“Sometimes it’s not the squirrel, but the nature of the squirrel. His playfulness, or his silliness,” Kari Gunter-Seymour says as she looks out over the hill and down to the pond below her home in Albany, Ohio.
Having grown up in the Appalachian region, Gunter-Seymour frequently inserts nature into her writing. Often, she sits quietly and patiently in her backyard, waiting for the deer to come grazing by and listening for the Red-tail Hawk. She started writing to help relieve the frustration and sadness she felt after her son left for Iraq to serve in the Army in 2004.
“When you write poetry, you have to knock it down to the bare thoughts, the bare feelings, those very few words that can say what it is you’re trying to say,” Gunter-Seymour explains, as she moves her hands inward toward each other.
Gunter-Seymour is known for her poetry, photography and has been featured in many publications such as The LA Times. Her chapbook, a collection of poetry, titled Serving, was chosen runner up in the 2016 Yellow Chair Review Annual Chapbook Contest and is forthcoming in Spring 2017. Poetry became therapeutic for her as she realized how important it was to convey her feelings and share them with others. Spoken poetry creates an image in an audience’s mind as they listen to each word that has been carefully placed.
“In the end, does it really matter the way anything said in passing grew so much larger, how we took on sorrow and stored it until we stood in silence or wept”
Gunter-Seymour describes her flow of words onto the paper as a “regurgitation of the anxiety and the angst” she feels. She admits sometimes poetry isn’t enough. So she started running as a hobby to give herself time to be alone in her thoughts.
Known to write her immediate thoughts on napkins, gum wrappers or anything else she can find, Gunter-Seymour is a petite woman who doesn’t have a pause button. She beams with joy as she explains her thought process on how her writing begins. Her silver hair shines in the sunlight, pinned back from her face.
Gunter-Seymour started college at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, she intended to study psychology, but she found herself enjoying an elective art class in silk-screening more than anything.
“I learned that I can take all these components and layer them and put them on this page. It made it even more clear to me that I can make art with this. I mean real art, museum art,” says Gunter-Seymour enthusiastically.
She continues to talk with her hands as she describes how she began to create slides to showcase her artwork in galleries, which ultimately led to her Bachelors of Fine Art in Graphic Design.
It was in a photography class that she started her first project titled “Barbie Falls In Hard Times.” The project placed Barbie in situations that ordinary people find themselves in, such as having a piece of toilet paper stuck on her shoe or getting caught eating an entire cake on her own.
Gunter-Seymour was rejected at first by many galleries after she learned how to showcase her artwork. Discouraged and searching for a place to accept her, she realized many other women from Appalachia were having the same problem. Wrestling with her thoughts about how to emerge as a new artist, Gunter-Seymour decided to create the Women of Appalachia Project, an effort intended to break the social stigma Appalachian women face and empower them through sharing their artwork.
The stereotype of these women for years has portrayed them as undereducated, underserved, and barefoot, living in the hills of Appalachia. The first show in 2009 showcased only five visual artists and four spoken-word artists, now in 2017 it has grown to showcase 68 artists.
Whitney Folsome-Lecouffe, an emerging artist, showcased her photography for the first time at the opening ceremony in the Multicultural Art Gallery held on Ohio University’s campus, in February.
“I think that having an outlet and something to kind of give you the support to do so, it’s kind of priceless,” says Folsome-Lecouffe softly. “I think a lot of me not showing my work in the past has been kind of a subconscious thing because I’m from Appalachia. So, this project has been really special in that way because it’s just kind of intertwined those two things.”
Continuing to break the social stigma of women living in Appalachia, Gunter-Seymour has worked tirelessly to find new venues around the region to showcase her artists’ work in the weeks following the gallery showings. The community response astonishes Gunter-Seymour, she receives dozens of emails from people who appreciate the showcase and the quality of work.
But one of the most rewarding experiences, Gunter-Seymour says, is the story of a young lesbian woman from Parkersburg, West Virginia, who was accepted to showcase her artwork in the Women of Appalachia Project for the first time. Her piece was titled “God Hates Fags,”which soon after the event was featured in the local paper of her hometown. Gunter-Seymour received a phone call from the West Virginia artist soon after, overjoyed because she had been asked to do a solo show in Wheeling, West Virginia, just outside of Parkersburg.
“She felt accepted, and people in her community were going to read that and that they were going to maybe have to step back and say, ‘We shouldn’t have judged her for that. She’s this really delightful person who has this gift of painting. And we need to take a different look at her and maybe look at her again and get to know her as the woman she is instead of this stigma that we placed on her,’” Gunter-Seymour says.
Just as Gunter-Seymour learned through her poetry, artists in the Women of Appalachia Project can overcome the emotions of not being heard by sharing their stunning artwork and poetry with the region and beyond.