This FAQ was put together by guest curator Eric Drummond Smith. Anything erroneous, ill-conceived, or scandalous is entirely his fault and reflects his errors, not the opinions or intentions of the William King Museum of Art.
In the American Republic few things are more universal than our collective interest in and disdain for democratic politics. Whether we're imagining our ancestors reading broadside newspaper articles to one another on the steps of their local post offices or our peers today engaging collective, almost stream of conscience debates through the various mediums of the internet age, we are an intensively political people, not merely among our elites and ivory-tower intellectuals, but almost universally. Our culture is that of democratic-republicanism, with its equal shares of beauty and muck.
When something is this deeply embedded into a people's culture it will pervade its arts almost universally. My ancestors in Europe built cathedrals and wrote music and decorated mosaics that touched upon religious themes - Americans do this too, of course, but in equal (or greater) measure we build monuments and write tomes and compose operas on questions political.
Of course each of the many nations that make up the greater American nation does this in their own way and my folk, the Appalachians, no less than the others. That is part of the motivation for this show - to illustrate how Appalachians - modern Appalachians - express their political nature artistically.
We're doing this in a simple way - I have gathered together great works of political art from the history of American democracy - 1788 to 2012 - and I'm asking artists to react to them. End. That's it. Nothing more, nothing less. I have no idea what they're going to paint, draw, sculpt, print, or record. But it is going to be wonderful.
You're asking yourself now, why name a show about political art Cherry Bounce? If you'll humor me, I'd like to explain through a bit of a narrative.
Once upon a time, when America was younger and democracy was still truly intoxicating, Americans loved elections. Sure, they were nasty and vicious and half the time corrupt. But they were ours, our government, our unique way of living - and by god, we loved them, even if we decried the individuals running sometimes. There are still hints of that in our culture, but nothing like the old days. In the old days Election Day was our greatest national celebration - before there were national holidays there was Election Day, the day we voted and drank and threw parties and ate too much and danced and stood rapt as votes were counted and argued and fought and basically were enraptured at our own independence - both as a nation and as so many states, and indeed, as millions of individuals.
Over time we've lost much of this joy. The happiness of the election is a memory more than it is a reality - we lament the dawn of election season, huge numbers of our people refuse to participate, and few of us invest the time to be truly educated about issues political, economic, or social. We work too much. We play too hard. We forget we are citizens, that the absurdity that is our government is, indeed, ours, and if we learn to love it again, there is a real chance that the Union will respond in kind.
We're cynics for a reason of course - the sins of our government and the elites who run it, not to mention the willfully ignorant who often give those elites their jobs, are many. I could list our national sins but we all know them - we, as a people, have amazing ideals. We simply haven't always lived up to them. If we learn to treasure those ideals, and to love our government, though in a critical way - 400 million parents, trying to correct a collective brat, perhaps? - we are more likely to do so. The heroes of our nation weren't people who didn't believe in it, but were people who believed in it so much that they thought, no, knew, it could be better than it was - and so they led us, fought for us, treasured politics for us.
That is what Election Day should be - unparalleled joy at our ability to care and actually do something, to be fully human, to have a role in shaping our own political destiny, a day to joyfully be American not merely as an observer but as a participant.
So, why Cherry Bounce? Because I'm Appalachian, and this is a show of Appalachian artists and once upon a time, when Americans still loved elections, when they celebrated them, Appalachian folk would play music and drink and laugh and sing and dance and eat. We would exude joy, save some of our finest recipes for this incredibly special times. One of those was a special kind of whiskey called cherry bounce - a glorious, delicious cordial of moonshine and sugar and cherries that takes ages and patience to make well, but when done constitutes a smooth and wonderful punch that helped hillbilly folk dance and laugh and debate easier, even when their candidates and parties lost the race. Cherry bounce was the drink of elections in many parts of the mountains, a whiskey for special occasions for a people who once nearly rebelled against the Union over their right to make and sell whiskey in the nation's dawn.
That is what I want this show to be: a fine liquor, something that adds joy to a proceeding that is serious but also beautiful, something to get my fellow folk talking, debating, reading again, to make elections an object of communion, the thing to talk about at the table, not the thing to avoid.
I think it will work.
Eric Drummond Smith, the guest curator, is an Appalachian - born and raised in Bluefield, West Virginia, he spent summers in Bland County, Virginia. He's an assistant professor of political science at the University of Virginia's College at Wise where he focuses on international and comparative politics, and he is an alumnus of three greater Appalachian institutions of higher learning - nearby Emory & Henry College, his baccalaureate institution, where he triple-majored in political science, art, and geography; the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in the Virginian Blue Ridge Mountains, his masters institution, where he read for East Asian studies, focusing on Chinese politics, history, philosophy, and art; and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, between the Cumberlands and the Smokies, his doctoral institution, where he read for political science, testing in the fields of international relations and comparative politics and specializing in the origins of conflict. He is also a working artist, generally describing himself as a pop expressionist-surrealist, though he clearly has an affinity with the lowbrow movement. He also loves paleontology, wears glasses, is a survivor of aplastic anemia, and wears sweater vests with unusual frequency. If you're interested in learning more about him, or checking out some of his work, you can visit his websites - Ask a Political Scientist and The Big Ugly Hullabaloo. To contact him try his email - eds9g (at) uvawise.edu
Callie Hietala, the curator, is an Appalachian - born and raised in Marion, Virginia and working as the Curator and Director of Exhibitions at the William King Museum of Art. She received her baccalaureate education in classical studies and English at the venerable College of William & Mary of Williamsburg, Virginia where, of course, several of the presidents featured in this show are her peer alumni. She also spent some time at Christ's College, Cambridge, United Kingdom, the alma mater of John Milton, Charles Darwin, John Oliver, and Sacha Baron Cohen. She wears glasses, serves as the Assistant Haintmistress for the Town of Abingdon, judges FLL LEGO robotics competitions, participates in Civil War reenactments, throws excellent Oscar parties, and has an unnatural affinity for Alexander Hamilton as portrayed in rap. You can reach her by email at chietala (at) wkmuseum.org
Step One: The story begins with a meeting at the William King Museum of Art - a number of artists, patrons of the art, and employees of the Museum getting together to discuss future shows. The topic of the 2016 presidential elections came up and I, being a political scientist and artist, suggested that the museum host a show of political art. There was a flurry of discussion and I found, at the end, that I'd been made guest curator and told to come up with some ideas to bring back to the the folk at the museum for what that show might look like. One idea stuck - the idea for the Cherry Bounce show.
Step Two: The next step was to develop a list of artists to invite. I reviewed hundreds of artists from Greater Appalachia (as I described it to folk at the museum, "Wheeling to Chattanooga, the Blue Ridge to the Blue Grass and the Cumberlands"), looking over the work of featured artists in galleries, professors of art at hundreds of colleges and universities in the region, and guilds and collectives galore. I wasn't just looking for good artists - I was looking for Outsider Art, Expressionists, and every other type of modern art - I wanted to bring together a show of emotionally powerful art that reflected Appalachia not merely as a place in and of itself, but as a place that was part of the broader human art culture.
Step Three: We, Callie and myself, wrote a letter. It was a good letter, I think, one that outlined everything we wanted to do. Then we sent it out over the ether - emails galore.
Step Four: We got responses to our letter and some non-responses. Thinking about my own experience with email I realized that undoubtedly some of the mass emails had been shunted over into junk folders, so I reached out to our non-respondants - emails, Facebook messages, phone calls - and got some more "I'm in" acknowledgements. And some "no thank-yous" as well. But I'm less interested in them.
Step Five: I spent around a week researching political art and advertising associated with elections and putting together a massive collection thereof. Originally my thought had been to stick to campaign posters but, alas, this would have been a significantly limiting factor - come to find out, American campaigns largely lacked postering until the mid-1800s. This necessitated an expansion into, well, virtually the whole realm of visual mediums.
Step Six: Callie and I spent a very, very long time pairing artists with particular elections and, as such, with particular campaign art (or, if you prefer, propaganda). It was exhausting and wonderful - and a change in plans. Originally I'd planned on randomly selecting elections and pairing them with artists, but after some discussion we decided against that - there was just too much potential in certain matches to be denied.
Step Seven: I made this website. I did this before we sent out our assignments to the artists because I wanted them to have an immediate, visceral connection with the pieces they'd be reacting to or reinterpreting. I also wanted them to have easy access to brief overviews of the history of the elections they're responding to right at hand - which of course will also serve to enhance the show's utility as an educational tool. Don't consider it done yet, regardless - it will continue to be a work in progress throughout the show, though, so keep visiting.
Step Eight: TBA
The William King Museum of Art in Abingdon, Virginia. For more information on the WKMA, how to get there, and so on please click here.