Appalachia has its own distinctive, vibrant, diverse culture, complete with creativity galore. Explore the unique region of Ohio where the Midwest and Appalachia meet with writer Mandy Shunnarah.
As a Southerner transplanted in the Midwest, I feel right at home in Appalachian Ohio, the only part of the Midwest that intersects with this famed mountainous region. From artists keeping traditional crafts alive to musicians and writers blending the styles of their cultural heritage with that of the region they now call home, to surprising museums and festivals and unique arts organizations, Appalachian Ohio is a crossroads of vivid arts and vital folkways.
This tour flows north to south, following the course of the Ohio River.
1) Visit the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing, Ohio
What began as a humble collection of artifacts in Dr. John S. Mattox’s insurance office grew to become a standalone museum spanning three stories in a historic building in the town’s main street. Just over twenty miles from the border of West Virginia, the threshold between slave states and free states before the Civil War, Underground Railroad safehouses in Flushing became the first stop for many enslaved Africans on their way to freedom.
The museum doesn’t gloss over the brutal reality of slavery––shackles and other instruments of bondage are on display, along with a replica of a cabin where enslaved people would have lived. In addition, the museum features creative murals, an in-depth library, and cultural and artistic pieces representing the various countries and cultures that enslaved peoples were kidnapped from. Dr. Mattox was also a collector of antique cameras and Elvis memorabilia, so you’ll see those on display as well.
2) See an old artform in action at JustAJar Design Press in Marietta, Ohio
In the days before computerized printers, items like posters, cards, and other goods were printed by hand using carved wooden blocks, letterpress and typesetting machines, or a combination of the two. JustAJar Design Press is keeping the craft of traditional printing alive in their studio and storefront in Marietta. You can see the artistry of the husband and wife team at work when they do their regular printing demonstrations.
3) Gaze upon quilts like you’ve never seen before at The Dairy Barn Arts Center in Athens, Ohio
As its name would suggest, the arts center was converted from an old dairy barn in the ‘70s and is now home to multiple gallery spaces. Their exhibition schedule for summer 2021 boasts highlights like Quilt National —an international exhibit of fine art quilts—and Flora, Fauna & Landscape, a quilt and textile art exhibit on the theme of nature.
These aren’t the kind of quilts you’d casually throw on the bed. They’re hanging tapestries, often made with unexpected materials like toilet paper rolls, barbed wire, and more. Some look more like photographs, others collages, and still more with 3D elements; the artists push the limits of quilting for an engrossing exhibit experience.
4) Be inspired at Passion Works Studio in Athens, Ohio
The official flower of the city of Athens doesn’t grow in a field, garden or pot. Instead, it’s made lovingly by artists’ hands at the collaborative community art studio Passion Works Studio and is found in windows and storefronts throughout the city.
At Passion Works, artists with developmental differences paint, screenprint, sew, and collage to make stunning works of art that are all bursting with color––meaningful work for which they are paid. From canvas paintings and yard signs to jewelry and aprons, and from tiaras and holiday trees to bookmarks and fabric flowers, Passion Works has been making something for everyone for over twenty years. Nearly every piece includes upcycled materials and all of them are bright and bold, with explosions of color.
The sale of every piece of art benefits the work being done for people with developmental differences at Passion Works, as well as the work of the organizations they partner with, such as Turn It Gold, which fights childhood cancer. When you visit, you’ll even be able to meet the artists!
5) Tour Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Athens, Ohio
Among the many causes Passion Works supports, the restoration efforts at Mt. Zion Baptist Church is one close to home. The towering stone church in downtown Athens has been cutting a sharp figure against the skyline since the early 1900s; founded by freeborn and formerly enslaved African Americans, Mt. Zion wasn’t just a church––it was a community center, meeting place, educational experience, convention hub, and record-keeper for the Black community in the Ohio River Valley region.
Preservationists are working to return the church to its former glory, both aesthetically and as a social, cultural, and justice-focused space for Black people in southeast Ohio. Make an appointment before arriving and have your camera ready; architecture enthusiasts will especially appreciate the stonemasonry, the ornate stained glass windows, and belltower.
6) Have a (vegan) hotdog at O’Betty’s in Athens, Ohio
While you’re in Athens, stop for a meal at O’Betty’s. In addition to the tasty hotdogs, both meaty and vegan, the restaurant is burlesque-themed and boasts the O’Betty’s Hot Dog museum. Hotdog enthusiasts have been adorning toys, cars, clothes, books, and more with its likeness since the food’s invention in the 1870s, and O’Betty’s seeks out the largest, weirdest wiener artifacts for display.
7) Shop the artist studios, co-ops, and galleries in Nelsonville, Ohio
Just a quick drive from Athens is the little town of Nelsonville. On the main thoroughfare through town are several storefronts with handmade, local art available; one is Paper Circle, which sells supplies and finished pieces of papermaking, hosts bookbinding workshops, and invites paper artists in residence to further hone their skills.
A few doors down is Starbrick Gallery, a co-op where artists sell handmade works of wood, pottery, resin, glass, paper, fabric, knit, photographs, and more. Artists also work the register, so you’ll get to meet at least one when you visit.
Around the corner in Nelsonville’s public square is Stuart’s Opera House, which houses a beautiful gallery in addition to its performing arts space.
8) Check out the skateboard museum at the infamous Skatopia in Rutland, Ohio
A skater takes on Skatopia. Photo credit: Kynan Tait / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.
Popularized by its appearance in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video games and the Viva La Bam TV series, Skatopia is an anarchist skatepark on 88 acres. Started by pro skateboarder Brewce Martin, Skatopia is a bucket list destination for skateboarders and fans of other extreme sports. Martin’s passion for skateboarding goes beyond the skatepark he built by hand––over the years he’s collected hundreds of skateboards that represent the evolution of the sport.
From the earliest boards in 1961 to limited edition boards with graphics from famous artists made today, his boards are wood, metal, plastic, and fiberglass; short, long, wide, and narrow; homemade and mass manufactured. The collection covers the walls and ceiling of several rooms and spans the changes in style and materials that ultimately led to skateboarding as we know it today.
9) Learn at the John Gee Black Historical Center in Gallipolis, Ohio
Named after John Gee, a carpenter who donated the land that would house the church and its cemetery, the John Gee Black Historical Center resides in the former African Methodist Episcopal church. The church began in 1818 and held worship services for over 180 years until 1997, when church trustees began converting the building into a Black historical center.
Nowadays, the center’s mission is to preserve the tradition, culture, crafts, music and art of the Black community in the area; Gallia County, where the center is located, has the longest continuously running Emancipation Day celebration in Ohio. The county also houses a dedicated exhibit to its history, along with exhibits for the various schools for Black youth in the county and Underground Railroad artifacts. Be sure to call ahead to see what events might be taking place during your visit.
10) Attend a festival (or three)!
Southeast Ohio is no stranger to quirky annual festivals. Attend just one or keep going back to experience all the fun.
The Washboard Festival – June
The last remaining washboard factory in the U.S. is in Logan, Ohio. To celebrate, the Washboard Festival features washboard-centric music, tours of the washboard factory, and other festivities like a car show, tractor show, parade, and arts and crafts fair.
Nelsonville Music Festival – June
Featuring musicians from central and southeast Ohio, the Nelsonville Music Festival annually draws hundreds of concertgoers from throughout the region. The festival is outdoors and many attendees choose to camp, so bring your tent and sleeping bag!
The Pawpaw Festival – September
If you’ve never had a pawpaw, you’re in for a treat! With its sweet flavor that resembles a cross between a pineapple, mango, and banana and its creamy texture, it’s ideal for eating alone, as well as in ice cream, beer, and other festival treats. Pawpaws grow wild in Ohio and it’s even said that George Washington’s favorite dessert was chilled pawpaw. Attend the festival and see why for yourself!
Cut up Pawpaw. Photo credit: Charles Wang / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.
Bonus: Experience Appalachian Ohio online!
Even if you can’t make it down to the Ohio River Valley in person, there are still many ways to experience Appalachian Ohio from wherever you are.
Read about Storytelling in Queer Appalachia
Appalachia is often treated as a monolith, though that couldn’t be further from the truth. The anthology Storytelling in Queer Appalachia: Imagining and Writing the Unspeakable Other, edited by Hillery Glasby, Sherrie Gradin, and Rachael Ryerson seeks to dispel the myth of the monolith by showcasing the diversity of LGBTQIAP+ people in the region. Appalachian Ohio is woven throughout the book––each of the three editors have a past or current connection to the region.
Listen to Mexilachian music
The Hispanic population boom in Appalachia has fostered a confluence of cultures that’s given rise to fusion cuisine, art, and music. Mexilachian blends music styles like bluegrass and mariachi with other folk styles from both sides of the border for a truly unique listening experience. Learn about Mexilachian music on the OhioHabla podcast and listen for yourself by checking out bands like the trio Good Time Girls.
Explore local flora and fauna prints
Artist and naturalist Savannah Freeman creates ornate woodblock and linoleum cut prints of flora and fauna native to southeast Ohio. By printing on and with environmentally friendly materials, every step of the Moonville Print Shop process honors the natural world Savannah calls home.
See Appalachia through a new lens
People from outside Appalachia can place stereotypes on the region. Rather than listening to those who have ill will, choose instead to look through the eyes of people from Appalachia in this photo project.