HINDMAN – As the strains of traditional guitar flowed through a darkened room, the audience at the Appalachian Artisan Center sat in rapt attention in a makeshift auditorium that normally serves as an art studio. With artwork adorning the walls and seemingly every flat surface of the darkened room, they laughed at humorous songs and clapped along to old favorites. It was hard to determine who was having more fun: the Blue Moon Mountain Boys on stage or those who came to listen to them perform.
In the middle of it all, new executive director John Trusty was a whirlwind of activity.
One minute, he consulted with a television crew, there to film a documentary.
The next minute, he greeted late arrivals to the concert with a smile and heartfelt thanks, before rushing off to personally fetch more chairs so they could sit among the overflow crowd.
The next, he moved stealthily toward the stage, electric fan in tow, to provide relief for performers singing under hot lights, before rushing away to greet more new arrivals, who soon would feel like new friends.
The next, he offered his appreciation to a newspaper reporter for a story written in advance of the event, pointing at a couple across the room and saying in all sincerity: “They said they’re here because of your story. You really helped us out.”
The day before, Trusty explained the importance he placed on the concert. In tones equally measured and enthusiastic, he told what he was trying to accomplish: “Our goal is to get people in the door and make them aware of what we are doing here.”
If it seems like Trusty approaches his new job as if everything depends on it, it would only be because he believes it does. As he lays out the story of what he is trying to accomplish, how he believes the center can revitalize an area that has lurched precipitously with the rise and fall of the coal industry and reinvigorate a people who have suffered disproportionately the ills of poverty, Trusty often closes his eyes, picturing the reality he aims to create.
“Appalachian people are some of the most self-sufficient, proud people that have graced the planet,” he says. “However, we are in our third generation of entitlements. So many people have given up. They feel, you know, we’ll just get on the draw and we deserve to be taken care of, because we have been so exploited. I’m looking for people who want to break that cycle.”
Getting there, however, will be a challenge. Trusty first must find a way to pay the bills. When he came into his job July 1, he inherited a $30,000 deficit, along with facilities that were stunning, both for what they offered and for what they lacked. Crowning the second-floor studio, for example, is a geodesic dome that, in addition to its aesthetic beauty, was intended to provide cost-savings through energy efficiency. However, the room was never insulated properly, resulting in a need to close it during the winter to avoid high energy bills.
“I have struggled the past two-and-a-half months to raise enough money just to meet payroll and pay my electric bill,” Trusty said. “I do anticipate that changing as I expand my fundraising activity.”
But expanding fundraising is easier said than done, Trust says, given the soft national economy, compounded by local financial troubles brought on by a weak coal market and resulting widespread layoffs. Regardless, Trusty has set a goal of $100,000 in donations his first year. He fully believes the goal is achievable, and furthermore that the investment is worth it.
“We need money,” he says matter-of-factly. “I need to find benevolent sponsors, some of these wealthy people, these banks, these doctors, these lawyers, these people who have made a good living in this area, to give back, to share, to help create an environment where we can create jobs.”
Trusty believes the key to achieving that goal lies in helping people discover the artist within each person and rediscovering the ability to thrive and prosper with nothing more than what they already have around them. It doesn’t matter if they have any previous training. What matters more is if they have desire.
“If anybody has the means to come over and spend 20 hours a week, let’s say three days at the most, come over and work with our master artists, you can be making dulcimers right off the bat,” he said. “We start out with dulcimers and ukuleles, and then we move up to mandolins and guitars.”
The center operates with four levels of artisans, each of which has a give-and-take relationship both with the center and with each other.
The most high profile are the master artists in residence, who, as the name implies, are masters in their field. The master artists are provided with an apartment and a $25,000 annual stipend. In exchange, the master artists are expected to work at least 40 hours a week at the center, half of the time on their own work and half either working on the center’s product line or mentoring apprentice artists. The center currently has a master luthier, or maker of stringed instruments, in Doug Naselroad. Trusty described Naselroad as a true master of his craft, having honed his skills at Collings Guitars.
“He, like I, wants to leave a legacy,” Trusty said of Naselroad. “We want to change lives. We want to improve the economy. Because at this point in our careers, you know, when your children are grown and your house is paid for and you just want to sit back and take it easy, well, you look back at your career and say, ‘How many lives have I changed? How many people have a better opportunity because of me?’”
In addition to the master artists, the center also has business incubator studio artists, who learn business skills from the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development while they hone their art; community artists, who rent low-cost studio space from the center; and visiting artists, who are typically recent art school graduates who rent studio space for a “minimal” cost and also learn business skills.
Trusty believes he can transform the Appalachian Artisan Center to a “world-class facility,” achieving self-sufficiency – first for the center, then for the region it serves – through the introduction of product lines, such as handcrafted musical instruments and ceramic dinnerware. In a region that has historically seen outside companies come to take advantage of a wealth of natural resources, then pull up stakes and leave when the markets shifted, Trusty believes helping people discover their talents and then learn how to profit from them will provide a sure path to regional prosperity.
“It’s about self-sufficiency,” Trusty said. “It’s about becoming an artist or a craftsperson, and not depending on whether this company comes here and hires us.”
Born in Garrett, Trusty is the first Eastern Kentucky native to serve as director at the center, and the fourth director in the past six years. He has lived the life of a Renaissance man, having taught Appalachian studies at Alice Lloyd College, English in Venezuela, and parenting classes for Big Sandy Area Community Action Program, also working in construction and respiratory therapy and getting a master’s degree in counseling along the way.
He first began making dulcimers in the 1970s and returned to it a few years ago, when he decided to take a “self-imposed sabbatical” from respiratory therapy, after working in the field for 11 years.
“As an artist and musician, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go over to Hindman and hook up with them and resume my career as a dulcimer maker,’” Trusty said.
He ended up staying three months, during which time he “made a beautiful instrument and learned a lot of techniques from a master woodworker named David Wright.”
Afterwards, he went to work for Big Sandy CAP, teaching parenting classes. During the next three years, he says he honed a lot of the same skills he uses in his current job as director of the Appalachian Artisan Center.
“I bring that concept of a behavioral psychologist to the table, because I want these artists to have self-motivation, to know that anyone who goes into business has to have a concept of what their product costs,” Trusty said. “There’s certain basic, rudimentary things that no matter what field you’re in, whether it be learning to parent or learning to make a dulcimer, there’s a process. It’s a modular approach.
“You can’t just all of a sudden jump into being a great parent or a great artist. You have to start out at your level and not make it too difficult. Always make it something that’s accomplishable. So in our studio artist program, that is, as executive director, my teaching technique and my approach – to create a situation or environment where you can’t fail.”