Two months after floods hit Eastern Kentucky, Appalachian arts festival is a space to heal

Creative thinkers are a key part of rebuilding Appalachia after this summer's disastrous flooding, "because we know we can't build back the same way as we were living before."

That comes from Lora Smith, the organizer of a new event happening this week in Eastern Kentucky called The Appalachian Big Ideas Festival. A key goal, she said, is to help the region reimagine what life could look like in the future while holding space for those affected by flooding to process and heal after two months of recovery efforts.

Eastern Kentucky was devastated by historic flash flooding in late July that wiped buildings off their foundations, swept away cars and buses and left at least 40 people dead following the disaster and relief efforts. The waters have since receded, but the region is still rebounding.

The Appalachian Big Ideas Festival is a three-day event from the The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky set to begin Thursday that will bring together storytelling, arts, culture and community building in Hazard, Kentucky, in hard-hit Perry County.

Organizers started planning the event toward the beginning of the year, Smith said. But the floods left their mark on everything in the region, and the festival would be no exception.

Two months after the storm, organizers said the flood has altered some programming. An arts and culture conversation on Friday, for example, has shifted to reflect the role artists play in recovery, and Smith said more free meal tickets will be given out than initially planned.

What had been intended as a showcase of Appalachian lifestyle, she said, has grown into a space where attendees can grieve and process trauma together while looking toward the future.

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Appalachia is complex, and so is healing

Neema Avashia, a speaker at the Big Ideas Festival, wears many hats – author, teacher, queer, Indian Appalachian. And those identities are inextricable in her work.

Avashia grew up in a tight-knit Indian community in West Virginia, with her website noting she "fits few Appalachian stereotypes." She's written opinion pieces, personal essays and a novel called "Another Appalachia" that detail her unique upbringing.

Avashia will be part of a roundtable discussion alongside other Appalachian writers like Ashley Blooms, Crystal Good, Carter Sickels and Robert Gipe on the first day of the Big Ideas Festival, a conversation she said will explore how writers "figure out how to connect these more complex narratives to audiences."

"How do you hold in your work both love, deep love for a place, but also the ability to ask questions about it?" asked Avashia, who taught a workshop at the Hindman Settlement School over the summer in hard-hit Knott County.

The devastating floods, she said, brought those ideas to the forefront once again. For marginalized folks, Avashia said, healing in a place that hasn't always loved you back is complicated – talking about it this weekend, she hopes, will show "there's some solidarity that people find there in context of the floods."

The region's marginalized people, like others who live in Eastern Kentucky, have faced a tall task as recovery continues. It's lonely work, Avashia said, and she hopes the festival will give them a chance to slow down from "a breakneck pace" on relief efforts.

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"I think what's so powerful about something like Big Ideas is the chance for a lot of those people who have been in those helping roles to share space with one another ... and to talk about 'What does it mean to hold both the harm and the healing inside yourself?'" she said.

The trauma of flooding brought together people from all over the state who set aside politics and identity to help with recovery, according to Avashia and Queer Kentucky executive director Spencer Jenkins, whose group has assisted with relief efforts. But the needs of disenfranchised groups like Black, brown and queer folks can fall to the wayside during times of crisis, Jenkins added. A workshop his organization plans to host will serve as a "preventative measure on not leaving voices behind."

"There's a misconception that not many queer folks live there, but there is a large queer, progressive community that wants visibility," Jenkins said.

Artists as first responders

Appalshop has stood as a hub for Appalachian artists of all mediums since 1969. Like the Hindman Settlement School, though, the organization's headquarters and archive in Whitesburg took heavy damage in the flood.

Recovery efforts at the studio started immediately, and volunteers like Sylvia Ryerson, who will present a documentary about prisons and family at Big Ideas Festival, weren't sure how much of their historical archives could be saved. Alex Gibson, executive director of Appalshop, says it remains unclear two months later, though the organization's radio station WMMT has been reestablished after briefly being forced off the air.

At the festival this week, Appalshop will partner with EKY Mutual Aid, Hemphill Community Center and the Hindman Settlement School for a "community conversation" about the role of artists as first responders.

Gibson said Appalshop has always built a reputation as a community institution, and its artists were spurred into action when their home was ravaged in the flood. It goes beyond their organization, though, he added – church members, students and teachers and others in the region all played roles as first responders in the aftermath of the crisis. Now, he said, the goal is to rebuild.

"We've been here for a long time with you," he said. "And this is just our next step ... now we're doing this together."

Memorabilia from Appalshop, a media, arts and entertainment center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, are embeded in a park bench following in the region. July 29, 2022
Memorabilia from Appalshop, a media, arts and entertainment center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, are embeded in a park bench following in the region. July 29, 2022

Those artists will play a key role at the festival this weekend. Most of the events are free, with Smith noting sponsors like JP Davis Partners, the Fund for the Arts and the Kentucky Arts Council helped make it all happen.

Everyone has brought something to the table as recovery work continues, Gibson said, but artists bring a different perspective, with "really sensative and interesting approaches to problems." The showcase this weekend, he said, will give them an everyone else an opportunity, of only for a moment, to unwind.

"Think of it as part of the communities exhaling a breath after going through tragedy," he said.

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Notable events at Appalachian Big Ideas Festival

Friday, Sept. 30

  • Community Conversations: discussions about local food, sustainable farming, affordable housing and addiction recovery. 9:45 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.

  • Writers' roundtable with Appalachian authors: Neema Avashia, Ashley Blooms, Crystal Good, Carter Sickels and Robert Gipe. 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

  • Community Conversations: discussions about entrepreneurship and adaptable design. 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

  • Community Conversations: discussions about healing through art, art workshop to process trauma after flooding. 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.

  • Community Conversations: discussions about artists as first responders and locally controlled philanthropy. 4:15 p.m. to 5:15 p.m.

  • Keynote closing performance: Reginald Dewayne Betts performs one-man show, "Felon: An American Washi Tale." 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 1

  • Reception for the Liege Clark Liberation Fund: the foundation will award two grants to local queer activists and farmers. 9:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.

  • Film screening: Sylvia Ryerson's film “Calls From Home," a "documentary film about prisons, family, and the ties that bind" according to the festival site. A roundtable discussion will follow. 10 a.m. to noon.

  • People Ready Communities Workshop: Queer Kentucky will facilitate a workshop about supporting LGBTQ+ employees from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m.

  • Closing Keynote: U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón and Kentucky Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson will speak from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Contact reporter Rae Johnson at Follow them on Twitter at @RaeJ_33.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Appalachian Big Ideas Festival offers space for flood victims to heal