By Aimee Nielson
Photos, clockwise from left: Some of the community supporters for the black box theater under construction in Elkhorn City, actors Austin Abshire and Mary B. Anderson, Stephanie Richards.
Eighty-seven-year-old Mary B. Anderson never dreamed of being an actress. In fact, the thought really never even crossed her mind until Stephanie Richards '88 came knocking on her door.
At Richards urging, Anderson was in two productions in 2005—she played a woman with Alzheimer's disease in The Good Daughter and also was in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.
"I just had the best time there ever was," Anderson said about her time on the stage.
Richards, the first fine arts extension agent in both Kentucky and in the United States, is working in her native Pike County. She calls her job a "leap of faith" for the arts and Kentucky.
" Pike County is a rich and vibrant area, and I believe our greatest assets are our people and our land," said Richards, who graduated in theater arts at UK and went on to earn master's degrees at Roosevelt University in Chicago and theater arts at the University of Iowa." Pike County is ready and hungry for an explosion of the arts," she said.
Richards became the county's fine arts extension agent in December 2004. Her position is funded by the Pike County Extension Board.
Money to pay for programming is provided by Pikeville Medical Center and other contributors who recognize the importance of the arts to the quality of life in a community.
Local leaders, working with Richards, formed the Pike Arts Advisory Council in April 2005.
Out of that group came Pike Arts Inc., a non-profit organization that serves as the umbrella for all arts programming in the county.
In the months since Pike Arts was born, the arts advisory council has identified five key communities in Pike County—Pikeville, Elkhorn City, Belfry, Phelps, and Shelby Valley—that will have their own arts facilities where artists can educate, develop, and expose others in the community to a wide variety of arts and cultural choices.
Richards and the advisory council formulated a three-year vision plan to ensure the success of Pike Arts. She said many of the initiatives already are under way, with others to soon to follow.
Some major initiatives designated by the advisory council are:
- An artisan center, which opened this spring on Main Street in Pikeville. It includes space for artists to work and conduct classes and a performing area.
- Educational programming
- Year-round theater programming
- Satellite arts venues
- A homeless shelter arts program
- Transportation to assure that patrons in this large, mountainous county can reach the programs
- Photo art journaling for breast cancer patients
- Regular art displays at the hospital, board of education, etc.
- Communication of events via a weekly arts calendar in the local newspaper, the medical center's weekly newsletter, the radio station, and an e-mail update on Pike Arts to a listserv group.
Presently, a 120-seat black box theater (simple and flexible space) is nearing completion in Elkhorn City. The theater will allow ACT, a young theater company that preceded Pike Arts, to expand and offer more opportunities for local artists in a program already off to a strong start. ACT has 153 actors, just completed its second full season of programming, and is in its fourth year as a sustainable non-profit corporation. In 2005, ACT attracted nearly 3,000 spectators, and ticket revenue approached $10,000. That's just one small area of Pike County already seeing success.
Let the Children Learn
Under Richard's leadership, the arts advisory council targeted the county's schoolchildren as a group that can strongly influence the families and the communities they represent. Out of that decision, with the philosophy that arts build strong communities, the Pike Arts Cooperative Education Project began. Pike County school administrators and principals are taking part in a program with the goal of daily exposure to the arts for Pike County students, including integrating arts programming into non-arts classes.
"The arts are much more than just fun 'extra' activities for kids," said Frank Welch, superintendent of Pike County Schools. "Participation in the arts opens up children's worlds and minds and offers them the skills they need for a bright future."
The Artist Among Us
The vision for arts in Pike County is all inclusive, Richards said. It may range, she said, from a fiber artist who has relocated to Kentucky to "a local person who loves our local stories and keeps detailed documentation, a dancer and educator who guides young people to the stage, a 12-year-old boy who wants to pursue acting as a career as a result of our efforts, an actress in her 80s (Anderson) who has found her new home on the stage—I could go on and on."
David Adams, district extension director, agrees. "Art is so much a part of our daily lives, it's almost like breathing," he said at an arts celebration last year. "The more we bring it into our lives on a daily basis, the better we feel."
"We initially thought of (our fine arts program) as a community development effort, but fine arts is also a community enhancement program that creates an atmosphere of encouragement that builds self-esteem," he said.
"I want people to want to come here knowing there is a thriving arts community," Richards said. "As they enter Pike County, signs welcome them into the heart of the Appalachian mountains, home of Pike Arts. Every musician has a place to play; every artist is creating; teenagers go to the theater out of habit to participate as artist and audience; the ballet and symphony are thriving; students are practicing critical thinking skills developed through their arts education; and every citizen of Pike County experiences a better quality of life through the arts."
Local actress Mary B. Anderson has her own vision. "I think it's going to be wonderful," she said.