Grit Gospel

The ministry of making art in Appalachia

–by Final Girl


In the Mountains that used to be Magic



A buck lives in my neighborhood.
It’s not a neighborhood really, just a scattering of houses by the highway.  At night you can hear the freight trains.  I don’t know my neighbors, only by their trash.  It’s not really in town, but not rural enough either for a deer of this size, not this size—large enough to be legendary.  To be the subject of stories, the object of at least one hunter’s obsession.  I’ve seen the buck twice: a startled head, rack flashing like a white mast in the trees.

There are so many mysteries: where he goes, how he lives.  How old is he?  How long has he been here?  How long will he last?  He gives me something to root for, the buck.  He helps me dream of something undiscovered still in these settled hills.

I’ve never hunted, though I’ve eaten deer killed in these woods.  By spring, I had grown so tired of chipping at the half-frozen hunk with a spoon in the skillet.  The red meat sizzled.  Grease gummed the windows.  The meat was gifted from hunters; the potatoes cut in rough chunks were free from the CSA.

On my walks, I’ve found bones in various rounds of rot, tripped over skulls whose antlers had been sawed off. I’ve surprised whole families, living but barely, winter-thin.  I don’t think they’re amazing, even the little spotted ones; I’ve seen them so much, everywhere.  It is mysterious to me only how the deer remain hidden, how they stay secret, how they keep away from us at all.

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Graffiti isn’t magic for me.

It used to be.  I used to spot a piece and gasp.  Even now, I sometimes almost crash my truck trying to get a photo of a train. But I know how it’s done now. When I see a new piece, I’m checking for overspray, quality of paint. I’m critical.  I’m curious about craft.

This might sound dry to you.  This might sound sad. But what I’ve lost in magic, I’ve gained in purpose.  Now I know.  Now I am in the life—and I have to live it.  Because I can do this, I feel an obligation to.  It burns like a rope, leading me to a canvas: an abandoned drive-thru, a cracked garage.

I have never felt stronger physically, more purposeful, than walking away from a fresh piece, stained gloves shoved in my pockets, bag full of glue.  My movements are certain, my breathing hard.  But I never shake, ducking under the fence, squeezing through the railing. My head is clear.  The air feels sharper.

Everything makes sense after a piece.

This disorganized world of trash piles and four-wheelers, the dead squares left in the grass after the trailers have been hauled away, the tire fires and the boarded-up hovels and the hypodermic needles and the sheriff’s stapled eviction signs—street art gives this place a mystery, a question beyond how am I going to keep warm?

We have so little magic here in the mountains that used to be magic.  That booming is blasting from the coal mine.  That red water is the result of acid damage.  People put empty wine bottles on the branches of trees.  Who remembers that this is a spell meant for protection?  Who uses red bottles, as the folk magic says you must?

This is what passes for magic now, a cure because we can’t afford a cure.  Most jobs are in construction, the coalmine, food service. There is little to believe in, little to hope for.  Who has time to sleep, let alone dream?

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Last season, there was a rumor that someone had shot the buck.  Finally, someone had tracked him down. But I don’t believe it.  I haven’t seen pictures.  And in the early mornings, sometimes, there he is still, I swear it: a flash of white, a ghost ship streaking on land.

A few months ago, a girl wrote to me.  She had just moved to our county the same time as a rape case, a case where the victim was vilified.  My very first street art piece was a public message for the victim. That helped me, the new person in town wrote, knowing you are here.  I knew I had moved to the right place.

I didn’t write back.

I painted back, and what I said with the non-words, the colors and the cut-outs and the paste was:  I have your back too.  You are not alone.  I am in the world.

If this is the way I can bring magic to the world, I will bring it.  I will give you the gasp.  I will make you look twice.  I will make you believe.  I will let you wonder.  Let me deliver you some kind of dream.

I am here.  I am watching. I may be anywhere, with my cans and my colors. I am often in the shadows, beyond the broken glass.  I am the stirring in the alley.  I am the snap of the branch.  I am the buck in the woods.  I am beside you right now, and I will persist, as you will.  I cannot hold you in my arms.  I cannot say what I mean. I cannot always write back.  But I am running, running, as sure as you are.  And we will make it.




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 and

  • Jeff Suwak

    Once again my expectations are exceeded. This raw poetry…I’m so grateful to find a writer and artist like this is still out there.

    All hail Final Girl.