The Wetzel County Museum in New Martinsville is housing an immersive video art installation this summer, part of a pilot arts program at Magnolia High School.
A project of the regional Rural Arts Collaborative, the exhibit was conceived with the help of Michael McKowen, an accomplished artist and filmmaker, Magnolia alumnus and an art professor at Wheeling Jesuit University. He described the work as “so unfiltered, so raw and pure.
“I think that’s the strength of everything we’ve done here,” he said.
The artistic process began with research about Wetzel County and a list of questions for students about what life is like in the Ohio Valley.
Some questions for students:
- If you could describe Wetzel County in one word, what would it be and why?
- What has been the most challenging thing about living in Wetzel County?
- What are your aspirations and goals? Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
- Who or what are the biggest influences in your life?
- If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?
- What is an average day or week for you? What does your day or week look like?
- What is an interesting story about you or your family that occurred in Wetzel County?
- What do you wish Wetzel County had that it currently does not have?
- Have you or someone you know been affected by crime or violence?
- Would you like to raise a family in Wetzel County? Why or why not?
- What is one thing growing up in Wetzel County has taught you?
- Do you live in a safe environment? Have you ever felt that you were in a threatening environment while growing-up in Wetzel County?
- What is your opinion of physical labor jobs versus non-labor jobs?
- What do you do for fun?
- In what ways are you similar or different from you parents?
- In your life, what news story has affected you the greatest?
- What aspect of Wetzel County do you feel cannot be found anywhere else?
- How does your race, gender, sexuality, etc., affect your place in your community?
- What do your parents and teachers expect you to do after high school?
- Do you feel that people view you in a positive or a negative way? Why?
- Have you ever felt that your possibilities were limited? When or why?
- What has been the best day of your life and why?
- Would you be able to acquire drugs and alcohol if you wanted them?
- What is an experience that you would like to have, but believe you will never be able to experience?
- What is the class you wish you could take in high school, but it isn’t offered?
Some student answers:
- My cousin was murdered.
- This town is full of people I don’t want my children growing up with.
- Wetzel County taught me that education is important.
- I feel limited due to my lack of connections.
- I wish I could take a class to prepare me for the world.
- Everyone is supplied with an equal amount of opportunity -- it’s a matter of what you do with it.
- My nephew was almost kidnapped.
- I would describe Wetzel County as trash. There’s hardly anything to do, and it’s filled with drugs.
- This year I became more focused on politics because I’ll be graduating soon, and it’s something you should know about. So Trump becoming president affected me the most, because it’s a step back in history.
- I, as a female, am still viewed as someone not as intelligent or hardworking as males are.
- I would describe Wetzel County as being isolated. Being located in a valley with small numbers of people, it really feels as if your area is isolated, depriving our community of surrounding cultures.
- My aspirations and goals are to comfortably live a life of happiness and achievement in whichever career I choose. I want to spread peace and love and cheer with whatever I do and share that experience with those around me. In five to ten years, I see myself pursuing therapy and doing whatever I find to make myself happy.
- Wetzel County has honestly taught me patience and how important the absence of ignorance is.
- I’m very different from my parents, especially in the sense that I have very high standards for myself and that I want to find out what all life has to offer; they settle for anything.
- I’m limited in Wetzel County. All of my aspirations are outside of this area, but there is no support or advocacy for that.
- I seriously wish we had a class in high school all about creativity and the well-being of each other; people should be more loving, caring, and understanding. It would save the world ultimately.
- I feel that teaching system isn’t strong enough.
- Never judge a book by its cover.
- The quietness of the town when everyone is asleep and its one in the morning is something that I feel Wetzel County can only give me.
- I was born in Wetzel County, so I think that’s an interesting story.
- This place is a dead end.
- People aren’t who they actually are.
- Growing up in Wetzel County has taught me that you have to make the best out of what you have.
- The best day of my life was being at Young Life camp, because it’s like you’re away from the rest of the world and you don’t’ have to worry about anything.
- I wish Wetzel County had more cultural diversity. I love learning about people and their cultures and their background. There are not many different cultures in Wetzel County and if there are any, they are teased and pushed away.
- If I could describe Wetzel County in one word, I’d say old-time. I feel like if you watched an old football movie you could see a town like ours.
- If growing up in Wetzel County has taught me anything it’s that you should always hope and believe.
- I believe that the places I am in the community are from my actions and my attitude.
- I feel that Wetzel County has little to offer. Rarely do I come across an opportunity to express myself in such a small area.
- My peers and music have always been big influences through my life. As my taste in music has changed, I feel as if I have changed in a way.
- Wetzel County is flaky.
- I know there are many unseen beauties in the wild that are destroyed without even being recognized or noticed at all, and I think that is a great shame and pity.
- Schools always allude to the fact that you will live here forever and only show you the possibilities here, nowhere else.
- Wetzel County is too limited. It would make a good retirement area, but not life.
- Wetzel County has taught me that no matter what people do or say, things get better as long as you don’t change yourself.
- Physical labor jobs are for people who lack academically and can’t function at their best in a scientific or advanced environment.
- I quite honestly would not change anything in my life. Everything in life happens for a reason and I would not be the person I am today without them.
McKowen said the resulting exhibit was a reflection of students perceptions of life growing up in New Martinsville, Wetzel County and West Virginia.
“So what we’ve done is basically packaged it,” McKowen said. “We’ve created this video installation so that you can see their [point of view].”
McKowen said the challenge was to turn abstract ideas into art.
“One of the things they talked about a lot is confinement,” McKowen said. “It’s about being in the Ohio Valley, not having a lot of resources or experiences available to you.”
With the support of the vocational and agricultural shop at Magnolia High, as well as other classes, students built a shed with corrugated metal, lumber and an earth floor that visitors can walk through. Video footage of day-in-the-life scenes are embedded into screens in the floor and projected on a drop-cloth ceiling.
Breena Napier, who will be a sophomore this fall, said she looked forward to working on the year-long project every week. Along with 27 classmates, she collected footage of moments in her everyday life, including “streams, closeups of light, my goats.
“Goats are my life and I don’t think I could live without them,” she added with a laugh.
Carmelle Nickens, manager of the Rural Arts Collaborative, said this is the first video installation project she’s seen come from the program she founded six years ago.
“They were able to really able to display their emotions on how they feel about living in this community," she said. “What they like, what they don’t like, what they’re sad about, what they’re happy about. And that’s really the essence of art.”
The Collaborative was founded in 2012 in Pennsylvania. Resident musicians, dancers, painters, ceramicists and other creators often create public works of art. Artists are embedded now in 20 schools in Pennsylvania, and the project has now made its way into West Virginia. Pairing students and artists allows for critical creative development in regions that need it, Nickens said.
“I know what the arts can do for students in so many ways. It can help them succeed and help them be themselves. It’s a new way of thinking, being and doing for students,” she said.
Next year artists will embed in Weir High School, Brooke Middle School, John Marshall High School and across the river in Ohio in Bellaire Middle School. The program is funded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and the Oglebay Institute.