Artist and Appalachian Gallerist Penelyn VanOrange shares with Zackquill about how she came to be an artist in Morgantown, the upcoming Day of the Dead show she is curating at Arts Mon, moving forward positively and more…

Z: How did you end up in West Virginia?

P: I first visited friends in Morgantown in 1999 – feeling like I was meant to be here, went home to Illinois and almost immediately began to make life-changing plans to move here. Once in Morgantown, I began a job in a painting restoration studio downtown – restoring mostly turn-of-the-century magic show posters. I loved the work and was enchanted by the idea that I could actually use my painting degree (after years in theatre – a more employable venture)It was great while it lasted – to be able to go to work with paintbrush in-hand….(everyone likes to criticize art students for their degree selection) As much as I enjoyed painting – it wasn’t actually earning me much of a living – and I was finding it very difficult to find another art-related job in Morgantown….so I returned to theatre. I was lucky to find work freelancing in costume and puppet fabrication / design and several wardrobe positions in various production companies. The entire time I was working elsewhere – Morgantown still had my heart. I moved from positions in Chicago, Rockford, Madison, Milwaukee and a summer crafts position with the Utah Shakespeare Festival and was also lucky enough to interview with the Jim Henson Studios (NYC/L.A./London) – alas – no positions available due to funding issues…. Morgantown was still on my mind….. I returned to Morgantown – still really believing that I belonged here. A few weeks later, I was hired at the Appalachian Gallery – where my life found a new spin.

Z: How did you come to be an artist?

P: I don’t recall “becoming an artist” actually – I have never known a time when I was not. I’ve always made use of my hands and the ability to travel through imagination and create mythic escapes. I embrace being different – though it often seems a solitary endeavor. Being an artist is a responsibility. A responsibility to engage others, to challenge imaginations, to define culture and actively support equality and art in a community.

Z: How did this exhibition come about? Why is this important for the Morgantown community?

P: The upcoming Day of the Dead exhibit at Arts Mon will be the second such show there – last year, it coincided with the Arts Walk downtown – and was rather well received. Fairmont State University also hosted three previous Day of the Dead exhibitions – where I had tha fantastic experience of working with university students each year to assemble sugar skulls, an altar and full gallery exhibition. Day of the Dead shows have proven to be great all-family events and are an excellent example of diversity in the community. We are hoping to also include other artists in the exhibition. Such events are intended to be a joyful celebration of life. The day of the Dead takes place on November 2nd as a way to pay tribute to the departed. Similar to the November 1st Catholic holiday “Dia de los Inocentes,” which honors children or infants who have passed, el Dia de los Muertos is steeped in the tradition of celebrating life through music, dance, food, art and prayer, and family togetherness. Day of the Dead is a fusion of both old and new worlds – embracing the duality of life and death, and the importance or remembering & honoring ancestors. Day of the Dead is NOT Halloween, nor is it morbid – the celebration is not exclusive to any religion. The holiday is celebrated in many areas of Latin America and in numerous states across our country. Life and Death have a connection and that connection is Love, the bridge between the two, paraphrasing the author Leo Buscaglia. West Virginia is alive with Folk Art which fits Day of the Dead exactly. Folk Art loosely defined is: the traditional typically handmade art of usually untrained people. .The artists aren’t professional artists (perfect for kids) and use materials readily available and inexpensive. They are often self-taught and the style is highly decorative, by some considered “naive” and embraces heritage, values and customs of a particular population. These Day of the Dead exhibitions are intended to be collaborative in nature – whimsical and fun. They should intentionally blur the boundaries between life and death. Individuals of all ages are invited to honor and celebrate their loved ones who have passed away, participating with humor and joy in a celebration that has roots nearly 4000 years old. The holiday has spread in recent years from Mexico to North America and beyond. Looking forward to seeing this year’s exhibit and looking forward to seeing some new developments in the local Arts and Culture scene. There are some very exciting collaborations happening in Morgantown – and some very talented people here. I’m very proud to get to play even a small part in moving forward.

Z: What is your favorite thing about being an artist/creative/curator in Morgantown?

P: These are difficult times and a challenging atmosphere in the Arts. You have to have a sense of humor, optimism, empathy, faith and a strong work ethic to move forward positively – and I believe that is what we are all here to do. Culture and Creativity have been the cement that binds together not only hearts and souls, but entire societies and nations.

Z: Any advice for young artists in the area?

P: If your love is to create – never stop.

Day of the Dead show at Arts Monongahela, 201 High Street, runs October 4-November 3, 2017, with an opening reception October 6, 6-8pm. Details artsmon.org.

Find more of Penelyn’s work online at http://new.wvcraft.com/art/ .

Sally Deskins is an artist, writer and curator. She edits Les Femmes Folles, a journal for women in art, and currently serves as Exhibits Coordinator at WVU Libraries.