I’m a street artist who lives and works in one of the poorest counties in the country. My work has appeared on abandoned and neglected structures throughout the rural Appalachian hills. I make beauty from the broken. I see resilience in the ruined. I paint images of women, primarily using my own body as a model, in positions and attitudes of strength, solidarity and resistance. I never went to school for this. Paint is my calling. Rust is my church. Deer, crickets and coyotes: my congregation. Every wall is an altar. Every moonlit night is Sunday. Grit Gospel is the ministry of making art in Appalachia.
by Final Girl
To Unsee / See
I started by following the hearts.
I’m not sure when I first noticed graffiti, when it made its initial undeniable impression on me, but I remember the hearts because I documented them. I took pictures. Here was a spray-painted white heart on a fence. Here was a pink one on a garage.
Then I noticed someone was writing with paint on doors and alleys and the back of signs, even on manhole covers: Beautiful. You are beautiful.
Then I wondered who that someone was.
The poverty in the cities where I have lived over the years was obvious—the teenagers in army coats, eating out of cans; the newspaper humps of men on park benches—but rural poverty can be disguised. Where I live now in Appalachia, you can grow your own food.
You can also be 30 miles from the nearest grocery in a “food desert” with no car, no bus, no taxi or train to get to food or supplies.
You can gather your own heat here, chop trees for fuel. You can also burn your house down and die in a woodstove fire—and every hard winter, some families do.
Poverty in Appalachia ages you. Lines deepen young faces; having no dental care, no regular doctor, adds years.
Poverty in Appalachia also winnows you. I’ve seen rail-thin limbs, cheekbones cutting from drugs or hunger or both. I’ve learned not to go to Wal-Mart on the first of the month; that’s when the welfare checks come out. The bright aisles of our only store will be full of families buying food, underwear, formula—and it’s too hard, too hard, too hard to see.
But you can’t unsee.
As I learned of poverty in rural Appalachia, I learned of kindness and beauty too.
The mechanic at the Valvoline, when I asked for the cheapest oil change, offered some used motor oil in a drum at the back of the shop—not as a joke, but in an honest attempt to help. And when I had to have my 15 year-old car repaired, a different mechanic quoted me the price, then said: Is that okay? Can you do that? Because he knew poverty too.
I have been given free tires, free clothes, free bread, free meat. The charity that comes from knowing poverty, recognizing it in others, can be seen most closely when it comes to food. I have never been invited into a home—a straw bale house, a tarpaper shack, a trailer—without being offered a sandwich, soup, coffee. Once a stranger chased after me with a bag full of apples. I’m trying to find you the biggest piece, the pizza boy said when I bought a $1 slice; he turned the platter at the counter again and again to help me.
When I was nine, I was given glasses. For the first time in my life, I realized trees had branches.
Graffiti was a similar awakening for me. Once I started noticing street art, I saw it everywhere. Once I began to see it, I could not unsee it.
But when you’re just trying to survive, to live, to eat, how can you have time for beauty?
There isn’t a museum in my broken town in Appalachia. There aren’t painting classes, an en plein air society, a mural committee, a gallery…
But there are canvases. A thousand broken barns; collapsing sheds; failed businesses with boarded-up windows pock-marked with smashed glass; abandoned gas stations, pumps shrouded in plastic like mummies—they are all art museums, or waiting to be.
I opened my eyes to art.
There were tags on buildings, sure, but there were also cut-out images of butterflies pasted onto bricks, spray-painted monsters peeking out from rooftops, stenciled cops on walls speaking into walkie-talkies, girls in pink dresses painted crawling on the ground.
Masterpieces lived in the shadows. The art was vibrant, startling and free. Every shortcut could lead to beauty; every corner, to delight and surprise.
My Appalachian landscape of burned-out trailers, rusted cars, and broken barns became a grit gallery of paste-ups, pieces, colors, shapes, and scenes of small loveliness—the art all created for one reason: to be given freely, to be seen, made without committees or classes, made just because it had to be.
I first discovered graffiti in cities—but it is here in the country I learned it could sing. Here, I learned how to make it myself. To collect the cardboard from the trash. To cut careful stencils. To turn the razor blade slowly, slowly, with a flick of my wrist. Here, I learned I could make it: to leave the house in the middle of night, to drive the lonely roads, to hike in the dark with my paint and my paste, to keep to the shadows.
And to find the canvas, the secret space no one wants, where beauty only wants to be.
I want my work to be a message: There is a street art here, far from the streets. There is beauty, even in busted towns. You are not alone. You are not alone in wanting a decent life. I too seek safety. I too wait for good love. I too want to make a home in this world which never wanted me.
I took a risk to reach out and bring this word to you. I wanted to give you a gift, and I have nothing but paper and my own hands. I don’t even have a space—so I fought for one. I hopped a fence for one. I broke a law for one, to show you: You live in beauty, no matter in what struggles you also live. Open your eyes wide and know it. Open your eyes, stranger, and see.
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/