The ministry of making art in Appalachia
–by Final Girl
Why I Stay
Three brown tires are on the bank of the river, like shells would be on the beach of another place. This is not that place.
It is hard to deny some of the beauty of Appalachia: rolling roads, haze on the fields, morning-green hills, horses. Other beauty is tricky. You have to train your eye—or, you have to have a certain eye already.
I don’t believe the broken-down bus mars the sunset. I think it makes it, morning glory twisting around the rims. Pokeberries stain the farmhouse purple; we threw them against its side. There is a kind of beauty in giving up. There is a sort of joy in why the hell not.
After all, there are cans in the weeds. Bones in the woods. Burned-out sheds in the shadows. So: low to the ground, by cigarette butts, I glue on the wall hand-painted leaves.
I think people look.
In another place, they might not. With street art on buildings, dumpsters, subway cars, with street art on streets, in a city, people might not see. Or, stop seeing. My friends in LA say most people there think graffiti is advertising, selling something.
But here, men stop on the street and gawk at a girl I have painted, holding a bloody heart in her palm. Maybe it makes them think. Maybe it doesn’t.
But I stop men.
I believe that what I do here matters, and it matters in part because it is here: miles from an art scene. Or any scene. Many of my friends, even those who have lived in Appalachia for decades, hate it. Or talk like they do. We have no big box stores, no shopping mall, no sushi, no Montessori. Why do you stay? they ask.
It’s like living in a third world country! a woman said to me the other day.
I wish I had said to her: There is nothing like drinking silver water from a cistern. There is nothing like eating mushrooms you gathered: hen of the woods, their bright orange flashing like hunters’ caps. There is no heat like the warmth of a woodstove.
I know this life in my bones.
One of my first memories is wanting a doll: a china baby doll with a squishy cloth middle. My mother relented: Don’t tell your father. It’s a lot of money. I was taught five dollars is a lot of money. Later I was taught how to make soup from ketchup packets. Later I was taught how to brew coffee twice. Later I stole toilet paper. Later I used marker to black the holes of missing leather on my shoes.
I was born in poverty. And to poverty I return.
It was a different place, but not so far from this place. Longing, striving—it has called to me from years and miles. Appalachia is familiar.
It feels too strange not waking up to the chill of a woodstove fire gone cold. Too still without the crackle of creosote cursing, burning, down a stovepipe. Too lonely without the smell of aerosol. If weeks pass without painting, I feel my skin crawl. I can’t sleep. The walls are singing.
Sometimes it seems like the bank of cinderblocks on an abandoned car wash, or an empty bulletin board in a park, or the back of a peeling billboard, is pulsing. It’s calling to me, to the paint. It wants the colors. It needs to be seen, to be stunning as the surrounding goldenrod, to be elevated, to be loved.
I am not selling anything to you, Appalachia, except my heart, except my bloody heart.
We don’t choose who we fall in love with. And we don’t choose where. We don’t choose the place. I align with the broken.
And this is why I love you. Because a chipped yellow smile comes from a place more genuine than the perfect straight white; there is more to lose by smiling.
And this is why I love you. Because dirty, torn clothes reveal adventures had, work done, a life lived.
And this is why I love you. Because broken-down bus. Because stinging nettle. Because salvaged windows, collapsing barn. Because firelight, starlight, dirt track, gravel path. Because your trilliums grow around wire. Because your walls drink in my paint like kisses, though you may never love me back.
And this is why I stay. Because I love you back.
Final Girl is an Appalachian Street artist. Her essays have been published in Bending Genre, Hillbilly Speaks, and Apology Not Accepted, and her art appears in many secret places. You can see her work at and https://www.facebook.com/