Mountaineers Are Always Free: My Introduction to Roger May

When I travel I always endeavor to find something interesting to do other than the usual tourist attraction. This is especially true in places I’ve visited before.

Sometimes this involves music, like the time I happened upon a Billy Joe Shaver concert at an art opening in Houston. It was such a small event we were able to have a good long visit with Billy Joe (a national treasure). Other times it’s a museum exhibit. That is how I got to see the history of dresses (or something like that) at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

This week I was reminded of one of these experiences I had in Durham, North Carolina.

I was in Chapel Hill to see a friend and in a Google search prior to the trip I found an exhibit at a letterpress, graphic design, and print shop called Horse & Buggy Press. I had never heard of Horse & Buggy, and had no reason to, but was immediately drawn in by the name of the exhibit. It was called Testify: A Visual Love Letter to Appalachia by Roger May.

My childhood friend and I arrived at the print shop thinking this was as much an art gallery as a print shop. Not so much, but what we found was beautiful. While the majority of the first floor was a print shop there was a small lobby near the door that served as the gallery. Horse & Buggy printed Mr. May’s Testify, a limited edition, two-volume set of books featuring 50 photographs of Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. Some of the photographs from the books were displayed in frames on the shop’s walls near the front entrance.

Testify

Mr. May’s photographs were stunning and moving. Many of his photographs in Testify were taken less than an hour away from my childhood home. He captured with great care scenes from Central Appalachia as it is and has been for most of my life. I immediately bought the books and currently display them on my living room coffee table. I see them every day.

I recently showed the books to my father, a life-long resident of Central Appalachia, who was a bit flippant about looking at them. I imagine he was thinking that I was forcing him to appreciate some silly art or weird music (he knows his child). That changed when he realized what he was looking at and then he slowed down, his face softened and he looked with interest and more care. He saw something he knew. He said “I drove by this last month.” It is an amazing thing to see the things and places that you love captured in beautiful and respectful ways. That is what Mr. May did in Testify and does in his work. He displays the truth and beauty of Central Appalachia, including its idiosyncrasies and flaws, in a caring and respectful way.

Mr. May’s description of Testify and its meaning is as lovely as the photographs –

This is my testimony of how I came to see the importance of home and my connection to place. After moving away as a teenager, I’ve struggled to return, to latch on to something from my memory. These images are a vignette into my working through the problem of the construction of memory versus reality. My work embraces the raw beauty of the mountains while keeping at arms length the stereotypical images that have tried to define Appalachia for decades.

Mr. May’s first run of Testify went on to sell out. Currently, there are not plans for a second edition (although I bet if Horse & Buggy gets enough requests they might just do one).

I had never heard of Mr. May until I stumbled upon Horse & Buggy. He describes himself as an Appalachian American photographer and is most recently well-known for his work on the Looking at Appalachia project. You can read about it in National Geographic and the New York Times blog. He has a fun Instagram feed (@walkyourcamera) and a giant tattoo on his chest that reads Montani Semper Liberi – Mountaineers are always free, the West Virginia state motto. He is serious about Appalachian and I love that.

This week on Instagram Mr. May announced that he is selling his personal copies of Testify on a first come first serve basis. That post reminded me of what a treasure I found in an unlikely place on a random afternoon in Durham.

I am grateful for Mr. May and his work and love for Appalachia. I am also grateful for adventures that lead me to wonderful new people and things.

Advertisements

The Definition of Home

My Daddy says that home is wherever I am. Is it? Is home just about me?

Since I moved to the Midwest I find that trips home are bittersweet. Each visit usually ends in tears. I cry until I reach the Virginia/Kentucky state line, about twenty minutes. The difficulty leaving is directly proportional with the length of the stay. My last visit was especially rough. I cried all the way to Ferrell’s (pronounced Fur-ells) Creek, Kentucky, that is at least forty minutes. At a red light during this part of the drive I posted the following on Facebook: “I hate to leave.” And I do.

The Facebook post prompted some unexpected responses. I received a phone call from an old and beloved friend from my hometown. She thought I might be sad and she called to cheer me up, so sweet. She felt the same way when she had to leave her family in our little town. As she put it “it sucks to like your family.” Yes, it would be so much easier if I did not like my family. If I only tolerated them, as many do. Next I received a message from another dear friend who grew up two towns away from my hometown. He told a similar story – he struggled with leaving home after visits too. He described the difficulty in explaining to his parents that “it is harder on the person leaving than it is on those who stay behind.” It is. I agree. My family gets to stay there in the known, while I have to go back to a place and a thing that I haven’t completely figured out or found comfortable.

Mommy & Daddy's HouseI, like these two friends, have an intense connection to home, the place and its mountains. I feel that where I am from is very much a part of my identity. You can hear the mountains when I talk. The culture of the mountains is apparent in the music I love, the food I eat, my behavior and the choices that I make. It is more than just a place.

Sunset on the HollerI also have a remarkable relationship with my family (Mommy, Daddy, Sister, Brother-in-law, The Princess and the Benevolent Dictator). We aren’t perfect. But we do like each other, genuinely. I call it remarkable because I have had friends who are surprised that I talk with my family almost daily, we vacation together and, as one ex-boyfriend put it, “you all know a lot about each other.” And we do. We enjoy one another’s company whether it is at home watching 12 hours of nonstop college football coverage, walking around a Disney park like it’s a job or driving through California in a minivan. We have fun. We are also a fiercely loyal bunch. No matter what there are at least 6 people who will always be on my side. Where else do you find that?

Of course, I am sad to leave them. I am sad to leave a place that I know so well. A place where nearly every mile contains another story, another memory. So, when I leave I cry.

Sunrise near the state lineI never cry when I leave Fort Wayne. It is a nice place. I love my job and my little house here, but that isn’t enough to induce tears. It is not home. Home, for me, isn’t about where I am. Home is the people and place that you cannot wait to get to and cannot bear to leave.

Home isn’t something that follows me. It is something that I return to, again and again.