Lawrence County Traditional Arts Survey


Lawrence County stretches from Jackson County at its northernmost point, to the southernmost tip of the state, covering 455 square (land) miles. Much of the county is covered by one of three Ohio portions of the Wayne National Forest, and a fair amount of the surrounding area is rural, including townships and very small towns. The largest city is Ironton, with a population of 12,724 (2000 census figures), home of the Ohio University Southern regional campus, serving approximately1800 (full and part-time) students (as of 2006).

Traditional arts in the county are difficult to unearth and do not seem to be held as particularly valuable by many residents of the area. Based on several accounts by artists in the area, the climate has been affected by not only the economy but also a self-deprecating attitude toward individuals’ efforts. In addition to this, those who might live in the most rural areas and practice what many would deem “traditional” arts or home-crafts, such as quilting, are reticent to speak with outsiders. Many people I with whom I spoke to gain contacts were self-described “non-locals” having lived in the area for a mere 25 or 35 years. As often happens with outsiders coming in to do fieldwork, locals weren’t always willing to speak with me, and Appalachians tend to be even more reticent with urban outsiders. Amish also reside in Lawrence, but those who mentioned them were unable to suggest how I might contact them (but sure to tell me they likely wouldn’t speak with me.) One contact with whom I spoke, Dr. Dave Lucas, of OU-Southern has done fieldwork in the area with his students. He spoke with me about one of his own consultants whom he’s known for several years who, strikingly, only recently has been willing to have her hands included in photographs of her work. (I spoke with several people in addition to Lucas who knew of traditional artists in the area who would not feel comfortable speaking with an outsider.)

The local economy is not very strong, and several people with whom I spoke noted the “WalMart” effect: it’s much too time-consuming when people hold down jobs outside the home to spend time creating functional items. Such necessities are less expensive at WalMart and similar retailers (often less expensive than the supplies to make them, without considering the time to be spent), regardless of the sometimes lower quality. (Honestly, this is what people said, not my own political agenda). As a matter of fact, a large percentage of the artists with whom I spoke were retired and thus had time to do their work. Some of them had returned to activities and arts they had been involved in when they were younger. Others, like many folk and outsider artists recognized elsewhere throughout the U.S., began performing and/or creating after retirement, sometimes with new pursuits grounded in traditional practices. Those not of retirement age all worked “day jobs” as primary income. One artist with whom I spoke talked about his family’s having lived in the area for generations, but explained that most of what they had done as craftspeople was done of necessity: for example, making chairs and then carving or otherwise decorating them simply to make the functional objects more aesthetically appealing. This is no longer the norm—or these people still exist in that population of the county to which I could not gain access.

In general, it seems that one could find musicians around every corner in the county and they are, most often, willing to talk. I assume some of their availability and willingness may be based in the fact that they are performers by nature: their art requires them to get out in front of people whereas other artists may create more privately in their own spaces. It also seemed much easier for me to find male artists than females. I’m not sure how much of this may have had to do with the starting points I had; most of my initial contacts (academics at OU-Southern, for example) were male and might have naturally had more contact with other males. Also, a number of the women with whom I spoke either saw themselves as more interested in trying particular crafts, learning and practicing them more for their own enjoyment (or as part of a larger social system of hanging out with other women) than as participating in time-tested “passed down arts.” (The disparity in male and female isn’t apparent in a head count of the folks I spoke with for the report, but it is all over my notes in lists of “you could talk to Mr. so-and-so.”)

A particular challenge in doing fieldwork such as this is in explaining/defining what “traditional” arts are in order to discover who does them. Without a good sense of what is done in the area, one has to suggest “things like quilting or carving” rather than being able to ask about specific arts (again, another reason it may seem musicians are coming out of the woodwork). Once one contacts a few artists who are talkative, some questioning may help reveal arts common to the area, but that’s not always the case. If one is too specific—“Know anyone who quilts or makes apple butter?”—consultants may simply say no and not think about the man down the road who carves nature scenes in forest fungus. (Related issues arose in explaining to people why the Ohio Arts Council wants information about artists in the area and what OAC will do with it, not to mention exactly what OAC is and does.)

Geographically, the connections between people across the county are slim, with those along the river, in Ironton and towns such as South Point and Chesapeake, more aware of arts, people and activities just across the river in Kentucky or West Virginia. The tri-state connection is strong and that dilutes the network within Lawrence as a whole and between Lawrence and other parts of Ohio. I was often told about artists who lived across the river (as a matter of fact, two of the artists with whom I spoke show and sell their work at the Pendleton Center in Ashland, Kentucky.) Almost all the artists I was able to make contact with and interview lived along the southern part of the county. They knew very little about those in other areas of the county. (In addition, people I have spoken with in Scioto County, just northwest of Lawrence, know little about the arts in this neighboring county, but there is one female vocalist who sings with some of the musicians who live and perform in Lawrence County—and, of course, Kentucky—who lives in Lucasville, in Scioto County. This connection between the counties is rare, though, as far as I was able to discover.) “Lawrence Countians” are much more likely to know artists in the tri-state area than in bordering Ohio counties.

Statistical Tidbits: All the artists written up here are Caucasian; 10 of the 14 identified (without prompting) as Christian. The U.S. Census Bureau 2006 population estimate for county: 63,179; 96.3% white.

Download the report (pdf)

Find Artists by County

Ohio Folk & Traditional Arts - Ohio Arts Council Ohio Folk & Traditional Arts - National Endowment for the Arts Ohio Folk & Traditional Arts - ThinkTV