Kate Fowler took the road less travelled to the job of her dreams as director of Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute, but she’s doing it now and that’s all that matters.
Born in King George, Va., a tiny military town even smaller than Whitesburg, Ky., where Appalshop is located, she dropped out of school in the 8th grade out of sheer despondency. With a GED and a decent SAT score she made it into Virginia Commonwealth University where she studied photography and filmmaking. It was during that time that she was first exposed to the work of Appalshop’s renowned artists and documentarians. She was particularly taken with Elizabeth Barret’s film Stranger With A Camera, and when a professor asked her to write one of those corny “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” letters to herself she didn’t have to think twice. One way or another, Kate Fowler was going to be at Appalshop.
Now, at age 30 and in the 30th year of AMI’s existence, she’s in the cockpit looking like a modern Amelia Earhart, building on the program’s past success and flying it into the future with a contagious passion for improvement.
We caught up with Kate in Whitesburg to see what’s new at AMI, check out the latest crop of films, and where she hopes to be another 10 years from now.
Q: So how did you make it happen? How did you become your dream self?
A: I had moved to New York to work for the Magnum Foundation’s Photography, Expanded program, which focuses on the intersection of social justice and new technology. It was an amazing job but I hated the city. When I saw that AMI was hiring a new director I said to myself, “I’ll just do it. I’ll just apply and see what happens.” A long time passed and I didn’t hear anything from them so I just forgot about it, moved on. I got a job at a new contemporary art museum in Richmond, Va., and the week I was supposed to move Appalshop called and more or less offered me the job. Then I had to convince my husband and our roommate to move all over again.
Q: Did you know what you were getting yourself into? What was first on your agenda once you settled into the position?
A: First of all, I feel like I inherited the coolest program at Appalshop at the coolest time. The previous director, Ben Spangler, did an awesome job. Plus, to be at Appalshop right now is insane because the founders are still active in the organization, but they’re making a really intentional gesture to transition leadership over to young people. So to be here at a time when all that knowledge and history is here, I think, is amazing. And I just love the Appalshop way of doing things, which is, “You want something better? Good. Make it happen. Nobody is going to tell you how or when to do your job, just do it and do it with passion.”
As far as my top priorities went, I felt like we were kind of poorly represented online and our space, the Boone Building, was cluttered up. So we took care of that immediately. Then we focused on recruiting new staff and developing new programming.
Q: What’s going on programming-wise?
A: The Summer Documentary Institute will always be our flagship program and that’s going strong, but it seemed to me that we needed a way to consistently engage young people throughout the year. A lot of our youth are LGBTQ and they’d have this amazing eight-week experience filled with community and then it would abruptly end. So we thought about how we could go beyond our existing institutes and we launched a year-round “drop-in” center with arts programming like silkscreening, block printing, and theater workshops. We also forged a partnership with the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh that allows our young people to experience first-hand the role of art in building economies in an urban Appalachian context.
Q: And your new staff?
A: I finally lured Willa Johnson back to AMI. She just started full-time a few months ago and she’s a goddess. She’s directing another new program we just launched called the East Kentucky Reproductive Healthcare Project. It will help tell the stories of young women seeking access to reproductive healthcare in the mountains and explore the stigma around birth control and abortion that exists here. I’m super excited about this project and that Willa is leading it.
And Mikie Burke is on full-time now, too. We call him The Boone Master. Along with Willa he’s a lead educator with a lot of filmmaking and photography experience. He’s focusing on the drop-in aspect and getting us to where we can be open five days a week.
We also worked out a two-year fellowship for Oakley Fugate. He’s a young filmmaker and former Summer Documentary Institute intern who just loves AMI and is going to help us develop some more LGBTQ programming.
Q: This year’s Summer Documentary Institute wrapped up not long ago and the films turned out great. What’s that experience like?
A: I think we had about 50 applicants this year from all over. Really diverse. From there, we selected 10 full-time, paid interns. The first four weeks of the curriculum is really intense. We do daily workshops where the interns are watching films, learning about the history of representation, and thinking critically about place and their role in the community. Media workshops are kind of interspersed with that. Then, in the last four weeks, they get kicked into the deep end of the pool and they have to group up and make their films. They really did some amazing work.
Q: And what if you had to write another one of those letters to yourself? What are your hopes for 10 years down the road?
A: Oh, man. We have big plans. We’ve been talking to architects and exploring funding for really renovating the Boone Building. We’d like to transform it into a true performance venue and makerspace with artist studios and maybe some retail space. Like I said, this is just a really awesome time to be here.
The following films were produced during Appalachian Media Institute’s 2017 Summer Documentary Institute, an eight-week program for central Appalachian youth aged 14-22 to engage in place-based education, documentary media-making, and creative youth development.
Lauren Rose, Jaydon Tolliver, Ben Whaley, and Shaylan Clark
After decades of decline, a deadly coal miners’ disease is on the rise in Central Appalachia. Living with black lung disease is a frightening reality that thousands of coal miners face. During recent months, lawmakers have tried to block funding for black lung treatments and benefits. This film hopes to bring awareness to a disease that has went unnoticed on a national scale. Viewers will experience the challenges that victims and their families face, along with insights from professionals in the field.
IT GOES UNSPOKEN
Skylar Griffith & Hannah Adams
For years, women have taken on the role of being “backbones” within Appalachian communities. They carry households on their shoulders, provide life and shelter, all while attempting to live up to live up to high expectations of who they are expected to be. This film sheds light on the unseen labor women perform everyday and their demand for recognition.
AN ELABORATE DREAM
Kirstin Baum & Dusty Kiser
This film focuses on the life of Oakley Fugate. Fugate is a filmmaker who grew up in Eastern Kentucky and is dedicated to making movies in his home region. With a diversity of styles from his slasher movies to documentaries on social issues in the Appalachian community, Fugate is someone doing what he loves– inspiring and inviting others to do the same.
You can learn more about the Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop, including how to apply for future internship opportunities, at AMI.Appalshop.org.