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Defying stereotypes and making art: Olive Hill native featured in Women of Appalachia Project exhibit

Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

 The Women of Appalachia Project has been focusing on art produced by Appalachian women for 12 years now. The show, held at the Dairy Barn Art Center near Athens, Ohio, was supposed to be a one-time exhibit and poetry reading when it first started, according to the project’s founder and executive director Kari Gunter-Seymour, but has grown into much more. The project still aims to do what that original show sought to do, though, breaking down stereotypes of the region and the women who call it home while celebrating their contributions to the arts. 

“Literally hundreds of women from 13 Appalachian states have participated,” Gunter-Seymour said in a YouTube video and virtual tour highlighting participants in this year’s event, one of whom is Carter County native Michelle Ciancio. 

“I grew up in Olive Hill, and will always consider Kentucky my home, however, my husband and I relocated to Hudson, Ohio three years ago,” Ciancio said. 

The self-taught artist has been honing her craft since 2015, she said, when she embraced art as a way to battle postpartum depression. 

“I began seriously painting in 2015 after the birth of my daughter. I struggled with postpartum depression and used art as a means of therapy and began teaching myself through YouTube tutorials,” she explained in an email interview.

She quickly realized that her art had value beyond the therapeutic aspects, though, and has used the proceeds from her paintings to support others, raising over $6,000 for various charities and other “benevolent causes” as she described them.

“I often describe myself as a benevolent artist, as all of the proceeds I collect from my arts activities benefit charitable causes,” she said. 

The artist, who has “experimented in all mediums” says she has found acrylics to be her preferred medium. Her art has been featured in various local exhibitions, as well as the Doers and Dreamers Series for ArtsNow. Prints of her Louisa May Alcott portraits are also sold at the Louisa May Alcott Orchard House and Museum. 

Participation in the Women of Appalachia Project was special to her, however, because of the struggles that all Appalachian people have in the wider world to overcome the stereotypes associated with our region, particularly as we are depicted in popular media. 

“Appalachian people, and the culture as a whole, face a number of negative stereotypes,” she explained. 

“The people of Appalachia are often portrayed as lazy, tobacco smoking, overall-wearing farmers,” she said. “The women are often portrayed even worse. Many people have assumed me ignorant due to my dialect and accent.” 

And while there is nothing wrong with being a farmer, she said, the people of Appalachia are more than that. They are artistic, innovative, and self-sufficient. The women are strong and creative. 

“We are more than stereotypes, we are artist, and art is everywhere,” she said. “The Women of Appalachia Project has given a voice to women to be proud of their culture, embrace it, and share their stories with the nation through beautiful art.” 

Ciancio’s submission to the Women of Appalachia Project this year is a portrait of the writer Toni Morrison. Morrison, she said, is an inspiration to her, and to the work she does. She summed up her feelings on Morrison – and why she chose to feature her portrait of her – with a quote from the author, “Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances. Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last.” 

You can find more information about the Women of Appalachia Project at www.womenofappalachia.com

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