WELCH — Almost 90 years ago, in 1930, Ward Nichols was born in an unassuming white house raised up on a hill on Wyoming Street, in downtown Welch.
The house once overlooked the city’s post office, then a car dealership, and then, for years, an empty brick building. Now it overlooks the Jack Caffrey Arts and Culture Center — the first center of its type in McDowell County.
Nichols is an accomplished artist, having spent most of his 89 years putting oil paints to canvas, depicting landscapes and still-life works of art that are unquestionably inspired by his Appalachian roots.
He lived in that white house for years, but he said he never thought that, just across the street, there would be a place to display and support the community’s local artists.
“Never in my life, no, never in my life did I think I’d be standing in a building like this, just across from the place I was born, the place I was raised. I stared at this building every day,” Nichols said. “This, for the people of Welch, of McDowell County, well it’s fantastic. It’s just fantastic. It took a while, but I’m elated that I got to see it happen.”
The building was renovated and designed by Joe Sinclair, an architect with the Thrasher Group. From the outside, those walking by can get a peek at the exhibits through a wall of windows facing Wyoming Street. Inside, exposed brick walls meet glossy, concrete floors, and studio lights hang from welded, metal rafters on the ceiling.
“The way this turned out, it’s more than we could have hoped for. It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful, and a reminder that we remember our past, but here, now, we still have things to offer — culture and art to offer,” said Ann Turley, director of the center.
The grand opening for the center was held Friday, with celebrations continuing through the weekend with live music from both local groups and noted stars, like John Ellison.
It was a bright spot in what was a sad week for the city of Welch. Last Thursday, Mayor Reba Honaker, who was integral to opening the arts center, died. At the grand opening Friday, her portrait sat on the stage, and all who spoke honored her memory, some with tears.
Before becoming mayor in 2011, Honaker spent years investing her time and efforts in McDowell County’s arts and culture scene. She helped found Coal Camp Creations, a Kimball-based business that uses coal to make small sculptures sold throughout the state, and she regularly led Welch’s arts and crafts festival.
As mayor, Honaker was known for a willingness to try anything that could help the town, as well as her dedication to preserving Welch’s history while trying to move it forward.
For Turley, the new arts center is like a physical embodiment of that attitude.
“We have more here than the problems and challenges we’re always talking about, and Reba knew that. We all know that, if you live here,” Turley said. “This center will honor our heritage — the things like coal that made us who we are — but it will also give us new opportunities to display and share the other things we have going on here.”
The art displayed Friday spoke to that. There were quilts, one featuring the outline of coal miners in different squares. Some coal sculptures were displayed, and songbooks with sheet music for a number of coal camp songs sat open, waiting to be thumbed through.
All the art displayed was from regional artists. Jamie Powers, an artist who is from Welch originally but currently lives in Pittsburgh, where he crafts artisan wood furniture, had several paintings on display.
Powers said he’s regularly told by complete strangers that Southern West Virginia, and Appalachia in general, needed people like him and his talent.
“They tell me these things and I agree with them, I think, but I look at them and I explain that my area never made the effort to keep people like me, to give us opportunity or a chance to excel,” Powers said.
The art scene in McDowell County is by no means thriving. There is little to nowhere to display art, and the communities in the county lack a meeting space or hub that can help with inspiration and collaboration, Turley said.
“This can be that place. We’re going to use it to bring people together, to show students, kids, what they can do with their creativity and how it can help our home,” Turley said.
Currently, there are not strong art programs offered in Welch — or McDowell County schools. Mount View High School has a huge, renovated auditorium, but no band or theater.
“People retire, or sometimes they pass, and the schools don’t replace those positions. For some reason, they’re not seen as a priority compared to other subjects or topics, but art is part of being well-rounded, of being successful. It makes all of us into better people and it allows us to connect,” said Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell, who taught for more than 20 years at Mount View. “Just because we don’t have the means to share our art, or teach it, doesn’t mean we don’t have artists — there are tons of them here.”
In places like McDowell County, too, Powers believes art can play a crucial role in speaking truth to power, while preserving the nuances of culture.
“People sometimes don’t like art because it holds a mirror up to things they may be uncomfortable examining — faults, weaknesses, so on,” Powers said. “But people remember history because other people painted it. They put it down somewhere, forever, and we still look at it.”
In places like McDowell County, especially, there is a lot of potential for art.
“The culture here, it’s not watered down like it is in some other places,” said Chris Dehart, a McDowell County native. “People here have a lot to say, and you bet they’ll say it. They probably have a lot to create too. Now, we have a place to put those creations.”
While some people outside of the county may not understand the need for art and culture, and its prioritization given other challenges in the area, Turley said it doesn’t matter: Art, no matter where it is, is important, and will lead to connections and morale-building that is integral to bettering things in places like Welch.
“Arts are going to be the vehicles we use to realize our commonalities, to face problems, and to continue on. It’s what’s going to be here longer than any of us,” Turley said. “We’re West Virginia just as much as anywhere else — Morgantown, Charleston, wherever, and we should be able to enjoy the same goods. We’re excited to start doing just that.”