Appalachia. For those who live in the region, it is a place of beautiful mountains, quintessentially American scenes, and, yes, a potentially hardscrabble existence. For much of the United States, the mountain chain in the Southeast is what people know from gritty black-and-white photographs and dismal news reports. An Appalachian artist is addressing the imbalance in the public’s perception of the region, upending the stereotype, with an ambitious plein air painting project.
The idea has been percolating in Kyle Buckland‘s mind for about 15 years. “It came out of one of my favorite things to do — drive the back roads and take in what it is about our area that means so much to me and to others who grew up here,” says the resident of Abingdon, Virginia. “I’m doing this for everybody — for the people here and for people who don’t know Appalachia. This southern part of the Appalachian cultural region has hard workers, the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, and sights that have inspired so much creativity in the area. It’s a place with memories of swimming holes and bonfires and fishing. That’s not to say that there isn’t an uglier side to it — every place has an uglier side. But I want to focus on the positive.”
Kyle Buckland painting on location in Virginia
Buckland’s project is a year-long plein-air painting adventure taking him to four states and culminating in a large art show in September 2015 and a book. He sees it as a record, dutifully capturing the region before it vanishes. “I don’t want to be too political, but we do have companies that … well, our landscape is changing,” says Buckland. “Things are being built and changing our views of the landscape. There’s still a lot of pristine land that hasn’t been developed. And traditionally, there weren’t a lot of painters in this area, and the ones that were here were folk artists. It’s mostly uncharted territory for painters.”
A typical view in Buckland’s part of the Appalachian region
The artist has the energy and drive of a relatively young painter with a vision. Part of that vision is to host his own exhibition and to publish the resulting book himself. He’s inspired by a chef friend who has rented buildings for pop-up dinner parties. “There are several towns around here with buildings available to rent on a short-term basis,” says Buckland. “I thought it would be neat to do it myself.” Practical, too — Buckland’s vision includes more than 100 pieces on display. That will require a lot of wall space.
“The Old Cattle Gate,” by Kyle Buckland, oil, 20 x 24 in.
To fund the project, which he’s dubbed “Preserving Appalachia,” Buckland started a GoFundMe page to solicit donations. With a goal of $30,000 to pay for food and other expenses, plus funding for the exhibition and book, Buckland was thrilled to garner more than $2,000 in the first 10 days. He immediately hit the road.
“Days Gone By,” by Kyle Buckland, oil, 24 x 30 in.
This will be no painting blitzkrieg. Buckland is traveling with his wife, Jenn, taking his time, talking with people along the way, accruing stories and local history. It will all find its way into the book. “Farming is changing,” says Buckland. “The ways barns are built have changed. Old silos, chicken houses, tobacco barns, and dairy barns are falling down. A lot of the old barns are not far from collapsing. There are so many that the resources aren’t available to fix all of them. With the storms in recent years, at least a dozen that I have painted are not there anymore. I’m trying to capture them so people can have the experience of them before they’re gone.”
Buckland outfitted the back of his vehicle to store wet paintings and art materials.
One example of what Buckland is finding and documenting is the role of mills in Appalachian life. The artist learned about the way mills brought communities together by talking with some old timers in an area he was painting. “Mills were gathering places; people would get in their horse and buggy and come from town with all their grain and get it ground up in the mill on the weekend,” reports Buckland. “It was a big social event. Everyone would come down to the mill and hang out.”
Buckland’s wife, Jenn, is delving into plein air painting as well.
Of the 100 paintings Buckland plans to complete in the coming year, he guesses that 25 will be larger pieces, up to 48 inches across. Most of the work will be done on location. His wife, a talented artist who has previously focused on abstract paintings and jewelry, has been bitten by the plein air bug, and may show up in the show and book as well.