Emma Pepper: On The Arts


? West Virginia Eye Candy ?


On Valentine’s Day, I ate dinner with my husband using pieces of West Virginia-made artwork. As part of the team at the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts, I make it my business to keep in-the-know about the top artists and makers from around the state. But I wasn’t eating a fancy, four-course meal. I was at my local Rio Grande in downtown Charleston. I was eating off of one of our state’s most popular lines of pottery: Fiesta dinnerware from the Homer Laughlin China Company. The Fiesta line is the best of what we want to show about West Virginia, used every day in restaurants and homes across the nation.

I often hear misconceptions about West Virginian artists and makers. Art is trivial to our lives and doesn’t have any real economic might, I’m sometimes told, or “creative entrepreneur” is a contradiction in terms. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis assesses the arts and culture sector as a $699 billion industry. Can we get a bigger piece of that pie in West Virginia? Yes. There are hundreds of creative entrepreneurs working in our state, and for West Virginian artists, their greatest challenge isn’t lack of talent.

Our team at the foundation recently launched the West Virginia Creative Network for our state’s emerging and established artists as a resource to help overcome two significant hurdles to business growth: visibility and connections.

Here are six members of our Creative Network that are defying stereotypes about West Virginia.

At 16 and just beginning his career, Matt Thomas’ exceptional talent made him the youngest artist selling work at Tamarack. His determination and business savvy kept him at the top of his game for years following. Today, he is one of the most respected woodworkers in our state.

Ellen Mueller is an internationally-recognized artist and author of Elements and Principles of 4D Art and Design (Oxford University Press) who teaches at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Her thought-provoking work is a radical break from the traditional understanding of a “West Virginia artist.”

All of Kimberly Joy Trathen’s products are made from “upcycled” leather, borrowed from their previous uses as jackets, pants, or the like, and given a new life. She has a zero waste policy for her work; the scraps left over from her finished wallets, bags, and bracelets are turned into abstract quilts.

Lavana Lemley’s whimsical and haunting sculptures feel truly West Virginian. She takes a nod from the nature that surrounds us, mixing it with a might bit of superstition.

Megan Brown’s “nature made wearable” jewelry uses materials like real monarch butterfly, beetle, and cicada wings, poplar leaves, daisies, and four leaf clovers.

After more than 50 years as a photographer, Sterling “Rip” Smith’s masterful use of light and perspective give everyday subjects a sense of dramatic purpose.

Emma Pepper, a native of Charleston, WV, received her BA in Political Science from West Virginia University. She returned to her home state after building her career in Washington, DC and Berkeley, CA. Prior to her work as the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts Program Director, Emma served in roles such as: arts-focused marketing and public relations professional; gallery director; creative consulting agency owner; design agency manager; freelance writer; and AmeriCorps VISTA. In addition to her work at the foundation, Emma serves on the marketing committee for Charleston Main Streets. She pursues her own art and is a published writer and essayist.

If you’re interested in building a business from your art, reach Emma at emma@tamarackfoundation.org.

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