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UNG students preserve Appalachian culture through art

UNG student Harlie McCurlie was the lead artist of the Appalachian Studies Center culture project.

Students and faculty from the Appalachian Studies Center at the University of North Georgia (UNG) are traveling to Washington D.C. for the fifth year in a row to present their art-based research on traditional Appalachian gardening at the Appalachian Teaching Project (ATP) conference on Dec. 2.

The ATP is the pinnacle of a year-long regional teaching collaboration initiated by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) that challenges its 15 member institutions to strengthen community non-profits. This year, UNG partnered with The Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center in Rabun County, Georgia.

"With its 50-year history of publishing magazines and books based on student interviews of Appalachian elders, Foxfire was a good fit," said Rosann Kent, director of the Appalachian Studies Center at UNG. "We were asked to develop an innovative model to help Foxfire increase its digital interpretive capacity to reach new generations, both in Rabun County and beyond."

Dr. Chris Dockery, Appalachian Teaching Fellow and associate professor of art education in the Department of Visual Arts at UNG, led the nine students and four community volunteers in creating a "crankie," a moving panoramic shadow box theater illustrated with intricate paper cuts.

"First, students researched the Foxfire archives to research interviews that never made it into the Foxfire books, transcribed the manuscripts and audio, and wrote a script," Kent said. "Then, we analyzed the transcriptions and picked those stories with the richest narrative themes. Next, students identified common imagery, made sketches and storyboard, and began to cut and paste the delicate silhouettes."

The crankie features ethno-cultural memories related to Appalachian agriculture, particularly planting by the signs. Next semester, the students will produce a digital version of the performance. The crankie, along with the accompanying filmed studio performance, will serve as an innovative model that high school students, alumni and volunteers can use to showcase the various other subjects in the museum's collection of oral histories. 

Harlie McCurley, a senior majoring in studio art, believes that her experience as a student has been exponentially improved by having Appalachian Studies as her minor.

"There has never been a better time to be a student! We have grown so much with the help of our community partners, or the people we call 'leaders.' These are the people who are filling the gap between the students and the community, growing the gardens, and passing down the seeds and stories. What is special about the leaders in our community, is that they don't see themselves as leaders at all. It's the deep culture of independence, self-preservation and sufficiency that drives them to do what they do," McCurley said.

A junior majoring in business management, Sarah Wintersgille understands the necessity of her team's efforts to research Appalachia the Appalachian way.

"The stories we tell are just a tiny sample from the archives at Foxfire, and this project has made us all fall in love with all those stories, all those characters, all that rarity. It's our hope that young people will sift through some of those stories and create a way to express them to others. We don't want to lose that heritage, that culture and those traditions," Wintersgille said.

Students attending the conference are McCurley, Wintersgille, Chris Cato, Ross McIntire Jr., Lauren Toebe, and Sommer Coen.

UNG's center is located at the Vickery House on the Dahlonega Campus and is the official Appalachian Studies Center for the state of Georgia.


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