Quilts, photos movingly portray Appalachian life

January 20, 2000|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Appalachia has been America's definitive down-and-out spot for as long as any of us can remember.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Tennessee Valley Authority was going to resuscitate the region by damming its rivers and bringing the miracle of modern electrification to its citizens.

President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty also was primed to unleash a pre-emptive strike on deprivation in the region.

But for all such lofty intentions, Appalachia today still conjures up troubling images of want amid plenty, which is why I found it so interesting to view "American Hollow," a touring exhibition of powerful photos and quilts on display at the AIR Gallery on the main floor of Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis.

The exhibit, which is free, runs through Feb. 1.

"American Hollow" consists of 60 pictures taken by award-winning photographer Steve Lehman. The quilts were made by Iree Bowling, matriarch of the Bowling clan, the extended Appalachian family whose lives are the focus of the photos.

These are people existing in a microcosm that seems largely untouched by the outside world. Like the Pennsylvania Amish and the Hasidim of New York City, the rural poor seem part of a lifestyle and culture most of us could never truly know.

But in true "Family of Man" photographic style, Lehman's lens captures four generations of Bowlings engaging in activities that couldn't be more reminiscent of our lives had the photographer spent a year in our homes snapping away. The tenderness with which 70-year-old Iree cares for her 90-year-old mother bedridden with Alzheimer's disease is an image that melts socioeconomic divisions warmly and humanely.

The Bowlings gather to play poker on Saturday nights, picnic on fast food, gather for Sunday dinners and mount deer trophies on their walls. And, as Iree and her husband, Bass, do in the loveliest pictures of all, they kiss and hold hands in celebration of a union that has lasted more than 50 years.

"American Hollow" has won acclaim as an award-winning documentary film produced and directed by Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of Ethel Kennedy and the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. She lived in Mudlick Hollow, Ky., with the Bowlings over the course of a year to make the film.

The 90-minute film will be shown in the Maryland Hall auditorium Tuesday. Rory Kennedy will introduce the documentary at 7: 45 p.m.

Tickets for this one-time showing are $7 or $5 for students. Information: 410-263-5544

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