Harlan County Arts and Culture
Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, Harlan County is known for its natural beauty and its coal-mining history.
Visitors can learn more about the natural environment as well as traditional arts and culture at the historic Pine Mountain Settlement School or learn about mining at the Kentucky Coal Museum and nearby Portal 31 Exhibition Mine. The museum also features other exhibits such as a mural about the town’s past, an entire floor dedicated to country music legend Loretta Lynn and a display of antique quilts and pop-culture artifacts related to the area.
While in the “Tri-Cities” of Cumberland, Benham and Lynch visitors can enjoy pedestrian trails, visit the Coal Miner’s Memorial Park, enjoy a meal or an overnight stay at the Benham School House Inn or visit the national headquarters of the historic Eastern Kentucky Social Club, a networking organization for African Americans from the region. Locally made items can be purchased at the Poor Fork Arts and Crafts Guild in downtown Cumberland and a variety of public art is on display throughout the Tri-Cities, such as the painted bear sculptures posed along various intersections and tile mosaics honoring different aspects of the area’s cultural heritage.
Downtown Harlan is home to the Harlan Center (part visitor center, part gallery for local art, part convention and event space), the Studio of Piano Fine Arts (an understated shotgun-house-turned-music-studio where students of all ages take lessons in piano, guitar, voice and more) as well as various locally owned shops and restaurants.
Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College (SKCTC) has campuses in Cumberland and in Harlan. The College’s Appalachian Program, directed by author, artist and community activist Robert Gipe, has a strong record of creative community engagement in the area and spearheads many local events and initiatives such as the Festival of Mountain Masters, the youth-led Crawdad festival, Kingdom Come Swappin’ Meetin’, It’s Good to be Young in the Mountains annual conference and Higher Ground – an organization that has been working with community members for over 15 years, creating art by and about the people of Harlan County, including photography exhibits, tile mosaics and plays.
Recently, SKCTC’s Appalachian Program has been leading a community effort to rebuild and rebrand the region through a project that weaves together arts, entrepreneurship and sustainable development. A grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission is funding this revitalization project that will include workforce training, improvement of downtown properties as well as the creation of public art, websites, wayfinding and other messaging.
Click here to read more about this effort.
Click here to view “Harlan – Our Town, Our Home,” a presentation by students at Harlan County High School that includes original paintings, place-based poetry and oral history interviews. Visiting artist Judy Sizemore worked with students to create their poems, many modeled after “Where I’m From,” a well-known poem by Kentucky poet George Ella Lyon, who grew up in Harlan County and maintains close ties to the area. Students worked with visiting teaching artist Alfredo Escobar to create their paintings.
In this short video, art students describe and reflect on the painting project mentioned above.