By Sarah Elkins
This historically misunderstood and insular state has often borne the brunt of stereotypes and jokes, but more and more these mountains and its people are the focus of prime-time attention. DIY Network’s Barnwood Builders is approaching its seventh season on the air and Anthony Bourdain’s CNN series Parts Unknown recently delved into the mysteries of coal country and Appalachian cuisine. It seems West Virginia is owning its story and the rest of the country is taking a second look. West Virginians are doing interesting work in the world. Here are four of them we think you should keep your eye on in the coming year. They’re doing their home state proud.
Elaine McMillion Sheldon
“I am rooted in West Virginia and aim to start discussions that lead us to a healthy future,” Elaine McMillion Sheldon says of what’s driving her work. Early this year Heroin(e), a Netflix Original Documentary directed by Sheldon, was nominated for an Academy Award, thrusting her into the spotlight where she has done exactly what she aimed to do—start a discussion. Heroin(e) chronicles the efforts of three women, Fire Chief Jan Rader, Judge Patricia Keller, and Necia Freeman of Brown Bag Ministry, to fight the opioid epidemic crippling Huntington, WV through compassion.
Sheldon is telling hard stories through a lens of hope, and abundant accolades have come her way in a short time. Upon its release in 2013, Hollow, an interactive documentary examining the future of rural America, garnered a Peabody, Emmy nomination, and 3rd Prize in the World Press Photo Multimedia Awards. The documentary centers in McDowell County, WV, a town shackled by poverty and the disappearance of a generation fleeing the state for opportunity. It’s a phenomenon nick-named “brain drain,” becoming common across rural Appalachia.
“In my role as a journalist and filmmaker I seek to discover and document both truth and beauty in the struggles we face,” Sheldon says.
Soon, Netflix will release Sheldon’s feature-length documentary, Recovery Boys which follows four men as they work to rebuild their lives and repair relationships after years of addiction. She was recently named a 2018 USA Fellow by United States Artists.
Can you ever really belong again in a place you once called home? Author Mesha Maren seeks an answer in Sugar Run, her novel forthcoming from Algonquin in early 2019. The novel follows the story of Jodi a 35-year-old woman who returns home after an 18-year prison sentence. Maren herself has recently returned to the place she was born and raised—Muddy Creek Mountain in Greenbrier County. While it wasn’t a prison sentence that kept her away for the 12 years she’s been gone, her character’s journey resonates with her own.
“I feel like Jodi and I both realized at some point that although that home that you recalled so vividly during all your years away is a place that only truly exists in your heart and your dreams, it will always be inextricably a part of who you are,” she says.
Maren, who teaches fiction in the MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, has been busy in the past few years collecting numerous accolades for her writing. She was the recipient of the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant along with a handful of notable fellowships. In the fall, Maren will join the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill as a Kenan Visiting Writer. Her work has appeared in Tin House, The Oxford American, Crazyhorse and other esteemed publications.
A second novel from Maren is in the works, but let’s slow down; Sugar Run has yet to hit shelves. It may be difficult to keep up with Mesha Maren now that she’s out of the gate.
This time last year, Gracie Lancaster was a high school student reeling from her overnight emergence as a GUESS model. Her image was in temporary residence on a billboard at a busy Los Angeles intersection, and magazines like Harper’s Bazaar ran two-page spreads of GUESS’ latest line of accessories worn by founder Paul Marciano’s newest muse, Gracie from Gassaway, West Virginia. Fast forward a year and a lot has changed for Gracie, but some things have remained remarkably the same.
I called her mom, Kristi Lancaster, to catch up with the girl behind the famous face. Gracie was at tennis practice, and, she explained in a very mom way, her daughter was just getting over being sick. For now, at least, she is still a high school student posting photos of her dog on Instagram who just happens to be signing contracts with big-name brands. Since her success with GUESS, Gracie has signed with Garage, a Canadian-based fashion retailer, and fashion designer Sherri Hill. She is currently representing both brands’ spring 2018 collections.
Gracie will graduate from Braxton County High School this spring, “a year early,” the 17-year-old notes. After graduation, she is off to New York City to pursue her modeling career full time, but she plans to return home for a degree from WVU. There is time enough for this small-town West Virginia girl to do it all. “I love traveling, seeing the world, and meeting new people,” she says, and she certainly will.
A mixed media and installation artist from Charleston, WV, Gregg Oxley is inspired by abandoned objects, forgotten documents, the left-behind relics of lives already lived. He reanimates receipts, hand-written letters, pages torn from books and retells their stories against a backdrop of current themes, often using thick layers of paint and non-traditional mediums like ash and motor oil to reveal his subjects.
“I love working on a specific theme or body of work, the more I manipulate a piece or the more narrative I add to the work the more the final piece will excite me,” Oxley says.
Right now his current exhibit, Holler is Haunted, is showing at Holler Contemporary Art Gallery in Princeton, WV through May 20th. In it, Mason jars sit in a perfect row on a shelf; in each jar a single photo is submerged in clear liquid. Moonshine, perhaps? Faces and figures, mostly black and white images, peer out from the jars. On a wall, a cluster of frames and a clock hang together. Nearly everything in the photos is painted over crudely with white paint, leaving only the quiet under-story of the images that remain. In one, a young woman is cropped in white paint with the symbol for infinity swirling above her head and the single line, “Dad loved this one,” written in grade school cursive below. The effect is a haunting that seeps beyond the exhibit and into one’s own family photos and stories.
Oxley’s work can be found at Apartment Earth Gallery on Hale Street, downtown Charleston. Opening December 13, a new exhibition will run through January 10, 2018 at Wheeling Artisan Center.