Posted 7.1.19

Creative Economies in the Coal Fields, by Holly Hayworth, Orion Magazine, Summer 2019

This article is the first in a series examining how artists work and what life is like in communities that include working artists. It is published with support from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. To promote a holistic dialogue about the value of artists, the Tremaine Foundation supports a collective online space called Artists Thrive. Resources and tools within Artists Thrive help artists, arts organizations, and other groups that work with artists collaborate and craft meaningful stories about why art-making matters. Artists Thrive aims to identify the things that help artists pursue their vision and to enable communities to benefit from the arts in all aspects of life.

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Creative Economies in the Coal Fields
by Holly Hayworth
Orion Magazine, Summer 2019

I GREW UP IN APPALACHIA, just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in Tennessee. The mountains I knew as a child had been recognized as holy and protected in perpetuity for future generations. We fell hushed when we entered them, breathed deeply. People came from afar to see their beauty.

I had only a vague notion that there were other Appalachias. My stepfather, from Kentucky, sat on the porch in the evenings and played a John Prine song on his guitar:

And daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mr. Peabody’s coal train done hauled it away

Some in the mountains have seen their homelands crumble around them. They are homesick though they have stayed home. They’ve been trapped by a mono-economy, and then its decline, and they’ve been left to pay the costs—monetary, environmental, psychological, and spiritual—of the destruction left by the coal industry. We know that story. And yet, so often in the telling of it, those who don’t know what it’s like to live in those places either blame the residents for their problems or romanticize their plight.

Last winter, I went to the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky to collect some small pieces of a different story. In the coal fields, there is a strong creative spirit, despite the devastation. Like mining, that story requires digging, requires the will to unearth it, but unlike the coal that was shipped elsewhere for a temporary surge of energy, it can be both sent away and kept at home. It grows with the telling rather than diminishes with use, as only art does. In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde writes, “So long as the gift [of art] is not withheld, the creative spirit will remain a stranger to the economics of scarcity.”...

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About Holly Haworth
Holly Haworth’s work is forthcoming in the next Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology. You can find her writing at Oxford American, Lapham’s Quarterly, and Orion, among other places. She teaches at Blue Mountain School in Floyd, Virginia.