Pondering Kintsugi and Community Change in Appalachia
By Max Stephenson, Director, Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance
On April 21 I traveled to Whitesburg, Kentucky, a small community of fewer than 2,000 people located in Letcher County, in the mountains of the eastern part of the state, with a group of gifted graduate students. We took the trip to participate in a “Culture Hub celebration,” as the event was called by Appalshop, one of its principal sponsors. This special day had been preceded by two years of efforts by the Whitesburg-based communications and arts nonprofit and its partners to bring together disparate organizations and actors from across the eastern Kentucky coal mining county. Appalshop and its collaborators are seeking to mobilize these various groups in the face of deep social polarization and fractures in the region. These have arisen as the area has experienced the pronounced decline of its primary industry, coal mining, in recent decades.
That continuing hardship has created social challenges and fissures in the communities of eastern Kentucky and other areas of Appalachia, including high rates of unemployment, a major opioid crisis and a related and growing hopelessness among many individuals about their future. A significant number of families face profound daily challenges simply to ensure shelter and sustenance for their own. These difficulties have been intensified by a growing polarization among residents within the region along partisan lines, encouraged by fear-and hate-based state and national party politics. In short, the area now suffers not only from a catastrophic economic decline its residents did not create, but also from a wide-ranging set of social maladies associated with that ongoing seismic shift. State and national political leaders have exploited these in turn for purposes of partisan electoral mobilization, resulting in a deepening of the anxiety and social divisions already apparent within the area’s communities.
We went to Kentucky to join Appalshop and its partners in celebrating the entities that had joined what the sponsoring institutions have dubbed the “Performing Our Future” Project, of which the Culture Hub is an integral part:
Performing Our Future is the working name of a growing collaboration among communities across the country with histories of exploitation, in which residents work together to create a future where we own what we make. … The claim of Performing Our Future is that (1) communities with histories of exploitation also share traditions of resistance; (2) this multigenerational resistance has always drawn on the inherent genius of the spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and material life of these communities; and (3) this same cultural genius can also provide a means for these communities to imagine and work toward a future where everyone belongs and everyone’s contribution matters.
The day featured musical performances by Old Time and traditional Bluegrass artists, a demonstration of lining-out singing by a nationally known local group of Old Regular Baptists, a bountiful and delicious meal prepared by, among others, the members of a local volunteer fire department, and a reading of an Appalshop-Roadside Theater play, derived from story circles, with parts played by local citizens. That performance concerned the past and possible future of Letcher County, and squarely addressed the economic woes of the region as well as its opioid crisis and their many negative impacts for residents. It was followed by a vigorous dialogue among attendees concerning the issues the performance had raised.
At one level, all of this can be understood as a long-time community cultural development organization’s efforts to join its arts-based methods with those of more traditional asset-based strategies in an attempt to assist its home jurisdiction’s residents to become aware of their manifold capacities and talents in the name of crafting a way forward amidst cataclysmic economic change. This would not be inaccurate, but I believe the issues at stake go deeper than this description suggests. This is so because of the profound social challenges and divisions created or exacerbated by the area’s continued economic decline and by false corporate (coal corporation) and partisan claims that these are readily reversible because they are the product of overweening government action and not the result of ongoing economic globalization and changing market realties.
When viewed in this broader context, the ongoing Performing Our Future project is not simply or primarily about economic possibility, but about finding the ways and means to rekindle the sinews of connection among the residents it seeks to reach, who now are too often unwilling to countenance, let alone acknowledge, their common humanity and brokenness in the name of fear, rancor and misconceptions. Performing Our Future seeks foremost to repair the fabric of possibility that binds Eastern Kentucky’s residents one to another during a time when both external and internal forces have torn and continue to tear those citizens apart. If this shared singular political and social challenge cannot be overcome, the region will not move ahead, whatever its economic possibilities.
This line of reflection brought to mind, by way of analogy, the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi, the practice of repairing broken porcelain or pottery with resin mixed with gold dust or other precious materials. The arts organization My Modern Met, has described its character and origins succinctly:
Kintsugi art dates back to the late 15th century. According to legend, the craft commenced when Japanese shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa sent a cracked chawan—or tea bowl—back to China to undergo repairs. Upon its return, Yoshimasa was displeased to find that it had been mended with unsightly metal staples. This motivated contemporary craftsmen to find an alternative, aesthetically pleasing method of repair, and Kintsugi was born. Since its conception, Kintsugi has been heavily influenced by prevalent philosophical ideas. Namely, the practice is related to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which calls for seeing beauty in the flawed or imperfect. The repair method was also born from the Japanese feeling of mottainai, which expresses regret when something is wasted, as well as mushin, the acceptance of change.
To succeed, Performing our Future, like the Kintsugi artisans, must acknowledge the innately imperfect character of the communities and populations it would serve. Its architects must find ways to help residents rebuild the shattered connections among themselves, recognizing that democratic possibility rests with, and ultimately can only arise from, them. To do so, its leaders and organizers must focus on the innate in that population and believe that its inherent imperfections represent not so much defining drawbacks as attributes on which fresh ties can be constructed in new and sustainable ways.
Like the Kintsugi artisans, too, those involved with the Performing Our Future initiative must build first on the capacities of the communities they would serve and seek to unleash those. While these may not alone be wholly sufficient, as one bowl cannot suffice to serve a dinner party, for example, they cannot be allowed to wither or to be heedlessly cast aside since they represent potentially key attributes and possibilities. Put simply, the capacities of the residents of Appalachia represent its dearest and most vital resource and those possessing them must be convinced to join together to work for their shared good and for the freedom that only they can create and preserve.
Finally, Kintsugi artisans recognize that the jar or bowl they mend has changed as a consequence of their interventions to repair or recreate it. Nevertheless, those modifications inevitably must retrace the brokenness of the previous material. Since that is so, and in that sense, for these artists, that which is changed must build upon and join the old. More, the repaired object evidences a new found aesthetic as well as functional possibilities. A mended bowl is different because now usable and because in its fresh form it reveals a beauty it did not previously possess, but it was constructed on the foundation of that which preceded it, irrespective of that object’s prior fissures and shards. Kintsugi artists seek not to obscure the old object, but to highlight it and the possibilities that its renewed incarnation represents. These arise precisely because of the “new” object’s relation to the entity that lies within it.
It seems to me that to succeed, the Performing Our Future effort must manage this same alchemy in concert with the residents with which its artisans have elected to work. They, too, must help to create a different beauty amidst a population who must become aware of the remarkable capacities they collectively represent during a time of suffering and in a period of rancorous individualism and demagogic appeals. I have enormous respect both for these residents and for those who would assist them in this profound collective work. The future health of our polity may well depend on the vitality and ultimate success of such efforts. One may hope all involved recognize their signal democratic significance.