The stereotypes of feral, uncivilized toothless hillbillies not willing to pull themselves out of poverty by their bootstraps are not always true.
I go barefoot a lot, but I only know one person missing teeth, and she lost hers in a mosh pit at a punk rock show. The coal mines owned my grandfather at the age of fourteen. He never learned to read and died of black lung. My mom has mental illness and dependency issues. My dad was rarely around and I remember him setting fire to his hat once and telling me he was doing magic tricks while chugging moonshine. My grandmother helped raise me. She had an eighth grade education, but was the smartest woman I’ve ever known.
I grew up in a hollow that runs about ten miles. In those ten miles, there were two coal mines and at least six churches. Everything was always covered in coal soot so the trailer I lived in with my mother and sister was always black and dirty. That is why the trailers in my paintings are opera pink. My childhood was a stereotypical “Appalachian” narrative–poverty, dependency, mental illness, abuse. It always seemed so loud in our home, even when it was quiet. I always wore headphones and listened to mixtapes. It was the only time I could hear myself and have clear thoughts despite the chaos going on around me. I took solace in music and still do.
I always said I would leave West Virginia. I even to this day say it. It’s a very love/hate relationship. I could leave at any time, but I stay to fight, to make it a better place, and to be the voice sometimes for those who cannot speak. I often say it’s like I have Stockholm Syndrome. West Virginia is not an easy place to live. It’s not an easy place to make it, and it’s also somewhat easy to fall into a state of just existing, due to politics and the extraction of our wealth. Big Coal and Big Pharma are the rulers of a land that is home to the most hardworking, magical, complex humans you will meet anywhere. I stay for those folks and these mountains that cast spells. No one who isn’t from Appalachia will ever understand.
Telling stories–our stories–is a way to connect
I always love the underdog, the person who lives in that dirty coal trailer, but knows that they don’t have to accept that as the future. I love the storytellers who surprise you with their stories of resilience and take what you think you know about us and turn it upside down. I love old things that hold memories–cast off items, misfit broken dolls and toys. I love ghosts and daydreams. I love little towns and hollers in the country, porch stories, and kids who love punk rock because they believe it will save them.
I am a product of the West Virginia stereotype but mine is a complicated story of heritage, history, and pride. It is granny witches, and the spells the mountains have cast on me that make me stay and use my art as a tool to fight.
In my recent work, I incorporate layers of paint, symbolism, and folklore to portray the destruction of my mountain home. I invite the viewer in by using a bright color palette and childlike critters to create what seems like a beautiful safe space only upon further examination noticing the darkness. The mountains are bandaged; big coal owns this state. Big Pharma wants those who don’t leave to die by introducing millions of opioids into already fragile communities. Our waters are full of poison. It is a battle of good versus evil, the spirit of the Appalachian that refuses to succumb without a fight. It is the story of our people and the state I love in so much pain.
Jamie Miller was born and raised in the West Virginia coalfields. She is a painter, textile artist, and activist. Find more of her art on our Featured Artist page.