Arts and Culture in West Virginia
Over the centuries, the rugged mountain landscape of West Virginia has inspired myriad painters, poets, and musicians. The state offers an exercise in artistic contrast: A symphony includes folk music in its programs; ghost towns from the coal mining boom era exist alongside Victorian mansions, modern architecture, and ancient Native American burial mounds. Irish, African American, and Native peoples are among those contributing to the rich cultural fabric of the state. From an international center of folklore to a top-ranked ballet company, West Virginia's cultural attractions are varied and plentiful.
The Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1929, presents classical and pops concerts, a holiday show, and outdoor concerts. It has presented the first performances of several works by American composers. The Huntington Symphony presents classical concerts in the winter months and during the summer offers pop concerts along the Ohio River.
Based in Charleston, the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra (WVSO) performs all over the state. The WVSO also has premiered several works celebrating the Appalachian heritage of the region. TheWest Virginia State Orchestra has been active in combining country and folk music through creating and presenting works that reflect the musical history of West Virginia, including a program based on John Denver’s well known praise of the state, "Take Me Home, Country Roads."
The West Virginia Youth Symphony in Charleston comprises several ensembles and chamber groups. The Charleston Light Opera Guild has presented more than 175 performances throughout the Kanawha Valley since it began in 1949. Three historic opera houses, in Shepherdstown, Charleston, and Pocahontas County, are now used to present films, live theater, and concerts. For more than 50 years, the Charleston Ballet has presented classic ballet concerts, new dance works, and interpretations of folk dance. It is the official state ballet of West Virginia.
Many of West Virginia's museums reflect the state's rich history. Located in Wheeling, West Virginia Independence Hall features exhibits covering events dating back to the state's birth, including those concerning West Virginia's role in the Civil War. The West Virginia State Museum in Charleston features many similar historical exhibits. The Grave Creek Mound marks the place where Native Americans lived in the years before European settlement, dating back to around 250 BCE. The Jenkins Plantation, near Huntington, has been restored to show what life was like during the time of slavery.
Situated where the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers meet, the town of Harper’s Ferry played a crucial part in U.S. history. Much of the area is now Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, which marks important events of Revolutionary War days, before and during the Civil War, and in the times of Reconstruction. The General Adam Stephen House in Martinsburg replicates West Virginian life from 1750 to 1830. The Beckley Exhibition Mine near Coalwood offers exhibits about coal mining and miners’ work, while the Coal Heritage Museum in Madison displays miner’s tools, oral history recordings, and other pieces of the state’s mining history in its collection.
The Point Pleasant River Museum traces the history of Kanawha and Ohio river life and commerce. On the fine arts front, the Museum of American Glass in Weston features national and regional glassmaking history The Huntington Museum of Art has collections including European painting, American art, and folk art. The former West Virginia State Penitentiary is now a museum, as well as the site of the Elizabethtown Festival, where each fall craftspeople recreate the West Virginian way of life in the 1800s.
From opera singers to Appalachian balladeers, classical composers to polka kings, and country superstars to R&B greats, the musicians who have called West Virginia home have had, and continue to have, a mighty impact on the world. Classical composer George Crumb (b. 1929), from Charleston, won a Pulitzer Prize for his work Echoes of Time and the River. Kathy Mattea (b. 1959) has won two Grammys and numerous Country Music Awards for her work. The granddaughter of coal miners, Mattea, who grew up in Crosslanes and attended West Virginia University, focused her 2008 album Coalon songs of the coal mining life. Bill Withers, born in 1938 in Slab Fork, is the writer behind such classic songs as "Lean on Me" and "Ain’t No Sunshine." Leon Berry (1910–1941), born in Wheeling, was a tenor saxophonist who worked with the top bandleaders of his era, including Count Basie and Cab Calloway.
Billy Edd Wheeler (b. 1932), from Whitesville, has written songs recorded by Kenny Rogers, Elvis Presley, and Judy Collins, among others. A number of his songs concern West Virginia life, including "My Home’s in West Virginia" and "Coal Tattoo." Born in 1935 in Mercer County, Hazel Dickens is known for country and bluegrass songs of mining life and labor protest, as well as the haunting Appalachian sound of her voice. Frankie Yankovic (1915–1998), born in Davis, was the first person to win a Grammy for polka. Famous for his Slovenian style, Yankovic was known as "America's Polka King." Jazz singer Ann Baker (1915–1999) was born in Charleston, and award-winning country and bluegrass musician Tim O'Brien (b. 1954) is from Wheeling. Current country music favorite Brad Paisley (b. 1972) hails from Glen Dale.
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
From its early days performing in tents, the resident professional company at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre has evolved to be the official state professional theater, offering musicals, well-known plays, newer works, and an education program in downtown Lewisburg. Headquartered in Beckley, Theater West Virginia presents dramas based on state history. The Acting Company, the resident professional company of Theater West Virginia, tours schools with historic dramas, and the theater also has a marionette company.
West Virginia Public Theatre, located in Morgantown in the Monongahela Valley, is West Virginia's only professional musical theater company. The Charleston Stage Company fills its season with plays ranging from Shakespeare to new works, and offers summer arts camps for children. The Kanawha Players, also in Charleston, began in 1922 and is one of the country’s oldest community theater groups. Children’s Theatre of Charleston involves children in all parts of the theatrical process: performing on stage, working backstage, and experiencing shows as audience members. It began operations in 1932 and is the official children’s theater of the state. Shepherdstown is home to theContemporary American Theater festival, which presents a schedule of new works each summer. Huntington, Parkersburg, Wheeling, and Sutton are among other communities that also support live theater.
FILM AND TELEVISION
In film, West Virginia’s rugged mountain landscapes have served as the backdrop to science fiction, historical dramas, documentaries, and contemporary dramas for more than 50 years—from 1935'sStagestruck starring Gloria Swanson, which was filmed in Wetzel County, to 2001's Seven to Midnight, shot in Charleston. Jodie Foster, James Earl Jones, and Richard Gere were the leads inSommersby (1993), parts of which were shot at Snowshoe Mountain. On the nonfiction side, the rich history of Harper’s Ferry has figured in several historical documentaries.
Several famous and critically acclaimed films and filmmakers have shot in West Virginia. The Robert Mitchum classic Night of the Hunter (1955) used several West Virginia locations, including Sistersville, while Primal Fear (1996) was shot at Keystone. Francis Ford Coppola chose Harrison County to shoot his 1969 film The Rain People. John Sayle's 1987 mining drama, Matewan, was shot in Summers County. The Deer Hunter (1978) was shot in Hancock and Brooke counties. Sweet Dreams, the1985 film tracing the life of country singer Patsy Cline, starring Jessica Lange, was partially shot in Martinsburg.
The 2006 drama We Are Marshall, filmed in Huntington, drew on the story of how the people of Huntington’s Marshall University dealt with the aftermath of a 1970 plane crash.
Emmy Award-winning actor Don Knotts (1924–2006), known for his comic roles in The Andy Griffith Show and Three's Company, was born in Morgantown and attended high school there. Actress Jennifer Garner (b. 1972), of television’s 2001–2006 action show Alias, the 2007 movie Juno, and the 2009 filmThe Invention of Lying, grew up in Charleston.
Though she spent much of her life in China, acclaimed author Pearl S. Buck (1892–1973)
was born in Hillsboro. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Good Earth in 1932, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938 (the first American woman to do so). Mary Lee Settle (1918–2005), who was born in Charleston, wrote a series of novels dealing with West Virginia history. In 1978 she won the National book award for Blood Tie.
Coalwood-born Homer Hickham's novel Rocket Boys was a bestseller and became the basis for the movie October Sky. Poet Daniel Lucas (1836–1909), born in Jefferson County, wrote a number of poems looking back at bygone ways of life in West Virginia. Waltman Barbe (1864–1925) was both a poet and professor of poetry, and taught at West Virginia University. Charleston's John Peale Bishop(1892–1944) was well known in his day as both a poet and novelist. Louise McNeill Pease (1911–1993) was West Virginia's poet laureate from 1979 until 1993. Elderberry Flood is one of her best-known books. Children’s book author Jean Lee Latham (1902–1995) was born in Buckhannon and attended West Virginia Wesleyan University.
In the 1850s, when West Virginia was till the western part of the state of Virginia, William Louis Sonntag (1822–1899) painted landscapes of the mountains. Sonntag, a member of the Hudson River School of artists, used play of light and shadow to create romantic visions of the American landscape, as did other artists of the school who focused on landscape in New York State and the American West.David Hunter Strother (1816–1888) was born in Martinsburg in what is now West Virginia. Strother was an illustrator who traveled the American West, and during the Civil War, his work brought images of that conflict home to readers of the magazine Harper’s Weekly. William Robinson Leigh (1866–1955), who was born in Beckley County, is best known for capturing landscape and light in his paintings of the American West.
Though there is not much remaining of their structures, Native peoples were living in villages across West Virginia more than 2000 years ago. The Grave Creek Mound Archeological Complex near Moundsville is the site of a burial mound and a museum with information about Native life and villages. Later settlers built log cabins, farm buildings, family homes, and other structures. Since the 1770s, people who believed in the health benefits of sulfur springs have been visiting Greenbrier, and by the 1830s it had become, as it is today, an upscale resort. In those early days, John Latrobe, son of renowned architect Benjamin Latrobe, designed cottages that still stand today, and set the style for later cottage construction. In the 1920s, the main hotel was rebuilt, with designs echoing both older buildings and southern elegance.
The Old Stone House in Morgantown dates from 1795. It is built in federal style. The Shepherdstown historic district is composed of a number of buildings reflecting the balanced lines and neoclassical details of this style as well. These include the Presbyterian Manse and the Episcopal Rectory as well as McMurran Hall. The Heritage Farm Museum in Huntington shows farm buildings of the era. When it was constructed in 1859, what is now West Virginia Independence Hall in Wheeling was a forward-looking construction of steel beam framing. During the Victorian era, the Hess House in Wheeling was constructed in French revival style. It was built in 1876. Around the same time, many of the mining towns in the New River Gorge and elsewhere across the state were being constructed in less ornate fashion. Historic Mount Hope is one still active town. As the coal mining boom era faded, though, many of the towns were deserted and stand now as ghost towns, being slowly reclaimed by nature. In Antioch, on the side of Saddle Mountain, a small log cabin from the eighteenth century marks the birthplace of Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ARTS
Within West Virginia, there is history of Appalachian mountain crafts, works at first created as people in isolated communities in the mountains made what they needed on their own. They later found appreciation for the quality of their work in weaving, carving, and other crafts beyond their own communities. West Virginia boasts a long history of African American craftwork, and Native American crafts as well. In addition, peoples from many parts of the world have found their way to West Virginia, and added their take on tradition to the state. The West Virginia Division of Culture and Historydid an extensive study on ethnic communities in the state in 2008, finding not only mountain, African American, and Native American communities, but also a strong Jewish folk presence, and cultural influences from Hungary, Russia, Scotland, the Middle East, Greece, Ireland, and many other countries. The West Virginia State Folk Festival, held in Glenville in June of each year, celebrates arts and crafts. The Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins is an internationally known center for folk life documentation and research, with a focus on regional art and music. It offers summer classes, supports folk life apprenticeships, and produces films and audio programs on folk arts and crafts as well.
-World Trade Press