Teresa Robinette, a former curator at the Inn at Wise and an artist in her own right, is the region’s local representative for the AMT, founded last year by Doreyl Ammons Cain and her husband, Jerry Cain, from their treehouse digs on a nature preserve near Asheville. Doreyl, the director of the AMT, also works out of her own art studio within a yurt in the western North Carolina mountains.
On Friday, Doreyl said her outfit was thrilled to hear from Robinette.
“We couldn’t be happier. We feel like it could do a lot of good and bring more tourists into the area,” she said. “Also, one of our goals is to help the artists, too. A lot of times artists in the backwoods — like I grew up in the backwoods — are not recognized. And we would really love to have our artists recognized in the Appalachia Mountains. And get our little towns going again and prosperous. This is just one way of doing that. I’ve been in marketing awhile now, and I do know that artists and art lovers are hungry to see what is out there, wonderful things that they may not know about, let alone how to get there.”
The AMT is a de facto visual arts version of The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail from the Blue Ridge to the coalfields following U.S. Route 58, connecting major heritage music venues across the region.
Robinette has been commissioned by the town of Appalachia to paint a mural on a large retaining wall in the downtown sector, just a brief stroll from the post office, wherein an artistic treasure resides.
A mural-size painting completed in 1939 by Lucile E. Blanch nee Lundquist (1895-1981) was one of 1,371 murals painted by around 850 artists nationwide commissioned by the federal government during the Depression era. Most murals were installed in post offices, and Blanch, a renowned artist of her time, was commissioned to create the one that has adorned the Appalachia P.O. lobby ever since.
Robinette said Blanch stayed at a hotel, now long gone, while painting the Appalachia mural. It is at that very spot where Robinette is engaged in her own project to paint a mural on the retaining wall at that site.
Robinette said Blanch was “one of the most award-winning artists of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) period” and Appalachia was fortunate it was chosen as one of the spots where Blanch was dispatched to produce murals.
“That makes this piece of art in this post office one of the most precious pieces of art in our entire area,” Robinette said.
She got acquainted with the AMT project when somebody got her riled.
An outfit called Asheville Now, she explains, promotes arts with tourism in mind across a regional swath reaching as far north as Charlottesville. Robinette said she asked, “How is it that our area (Southwest Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Northeast Tennessee) is considered out of the Appalachia area?”
She didn’t much care for the response.
“I was told it’s because there are no relevant artists in your area. I said, ‘Excuse me?’ And so that led me to find out about the Appalachian Mountain Trail project and (Doreyl and Jerry) were thrilled to take a look at what we offer around here, and expand their network. I want people to see that, yes, we are relevant. I want people to see what we have. And you know, it’s just not nice to be told you’re not relevant.”
She said plenty of other murals abound across this region, and the AMT will be a previously untapped tourism wellspring.
“There are several murals around here. Right off the top of my head there is one in Coeburn, one in Big Stone Gap, one in Pound, one in Clintwood. They’re just all over really. And what this is about, really, is getting people traveling here to every town. If it brings us 20 people, that’s 20 people we didn’t have. That’s how I see it,” she said.
“That may seem like raindrops in the ocean, but when you collect them all together, they do create an ocean.”
According to the AMT website, the project has grown in just a year to more than 60 North Carolina and Virginia historical murals.
The vision of the founders is to “follow the Blue Ridge through North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia and beyond to find already existing historical murals, and also help communities create outdoor Appalachia historical murals that are helping increase the pride of townsfolk.”
Robinette said her goal is to get the AMT across the North Carolina/Tennessee border mountains “through the Tri-Cities, blooming up into us.”