottest summer in years. No regrets. Ever.

And all of that was just seeing it as a part of the Appalachian Media Institute. Seeing it as a filmmaker was a whole new level. I filmed so much there and still missed out on so much more. There’s a saying, “You either film everything or be a part of everything.” Words will never be able to express my gratitude properly. Everything I did will forever hold a place in my heart.

This summer, as part of a cultural exchange program called Envisioning Our Future, Carnegie Museum of Art and the Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop worked with rural and urban Appalachian youth to learn storytelling. As part of the program, students were given the opportunity to explore concepts of place, identity, and economic transition through filmmaking, photography, podcasting, and creative writing—all with the galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art as the backdrop and inspiration for their learning. To learn more, visit the Envisioning Appalachia story archive.

Envisioning Appalachia is an ongoing series that explores concepts of place, identity, and economic transition in the region’s urban and rural areas. The series is produced in partnership with the Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop.