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Appalachia Rising: How Art Liberated a Small, American Town

By Amanda Norris, Staff Writer

Nelsonville, Ohio, population 5,392, is, on the surface, unremarkable--another former boomtown, left to disappear into the shadow of the American landscape. It's the kind of town that people “just past through,” maybe stopping for a bite to eat or to glance up, perplexed, at the 65-foot cross that crests the hillside. The kind of town where the adults grow old and the children grow up, leaving for jobs in the city. The kind of town about which little is written. Or at least, Nelsonville used to be.

The story of Nelsonville’s fall is familiar. It is the story of Appalachia--the place where coal was king, until it wasn’t any more. We know what happens at the end. Poverty. Decay. Decline. But the story of Nelsonville, like any story worth telling, refuses to end as expected. French novelist André Malraux once said, “Art is a revolt against fate.” For proof, look no further than Nelsonville.

“For the past decade or so the historic square in downtown Nelsonville has been home to galleries, studios, shops--a lot of which are run by artists,” says Brian Koscho, marketing and promotions coordinator atStuart’s Opera House.

In better times, Nelsonville was known for producing the “Star Brick”--a decorative square brick engraved with a six-point star at its center. In better times still, these bricks lined the streets of the public square, leading pedestrians into the various shops of which Koscho speaks. There are specialty shops such as the Nelsonville Quilt Company and Nelsonville Pottery and Gifts, which draw in visitors from various ends of the region on a daily basis.

The galleries in the square, while not open daily, draw in crowds during their selective hours. The Paper Circle celebrates paper crafts in the region by hosting workshops and exhibits in a space as metropolitan as they come--striking hard wood floors and white walls illuminated with inviting gallery lighting, accentuated by display boxes in the style of clean, modern lines. Its counterpart, The Majestic Galleries is even more modern--a cooperative of artists in the community showcasing contemporary art. Both would be expected, to the point of overlooked, in a city. In a rural highway town at the foothills of Appalachia, they are anything but.

Here, in the town square arts district, Nelsonville began its triumph against fate. Aside from the shops and galleries, few places represent that triumph better than Stuart’s Opera House.

Erected in 1879, Stuart’s Opera House was the pride of a prosperous Nelsonville for decades until it closed its doors in 1924. The building sat empty until 1976, when it reopened only to be nearly decimated by fire just four years later. Again it waited, this time until 1997 when it was reopened for good. Despite its tormented past, Stuart’s, as Nelsonville, has risen to become a point of pride in southeastern Ohio.

Completely restored, Stuart’s Opera House sits as the cornerstone of the public square, a beacon of both history past and history yet to be made. The brick facade, hardwood interior and authentic opera house style seating invite visitors throughout the year for musical and theatrical events.

“Stuart’s draws a lot of people each year into Nelsonville and the community,” says Koscho.

Yet, he makes no move to single out Stuart’s as the sole catalyst for development of art and culture in the region.

“Nelsonville is a great town for the arts and has been well before I have been around at Stuart’s,” he explains.

Miki Brooks, president of the board of trustees at Stuart’s Opera House and owner of Fullbrooks Café in the square, echoes that idea.

“It isn’t just Stuart's or the art galleries; it’s a combination of everything that’s here,” she says. “It’s like a good soup. It takes a combination of many ingredients to make it taste good. That’s what I think Nelsonville has.”

She lists among the ingredients the art galleries, the small businesses, the restaurants and the events that the community puts on.

“It’s a small town, but there’s a lot going on here,” Brooks says. “With the arts district and the things that Stuart’s Opera House does, you get the culture that you wouldn’t necessarily find in a town this size.”

Culture--the kind of culture that comes with playing host to a major music festival. In fact, exactly that kind of culture.

The Nelsonville Music Festival, organized and funded by Stuart’s Opera House, began in 2005, also in the town’s square. Originally, it was a day-long gathering similar to Final Fridays, an event held the final Friday of every month in which galleries and shops in the square keep their doors open late in order to showcase special art events.

“When we first got together and talked about having the festival, it was a way for economic development for all of the businesses in Nelsonville, but it has grown,” says Brooks.

Grown is an understatement. The once intimate gathering in the square is now a full three-day festival held at Robbins’ Crossing on the campus of Hocking College that hosts over 45 acts, many of which are nationally known.

Last year, the main headliner was The Flaming Lips, a widely popular alternative rock band known for elaborate live shows played to large crowds. Their albums consistently making “Best of” lists in major publications such as Rolling Stone. This year, the headlining acts wereIron and Wine and Andrew Bird, both regulars on the major festival circuits, as were many of the supporting acts.

The festival draws a crowd of 5,000 to 6,000 people. That is a fraction of the crowd at Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza, but that number doubles the population of Nelsonville and, in Nelsonville, the impact is vast.

There are the obvious expenses such as food and gas that Koscho and Brooks both point to.

“The PitStop [a carry-out in Nelsonville] saw one of their [sic] best days ever during last year’s music festival,” says Brooks.

“Most hotels, bed and breakfasts, cabins and campsites are booked up that weekend with all the people attending,” adds Koscho.

While Brooks admits that the main benefactors of the influx of out-of-town traffic the weekend of the festival are the businesses located directly off of U.S. 33, mostly fast-food restaurants and chain groceries such as Kroger, the square retailers are by no means left out.

They flock to the festival to sell their wares--hand crafted pottery, fountain pens, jewelry and clothing, even locally-grown food.

“There are around 40 artisan vendors who sell their work at the festival and almost all of those are local,” says Koscho.

The festival crowd is not the only thing making an economic impact on the region. According to Koscho, “the festival itself takes a lot of manpower and supplies to put on and almost all of that is done locally and regionally--everything from where we rent the tents to the stages, on down to the beer we have in our beer garden that is from Ohio.”

The production cost of the event approaches $400,000 which is a significant portion of Stuart’s yearly operating budget of $900,000. The expense is hefty, but so is the return. Visitors come back to the Opera House for events throughout the year. Brooks says they notice the impact of the festival every time Stuart’s has a sold out show.

“Our hope is that they come back year after year,” says Koscho. “And if they are from out of town or even out of state, maybe a visit to southeastern Ohio for the Nelsonville Music Festival turns into a trip back for another event or attraction.”

There is no denying that the festival is a major revenue builder, especially with the role played by the out-of-town acts and visitors. Yet, it is the local connection that separates the Nelsonville Music Festival from other festivals, right down to the Star Brick which has become the logo for the festival, gracing any and all promotional material from posters to t-shirts.

“This is an area of the state that a lot of artists and musicians call home, and it is a big part of what I think makes Athens County special and why I live here myself,” says Koscho. “The Nelsonville Music Festival is a celebration of southeast Ohio, Nelsonville and Athens County, along with a celebration of music and art.”

The festival organizers are committed to keeping the festival representative of how they view Nelsonville as a whole: small but vibrant.

“We will only sell a certain number of tickets,” says Brooks definitively, planning ahead for future growth. “We are never gong to let it get too big because that will take away from what we are trying to do.”

“The festival is a snapshot of why this community is special,” says Koscho. “You have great music, great art and great people all in a beautiful setting.”

It's a technicolor snapshot of a community where most expected black and white--a snapshot of a community that has defied the fates, in the heart of the Hocking Valley where communities have learned to fall and rise like the contours of the land itself.

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