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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

Val Lyle Explores 'These Truths: the brutal tenderness of appalachia'

Bristol artist Val Lyle creates one of her recent rope sculptures in her barn.
Bristol artist Val Lyle creates one of her recent rope sculptures in her barn. "Feminine Entwinement" won the People's Choice award in Bristol's 2008 Art in Public Places competition and will remain on view another year. "Entwined Dancers" was selected as the 2009 signature art for the Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon.

Reviews and Observations, as well as the Artist's Statement

June 16, 2009

JOHNSON CITY, TN — Join Bristol artist Val Lyle Thursday, June 18, 2009, to celebrate the arrival of "These Truths: the brutal tenderness of appalachia," a catalogue of Lyle's series of three exhibitions exploring contemporary art through an Appalachian lens, sponsored in part by The Tennessee Arts Commission.

The event will take place from 4-6 pm. at the Carroll Reece Museum at East Tennessee State University. Forty percent of the proceeds from the $10 catalogue sales will benefit the Reece Museum.

The show at the Reece is the second installment of Lyle's "Sages and Sanctuaries" series. The third installment will be on display Aug. 13-Sept. 26, 2009, at The Arts Depot in Abingdon, Va.

Read the Artist's Statement, as well as Reviews and Observations of her work:

The Artist's Statement
Appalachia has been the smoky smoldering base flavor of my work even as I've traveled from New York City to Florida, from Hawaii to Arizona. It is time that I address my roots directly, unashamedly, and unapologetically. Stripped of nostalgia and romance, defiant against artistic gentrification that would rob me of my mountain heritage, here I present in a series of three exhibitions, a survey of works from 1988 to 2009.

Arte Povera could be applied to much of my current work, for I use rope, burdock and other discarded materials. But making art out of common materials comes naturally to me, perhaps from a tradition steeped in "making do" that is a way of life in Appalachia where both materials and means are scarce. "These Truths" that I embrace in my work cradle the vulnerable child that we all once were, and acknowledge the inevitable loss of innocence that occurs so naturally.

From Jan. 9 to Feb. 27, 2009, the exhibit at the Slemp Gallery at Mountain Empire Community College (MECC) in Big Stone Gap, Va., displayed 17 two-dimensional works. Also shown were actual farm hand tools and materials, such as tobacco knives and bailing twine, which have been influential in my artistic aesthetic. Titled "Sages and Sanctuaries," it included a number of large scale drawings of the weathered faces of people in my life, alongside the weathered textures of rural barns.

The Carroll Reece Museum on the campus of East Tennessee State University is hosting the second part of the exhibition from June 1 to Aug. 6, 2009, in which these same paintings and prints surround my three-dimensional works. Again, real objects from farm life on display in the gallery echo the ideas, as well as textures and colors, in my images.

The final exhibition will take place at The Arts Depot in Abingdon, Va. The Arts Depot's cavernous space allows me to create a full walk-through installation for the third and largest part of the exhibition from Aug. 13 to Sept. 26, 2009. There, slats of light mimic those seen from inside a barn. Actual tobacco and hay bales add unmistakable aromas to this site-specific work. Materials and textures begin to blur what is a finished work — and what is not.

My first experience creating art installations was in 1988. Because my ideas were beyond what a single object could convey, I needed to create a space in which sculpture as well as wall imagery could create a dialogue. Then, starting in 1990 while in Manhattan, I created a series of installations incorporating sound tracks and kinetic sculptures. So with this background in constructing multimedia artwork within a particular space, and with deep appreciation to all those who have helped me, I offer this new body of work, this newest installation piece.



by Kathleen Grover

Val Lyle's "Pieta" is the first of her works I saw. The small sculpture, an anguished figure cradling the broken body of another, both rages against and pleads with the universe. Every muscle of the embracing figure is taut, yet it gently holds the corpse. The silent howl from the mouth gaping to the sky sounded to my soul. I had to know more of this artist and her creations.

Several years and many encounters with Lyle's work later, I have come to feel that chief among Lyle's impulses is the mandate to control and transform that which gives pain into beauty. The results are often works that paradoxically attract yet repel, reveal vulnerability yet threaten. Those qualities are in "Pieta," and they are also in "Cocklebur Fetus" and "Cocklebur Tea Set." The full-term fetus, complete with fingers and toes, invites nurturing arms, but its cockleburs forbid touch. I think of both the fetus's and the mother's vulnerability to each other and to the life they share. A tea set suggests relaxed companionability, yet one made of cockleburs warns of pain; these cups will never touch lips, but neither will they be broken through use.

The body of Lyle's work I have recently become acquainted with is the most extensive of her projects so far. It combines pieces from her childhood and recent life, drawing from decades of work with objects found on a farm, part of Lyle's heritage and daily life: objects themselves; photos of those and similar objects; photos of trees impaled by barbed wire; and a series of photos and paintings of the interiors and exteriors of barns. Lyle has spoken of her fear that her use of these subjects might be viewed simplistically as a nostalgic or sentimental tribute to "lost people, lost generations, lost way of life." But, as Lyle says, "They [the barns] are not inherently "sad' to me." There is again, though, tension on multiple levels. The many tools included in the collection stress the hard, damaging, and often solitary work involved in farming, negating the romanticizing of it.

The photos of trees sliced, scarred, and sometimes encircled numerous times by barbed wire elicited a reaction similar to that evoked by "Pieta:" awe at the persistence of an entity even under the burden of such brutality that stunts and threatens its life. These, part of a collection labeled childhood photos, show Lyle's early awareness of her mission to witness and honor strength in defiance of adversity, persistence despite pain.

But the barns also tease me into and out of thought. The interiors, the "sanctuaries" of "Sages and Sanctuaries" (Lyle's MECC exhibition of drawings and paintings, January-March 2009), startlingly contrast with the dilapidated or collapsed exteriors. From outside, Lyle shows barns bereft of all life, some of their very substance. Many have lost siding, roofs, or whole sections; others are skeletal; still others are collapsed like houses of cards. Yet, Lyle celebrates their settings on hillsides or meadows, the lighting of a grey winter day or an evening sun showing thinly against bleached boards. And she celebrates the shapes the barns have become, the angularity of their revealed frames, the textures and colors of beams. The photos and paintings complement each other, but Lyle truly takes ownership of the barns in her paintings and honors them by re-creating them. As she says, "Exposed rafters begin to look like the rib-cage of a barn-corpse, or maybe the interior of a big ship, mid-construction to travel to far-away lands. The walls and floors curve like a carnival fun-house until I'm not sure what is really there and what my mind's eye fills in." In sharing her visions of these barns, Lyle helps us see that much of their beauty comes from their disintegration. Rather than mourn them for not being what they were, we celebrate them for what they are.

Unlike the exteriors, Lyle's barn interiors remain sturdy. Yes, single or a few boards have fallen, and huge beams are frayed at their ends like ropes. Seen from the inside, though, these barns have settled, not collapsed. Gapes admit light, but the walls still support a roof. Soft mounds of hay cover the floors. Rather than being grey and papery like exterior boards, the interior wood is warmly brown, worn to a velvet texture. With the barns' boards suggesting ribs, the interiors could be wombs. But the lighting, especially in the paintings, suggests a church: golden rays glow, with the shadows of the boards making shapes like the lead frames of stained-glass windows in a religious sanctuary. Again, though, a hint of threat is that the sanctuary may be, as a friend of Lyle's put it, a "safe cage"; the slats offering protection can also confine.

As I ponder the differences between Lyle's interior and exterior barns and the fact that they seem to be part of a personal and intimate more than cultural expression, I see them as Lyle's idiom-a most basic means of exploring the relationships between vulnerability and strength, between pain and beauty. Barns she played and sought sanctuary in during her childhood have become part of her. Although as individual works the barn interiors lack the immediate sense of brutality in "Pieta," "Cocklebur Fetus" and other pieces, the barn series as a whole expresses the tension of these relationships. But because Lyle embodies sanctuary herself, she to a degree reconciles with the destruction she honors in the barn exteriors. The barns abide through her art, despite exterior threats.
I still must learn more of her and her creations.

Kathleen Grover teaches literature and composition at East Tennessee State University. Some of her greatest pleasures are the arts in their many forms and supporting them however she can.



by Venus Zarris

First encounter ...The heartrending sounds of "Sweet Honey in the Rock" were wafting in from the outside air. I was living in the shantytown "cabanas" just off the Ringling School of Art and Design campus in Sarasota, Florida, little rectangular boxes lined up on narrow pothole covered concrete lanes. Hadn't heard this music since stumbling on a free outdoor concert in Chicago years before but it was unmistakable. I stepped outside to locate the origin. It was coming from a stereo in the shoebox just next door. I knocked on the screen and saw my first glimpse of Val Lyle.

We were relative babies then, blank slates smudged with formulating notions about art and creativity, framed by the muddy waters of the brief but full lives that we had waded through up until that point.

She was congenial, warm, wise, unpretentious, enthusiastic, casual, open, mellow and focused. This was the sincere surface. What swirled beneath the surface was passionate intensity and urgently churning conceptualizations. What swirled underneath was her driving two- and three-dimensional visions that she embraced as her great commission. Sometimes delicate, sometimes explosive, always honest; what emerged was and still is her art.

The journey ...An Appalachian born and bred, Val's work began as a reflection of this profound backdrop and a reaction to her formative experience. Moving to Hawaii it was subtly infused with the color, climate and visual fragrance of the islands. Furthering her travels, she landed at art school in Florida where the location informed her education as much as the instruction. Her artistic voice was bold and confident.

She then moved to New York City. There she learned how to exhibit, the craft of display, the networking, the business side of art. The diversity of ideas, the cultural melting pot, the ever quickening pulse and the unrelenting flow of energy in the city inspired her but she stopped creating work for two years because the pretentious art "scene' got her down. There were impressive offers to back her work if she would make changes to accommodate the current trends but she refused. Compromise has never been an option and so Val returned to her roots.

It was hard at first to shed the commercial affectations of New York but she has managed to carve a path of realistic connection to her art as it reflects her journey. Val has re-embraced the discovery stage of viewing her world with wonder and possibility, that same perspective that she intuitively possessed so strongly when we first met.
As a result, the delight of artistic creation has circled back into her work. She has a better and broader understanding of her role as an artist and a better relationship with her viewing public. In the beginning she strove to create art that would simply please her. Through her journey she has come to realize how both the work and the audience dovetail together.

She is sure of her voice. Part New York, part Florida, part Hawaii but the soul of the work comes out of the earth, mud and trees of her home because that is deeply who she is. It is inspired by Appalachia and the people who have worked so hard against impossible odds, the generations of strong women and the agricultural society itself.

And now...This is an American artist. Not the America that exports its commerce and consumption into the collective consciousness of the planet, but rather the vast American landscape that moves about in its day-to-day life with both simplicity and complexity.

From the bucolic Appalachian earth itself, to the steel structure of its cities, to the oceans that bookend the land and then back to her beloved mountains — Val's work is enthused in and of America. She invents her art by assembling the vast materials, both physical and visceral, that comprise the fabric of this diverse country. She reflects the faces, forms, functions and fluidity of the world that she inhabits.

There are a small handful of artists that I have met in my life who move about their worlds with a need to create that is as urgent and involuntary as the need to breathe. They do not proclaim it as their identity. They barely speak of this need. It is simply there and when you are in the presence of it, be that in person or viewing the fruits that it bears, you are with something organic and contagious. It gently nudges its urgency into your consciousness. In this way, Val's work has influenced and continues to influence as much as evoke.

Like the music of "Sweet Honey in the Rock" that facilitated that first glimpse, where one song brings you to the streets of a city, the next sends you on a pastoral journey, the next takes you to a tribal celebration, the next pontificates an urgent human polemic, the next waxes on love or loss; Val's art is rural and urban, rustic and sophisticated, primitive and contemporary, romantic and pragmatic, emotional and political, whimsical and serious, free flowing and deliberately structured, exciting and subtle, renders joy and addresses sorrow. The creations of Val Lyle make a connection to our personal as well as our universal experience of humanity.

Venus Zarris is the Editor and Chief Writer for, as well as other print and on-line publications. Her work has been featured at colleges and universities in Illinois and Michigan, on National Public Radio, and is in the permanent collections of the New York Historical Society and the Library of Congress.

To see Lyle's work, CLICK HERE

A! ExtraTopics: Art