happened to this church?
RM: Around 1900, cannel coal was discovered in the hills of Morgan County,
Kentucky. Cannel coal was known as the cleanest and hottest burning
coal available. The coal company descended upon this rural area,
coal workers were hired from all over and a thriving boom town rose
over night. A post office, a school and the Cannel City Union
Church was built. About the time of the great depression, natural
gas and electricity made coal financially obsolete to mine, so the coal
company pulled out, taking the workers (and most of the area employment)
with them. This coal bust turned a thriving city into a virtual ghost town.
Many people who stayed behind were economically forced to move north for
jobs in automotive and industrial factories. As my great-uncle, Ronald Perkins
(the oldest citizen of Cannel City) says, “It closed because
nobody came to church anymore.”
how long has the church been empty?
RM: With the exception of the occasional traveling revival or two,
the doors closed in 1961, the year I was born.
is your connection to the church?
RM: My ancestors lived in Cannel City before it was a city. My mother,
grandparents and great grandparents lived there. My grandfather moved
his family to Dayton, Ohio to work in the GM plants. They all went to
the church. Since moving northward, my family has made the four hour
pilgrimage several times a year for ancestral visits.
My great aunt and uncle are the only family left there.
I love to take my family down to visit them and cherish my
memories of the area and my heritage.
heritage seems to be an important factor in your art.
RM: Yes. I feel that my calling is to record and share my culture’s
history. Appalachian people are strong, moral and quiet. Much of our
history was passed down through the generations in stories and song.
Not much was ever written down.
My Appalachian heritage made me who I am - shaping my values, morals and
importance of family and views on the world.
Unfortunately, like the walls crumbling at the church, the Appalachian
culture is fading away, too.
RM: Well, I believe that the “homogenization” of civilization is rapidly
ridding our country of the importance of our unique differences in the name
of "progress." Every small town in America has their McDonalds, Wal-marts
and Holiday Inns. They are all the same.
A Big Mac tastes the same in Boston, San Diego or even Moscow.
As we become more “the same” we become less different.
We lose our cultural identity - who we are and where we came from becomes
less important. We need to appreciate and celebrate our differences.
My children enjoy our visits to Cannel City, but don’t feel the same
family history connection. Hopefully, by recording the culture with my
cameras, I can preserve some of the Appalachian culture before it
disappears entirely. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
RM: Yes. A good photograph can change the world. My goal is to make people
feel when they view my work. They may not feel the same way I do, since
we all filter the world through different hearts, minds and
experiences. If I can make a person think, feel and experience
something unique, then I have been a successful artist and human being.
the empty pew in your first image symbolic?
there any other meanings attached to this exhibition?
RM: There are many different layers of meaning, depending on
how far you are able or willing to look. To some, the photographs may
simply represent a rotting church building. Others with certain similar
heritages may connect on an ancestral or cultural level.
After viewing the prints, many people describe the churches they attended as children.
It seems to flip on a memory switch for some.
Many see what happened to the church happening to the Appalachian people themselves.
Still others see the images of the Cannel City Union Church as a metaphor
for what is happening to churches in general.
did you select images to photograph in the church?
RM: I wanted to show how hopelessly lonely this empty church is.
Abandoned, decaying, ignored – there is no hope.
I focused on individual characteristics -
a pane of stained glass, paint peeling off a light switch,
a vine crawling into the church through a broken out window,
weather damaged piano keys.
I wanted to show an intimate portrait of a dying church and challenge
the viewer to reflect on his or her feelings about it.
photographs seem to involve a unique perspective.
How do you “see” differently?
RM: As children, we looked up into the sky and described
the shapes we saw in the clouds.
We don’t do this when we grow up.
I’m not quite sure why.
Maybe it's because we’re told to “keep your nose to the grindstone”
and ignore all extraneous details. We’re often too busy
focusing on the facts to think about beauty.
We rationalize that beauty can wait until we’re done with the “important”
(uncreative) things, and usually, it gets crowded out of our lives.
I’ve been lucky that somehow, as an adult, I can give myself permission
to look for shapes in the clouds. I allow myself to use my creativity
to find something different and unique in the ordinary. I’m also
lucky that I get to work with young children every day.
The way they view their world rubs off on me.
“Fresh Souls” exhibition dealt with young children.
RM: Yes, as a trusted music and fine arts teacher in their daily lives, I am invited
into this secret world that only children know about. It’s a place filled with
imagination, wonder, innocence and play. It was an honor to be
allowed to capture the essence of children being themselves.
We all grow up and lose these valuable characteristics,
but I’m lucky to be around it all day long.
It keeps me eternally young.
process do you use to produce the warm earthy glow in your prints?
RM: I start with a creative idea that makes me feel, then translate
this concept into my personal visualization.
I record this onto black and white film using medium and large format
cameras and whatever means I might need to achieve my objective.
I’m able to continue the personal translation from inception
to completion by developing the film and prints myself .
The deep brown tonality of my prints is the result of a proprietary
process of sepia and selenium toning. The process results in a
rich, chocolaty, smooth brown, unlike the yellowish tan of standard
sepia toning. I tone all of my prints this way, not to make them appear
old-fashioned, but to match my visualization and to instill a sense of timelessness.
of a Church" is accompanied by music. Why?
RM: I arranged a "soundtrack" of Southern hymns from an original
hymnal from the Cannel City Union Church.
The Appalachian dulcimer heard on the CD is a digital sample of a
real hammered dulcimer that I used to create and record the arrangements
via computer. The slow, deliberate dulcimer hymns draw the viewer into
the images and sets a tone of respect and reverence.
Many gallery viewers have expressed how much the music adds to the experience.
your next project?
RM: At this time, I’m finishing up PR , scheduling and exhibitions
for “Death of a Church.” It’s taken about nine months of daily work
to bring it to this point.
I usually don’t pick my projects – they pick me.
I’m currently working on a short film "slideshow" of my Appalachian work.
Two books are in the works in association with the Appalachian Service Project.
For more information on how to help the Appalachian people and/or do volunteer
work with ASP, click the link below.
RM: Yes. Everyone is a photographer.
We all store little snapshots of the events of our lives in a scrapbook in our brains.
I encourage everybody to grab a camera and translate these memories onto film.
Our memories may fade or change over time, but a photograph not only
records our personal journey through history, but allows us to instantaneously
take us back to that frozen moment in time.
Take photographs of your loved ones, favorite places, all aspects
of your personal lives. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back to
photograph something I’ve meant to shoot when I had time, and found a
parking lot where a building once stood. Or a friend or loved one
had passed away before I had a chance to take a portrait of them.
Photographers love to say that film is cheap.
I say that a photograph of something special from your
existence will make you feel and remember your entire life.