Arts council awards funding for disaster recovery in eastern, western Kentucky

FRANKFORT, Ky. (May 26, 2023) — The Kentucky Arts Council has awarded more than $170,000 to several schools, arts organizations and individual artists in as part of an effort to help in the recovery after the December 2021 tornadoes in western Kentucky and the July 2022 floods in eastern Kentucky.

The arts council received $115,000 in funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and $26,000 from regional partner South Arts. The council allocated $35,000 from its own budget to fund 50 grants.

“In the wake of the tornadoes that devastated areas of western Kentucky, we knew there were individual artists, arts organizations and even school programs that were going to suffer and need help in recovering,” said Chris Cathers, arts council executive director. “When the flood waters rose in eastern Kentucky, the need became greater.”

The Kentucky Arts Council coordinated assistance to artists, arts organizations and other creative and cultural institutions following both the tornadoes and storms. These disasters were seven months apart and affected large numbers of artists and arts organizations in Kentucky.

The arts council ran three grant programs for disaster relief — programs for arts education, individual artists and nonprofit arts organizations.

To date, the arts council has awarded:

Arts Education Grants – 13 grants (current) totaling $12,388
Individual Artist Grants – 20 grants, $4,000 each, totaling $80,000
Nonprofit Arts Organization Grants – 17 grants, varying dollar amounts, totaling $74,922
A complete list of awardees is available on the arts council website.

“Hundreds of artists and multiple arts organizations were tremendously affected between these two events, and we were just stunned,” said Emily B. Moses, arts council executive staff advisor. “Doing everything we could to help our artists and organizations moved to the top of our list, and we continue to provide support and connect our folks with resources as recovery continues.”

Nanc Gunn, executive director of Ice House Gallery and the Mayfield Graves County Art Guild, said that after recovering as much artwork as they could from the rubble, collecting computers and other office supplies, her focus was on the future of the actual Ice House building.

“After all that it was, ‘How are we going to exist without a building?’” Gunn said.

She said Craig Potts, executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council, traveled to Mayfield to examine the building from a standpoint of historical restoration, and several engineers studied the building in an ultimately futile attempt to save it. On Good Friday — a little more than four months after the tornado hit Mayfield and surrounding areas — a crew bulldozed the Ice House.

“I found I’d lost my identity,” Gunn said. “I always thought of myself as the Ice House Lady.”

When Gunn found out the Mayfield Graves County Art Guild would be one of several organizations receiving $5,000 grants from the arts council to aid in disaster recovery, she was overwhelmed.

“The arts council has given a great gift to us,” she said. “It’s not only a monetary gift through grants to keep us up and operating, but also through friendship.”

The guild started offering classes again, using the Graves County Cooperative Extension Center, which was undamaged in the tornado. It also partnered with Regions Bank to feature artwork and artists at work in the bank’s public space.

“We did not think we’d be as far along as we are today,” Gunn said. “After the tornado hit, we had nothing. So I was running the art guild out of my home. We have a public presence at the bank, though, and so many other facilities have opened their doors to us.”

Among those places is Paducah City Hall, which is set up for art shows. The guild has 125 pieces of artwork on exhibit in city hall featuring the work of African American artists.

“If anything good came out of the tornado, it’s all these new connections we made in the community and the new artists we’ve met by having to use other groups’ facilities,” Gunn said.

In Eastern Kentucky, documentary photographer Malcolm Wilson of Letcher County said he was in “absolute shock” last July when the floodwaters rose. It took him back to 1977 when he was 21 and trapped in Harlan, unable to return to Cumberland because of rising floodwaters.

“That was the worst flood I’d witnessed,” he said. “It was the most devastating thing I’d seen until the floods happened last summer.”

Wilson said he was lucky this time.

“I live up on a hill, and water came down my hill within half an inch of getting in my house through the back door,” he said. “It cut deep trenches in my driveway, washed it out. There was a big mudslide in my backyard and driveway.

“We didn’t have water for a month, no power and internet for a couple of weeks.”

Wilson is a cofounder of Humans of Central Appalachia, a documentary photography and oral history initiative that helps tell the stories of Appalachia and its people.

Using the Humans of Central Appalachia Facebook page as a bulletin board, Wilson posted a supply wish list for the page’s 40,000-plus followers to see.

“It was amazing. The response made me cry,” Wilson said. “For over two weeks, UPS designated a truck just to come to Blackey based on donations from that list alone.”

As a documentarian and oral historian, Wilson knew that the details and stories of the 2022 flood needed to be recorded. The $4,000 he received in emergency funding from the Kentucky Arts Council helped Wilson purchase professional cameras for the middle school students he had already been teaching before the flood.

“I’d already been working with young folks, teaching them photography, how to do interviews, how to approach people, how to be honest in their work,” he said. “This helped me purchase better equipment than they were already working with.”

The flood was one of those teachable moments, Wilson said, because it gave his students a topic to focus on.

“I used the flood to train these kids to go out and interview and photograph people affected by the flood,” he said. “Not only people whose homes were flooded, but also first responders and volunteers.”

Wilson also received $19,000 from a private foundation in California started by a person who had been following Humans of Central Appalachia for many years.

“I’d never met this person before. That’s the power of art,” he said. “She said ‘I hate that it’s taken this flood for me to reach out to you, but what can I do to help you?’”

With the arts council grant and the funding from the private foundation, Wilson said his project and mission is far ahead of where he expected it to be while watching the flood happen.

“Never in my wildest dreams, when I was standing there looking out at that rising water, would I have expected to be in this position. To be able to have young people tell their own stories about what happened in the flood and tell the story of their communities is going to be amazing. We’re going to be able to tell the true story of what happened in Eastern Kentucky: how strong we are, independent we are and how we fight.”

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