Harlan native Phyllis (McArthur) Robinnette, who now resides in Laurel County, will be one of the participating writers. Her poem “I’m A Coal Miner” pens the dangers miners face, but highlights their strong faith that is formed because of those dangers. Robinette is the daughter of a coal miner and her oldest son has also chosen to become part of the profession that many declare is highly “generational.”
“We’ve all got just enough coal dust in us here in the mountains to be a very compassionate people,” Robinnette said. “We’re a very strong-willed people who know what it’s like to have loved and lost. We get that from the coal miner.”
Phyllis Sizemore, who works as curator of the Kentucky Coal Museum in Benham, agrees that coal mining is “in the veins.”
Not only has coal mining proven to be “in the veins.” it’s also in the arts. Sizemore believes the reason why so many artists have written about it, sang about it, photographed and painted it, is because of its emotional ties.
“Coal mining and the coal miner is an emotional issue,” she explained. “Their stories touch us on a personal level and because we’re emotionally involved, that naturally leads us to express ourselves through the arts. We want to see the paintings and the photographs, we want to read the books, because we are emotionally bound to the coal miners’ stories.”
Displaying their work along with the Harlan County Photography Guild will be regionally-known artists Larry May, Harlan County High School Principal Bob Howard, and Barbara Church, who operates the Oven Fork Mercantile in Letcher County. Local residents should recall May’s artwork on display at his and his wife’s “Back Porch Gallery” in Benham. The couple currently resides near Lexington, and May’s recent work can now be seen at Lexington’s Arts Place Gallery, The Gateway Center For The Arts in Mt. Sterling, and at the Kentucky Arts Center in Berea.
Many locals are familiar with Howard’s paintings. Howard was an art teacher for several years before becoming a principal. His coal-themed paintings now adorn the walls of downtown Harlan’s newest restaurant “The Coal Miner’s Café.” Church’s art work is hung on the historic walls of the Oven Fork Mercantile, which is a popular stop along scenic U.S. 119 crossing Pine Mountain into Whitesburg.
Besides Robinnette, other writers that will be taking part in next Saturday’s “Coal In Our Veins” art exhibit are James Goode, Debbie Hodson, and Shirley Noe Swiesz. Goode, the former archivist for Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, has written several books pertaining to coal mining including “Ancient Sunshine,” “Up From The Mines,” and “The Cutting Edge.” Goode is currently employed at the Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington. Hodson, from Emmalena, has written two children’s books entitled “A Mountain Rainbow” and “Blackberry Bend,” which both have a “vein” of the area’s coal-mining heritage reflected in their colorful pages.
Local teacher and author Judy Hensley will be representing Foxfire Magazine, a Georgia-based educational organization with the mission of preserving Appalachian culture. Foxfire’s summer magazine edition “The Kentucky Coal Miner – A People Not Forgotten” will be on sale at next Saturday’s event. Local faces of coal that are photographed and quoted in the magazine are Al Feher, Carl Shoupe and Mike O’Bradoviche. Hensley, who is also a member of the Harlan County Photography Guild, said the group’s latest exhibit has a “whole lot of her heart.”
“I come from a long line of coal miners, and I am happy to see us coming together as a community – both geographically and artistically – to do this exhibit,” Hensley said. “This exhibit and entire evening will honor the many men and women who have given their lives for coal and their families.”
Songwriter Terry Muncy will be in attendance and will also perform, along with local mountain storyteller Pam Halcomb.
“It’s hard to be a mountain storyteller and not tell about coal mining,” Halcomb said. “It’s our livelihood. It’s a whole lot of who we are. It’s in our blood. It’s in our veins.”
The Harlan County Historical Society, who has teamed up with the Harlan County Photography Guild to organize “Coal In Our Veins” will have plenty of old coal-mining pictures, relics and memorabilia on display. Lydia Dykes, who serves as the historical society’s vice-president, said she was looking forward to the opportunity to shed a positive spotlight on the area’s coal-mining heritage.
“My dad was a coal miner,” Dykes said. “And so were my grandfather and uncle. This event is just not about celebrating coal, but celebrating our ancestors. To me, it’s about family. Many people who look through all of our old pictures are really moved when they realize, by looking at all those coal-covered faces, how hard they worked and how far they’ve come.”
The Kentucky Coal Museum will have an information booth set up during the event. There will also be scrip collections and beautifully carved coal figurines on sale from the gift shop of Mt. Aire Motel. The open-house portion of the “Coal In Our Veins” art exhibit will begin at 5 p.m. Muncy and Halcomb are scheduled to perform at 6 p.m., along with Lynch’s Greater Mt. Sinai Spirituals, an a cappella gospel group comprised of former coal miners. The evening will end at 7 p.m. with a soup bean dinner and bluegrass concert by local group “Cumberland River.” Harlan County Christian School’s PTA club will be selling the soup bean dinners, complete with “all the fixins” as a fundraiser.
Harlan County High School's Arts and Photography students will have their submissions from the class' recent Regional Coal Art and Photography Contest on display at the "Coal In Our Veins" art exhibit.
The Harlan County Cooperative Extension Agency is the third contributing entity that is helping to produce the “Coal In Our Veins” art exhibit. Jeremy Williams, natural resources extension agent, said he was looking forward to The Depot “coming alive” with the sounds and images of an enduring profession and passion.
“We have a unique heritage,” Williams said. “And we have a good number of very talented artists who have helped preserve and promote our heritage. I’m looking forward to seeing especially our coal-mining heritage come to life Saturday night here at The Depot.”
For more information about the “Coal In Our Veins” art exhibit, contact McDaniels at 573-4223 or 909-0406, or the Harlan County Extension Agency at 573-4464