By: Felicia Cooper
I work collecting and coordinating stories with Rolling Pepperoni. If you’re reading this, it’s possible I’ve even asked you what Appalachia means to you.
I’m always poking around for stories. Growing up, I would spend hours getting lost in the acres of hardwood forest behind my parents house. I would hunt for blueberries, surrounded by the smell of ramps and ferns, making up stories about the people who made these paths. As I grew up, I learned that the most amazing stories in the world weren’t the ones I made up. They were the ones I gathered by listening: to the wind, to the banjo playing around a campfire, to the people around me. Appalachia is woven of these stories, each one more beautiful to me than the last. I was first drawn to stories when my dad would gather us all around on a cold evening- the first whiff of snow- and tell us tales he made up, or rearranged to include new characters and changes reflecting our own lives. This intimacy, this bespoke understanding of narrative, is one I still carry with me.
I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, in the Pocono Mountains, in Northern Appalachia. I am drawn to mountains, and my first job was on a U-PICK blueberry farm. From Hawley, Pennsylvania, I’ve lived in Orlando, Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Glover, Vermont and London, England. I currently reside in a tiny town with barely a name in Eastern, Connecticut, where I attend the University of Connecticut as an MFA Candidate. Today I hiked along the old mills and the forest surrounding them. In all these places, I have sought out the places where I might sit and spend time without judgement. I like to let the hours fall around me while I experience a public place. I like to find a town’s commons. In my hometown, everything felt available, and there were few places I was not allowed to wander into, behind, underneath. I have felt this shift lately, that more and more places are off limits. This is somewhat due to a more private acquisition of land, but more to do with that land’s function. The public square is fading from us like a sunset.
One of the ways we can still make claim to that which is publicly available is by owning our stories. I collect them and rearrange them like a mosaic or a quilt, so that they can meet the needs of the listener. I tell stories with puppets, typically marionettes, carved wood that has spent hours in my hands becoming what it is. I am inspired by materials, and the stories are a part of that. A piece of linden wood carries its own history, as does the fishing line I use to string it together.
The resources available make it so that innovation and creativity are necessary. My mother’s makeshift irrigation system from a broken garden hose, or her creation of furniture from pallets, is a directly inherited practice of repurposing materials. In my work, I must find new uses for old things, the same way that anyone you know is already doing. Making use of what’s at hand is a great idea, but it is not new. The dive bar in my hometown sells rusted tools and tractor parts. When I visit, my mother won’t let me go to bed until I see at least one shooting star. Appalachia’s resilience is an inspiration to my work as an artist. Its ethic of strength and resourcefulness will always be a part of every story I tell.