The fog rose off the lake like puffs of smoke…
This January, the arts community in Kentucky had a close shave. Rumors were rife that Matt Bevin, the Commonwealth’s new governor, was planning to propose abolishing the Kentucky Arts Council in his budget. Such a move would have been disastrous for artists and arts lovers alike: in 2015, the state agency awarded $3.3 million in grants to artists, schools, libraries, and community and arts organizations across Kentucky.
For Kentucky artists, the agency has long been a source of pride, not only for the financial support and creative validation that it has provided since its founding in 1966, but also for the simple fact that its work and presence has always pushed back against the nasty stereotype that the Commonwealth is filled with illiterate nabobs who don’t know Lady Chatterley’s Lover from Lady Antebellum. Its very presence sends the message that Kentucky arts and artists are to be valued. So it was not surprising when the arts community reacted swiftly and with collective fury, flooding social media and generating scores of telephone calls and emails to the governor and state legislators.
When the governor’s budget was released, the arts council was ultimately spared. Instead, the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, the council’s parent agency—along with other cabinet departments—would be subjected to a nine percent cut and tasked with deciding how to distribute those reductions. Many arts advocates across the Commonwealth breathed a sigh of relief, murmuring that it might have been worse. And indeed it might have been. But aside from the issue of funding, the incident raised the serious question of how much the arts— and on a literary level, stories themselves—are valued.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once wrote, a statement that if not quite literally true for many Kentuckians, Appalachians, and others across the country, comes pretty close. Storytelling has long been at the heart of our culture, an act of creativity that has sustained families in both good times and bad. On front porches in the cool of the day, over casseroles following a funeral, in the wake of epic floods, coal mining disasters, and deep poverty, the people of this region have always relied on the power of the narrative to communicate, commemorate, preserve and heal.
Appalachian Heritage was founded in 1973 in part to honor this tradition, and this issue in particular illustrates 7 that focus, beginning with the winners of the 2015 Denny C. Plattner Awards. As you thumb through these pages, you’ll see how tragedy impacts a community and its residents in Jeremy S. McQueen’s story “What Lies on the Mind.” You’ll marvel at the honesty and vulnerability in Tessa McCoy’s essay “A Queen in My Blue Jeans.” You’ll be moved as the narrator of Kathleen Driskell’s poem “Laundry Woman” recalls her great-grandmother’s life in service “to feed / her fatherless children.” And you’ll want to read Maurice Manning’s craft essay “Bless Its Heart: The Irony of Appalachian Literature”— delivered as a keynote at Berea College’s recent Appalachian Symposium—more than once to savor its eloquence and intellectual heft.
In his essay, Manning calls on us to “go forth and trust that the human imagination, wherever it resides, will call to life the things that matter.” By doing so, we will also recommit ourselves to valuing story in both our individual lives and communities at large.