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State of the Arts in the Ohio Valley

Part 1: Setting the Stage

February 17, 2013
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

"As someone who has generally followed a creative path, this writer supports efforts to bring art to the mainstream wherever she lives. Since moving to the Ohio Valley two years ago, however, she has observed that those efforts face greater struggles here. This four-part series of articles will examine how this area compares to other places where the arts and artists are thriving, what art means to communities and education and how artists are trying to bring creativity back to the Ohio Valley."

- Glynis Valenti, Times Leader Staff Writer

The word "art" is defined by the Miriam-Webster Dictionary as "the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects and, also, works so produced." It is a Middle English word that originally comes from the Latin "ars" and "artem" meaning skill, craft and craftsmanship.

Article Photos

East Liverpool used to be known as the 'Pottery Capital of the World,' and Zanesville and Steubenville had thriving industries. Now pottery is taught through classes, as pictured here at Oglebay Institute, but is no longer a major player in the Ohio Valley economy.

Historically, Ohio Valley settlers brought their crafts and talents with them, like music and glass blowing, and the legacies are still within today's local culture. Recently, this writer purchased a book titled 30,000 Years of Art. Thirty-thousand years is a long time, and it is intriguing that man has been seeking out ways to express himself for at least that long.

Thanks to all sorts of research in paleontology, genetics, anthropology, paleoanthropology and archeology, scientists have charted man's evolution and migrations through ages and continents. The first bipedal (two-footed) creatures in the family Hominidae seem to have appeared around 15 million years ago, with the first members of the genus Homo documented a little over 2 million years ago. Research shows that at this point, stones were used as implements and tools. Early "man" lived and developed in Africa, but as he evolved into Homo erectus 500,000 years later, he moved into Asia and Europe. These groups used fire and more complex tools.

The first Homo sapiens, to which modern humans belong, gradually evolved from 400,000 to 200,000 years ago. By 50,000 years ago, man was relatively sophisticated with languages, cultures and his own forms of technology. An archeological expedition in Siberia in 2008 unearthed artifacts and a bracelet that carbon-date to 40,000 BC. Over the next 10,000 years, man was regularly creating what is commonly considered art today: cave painting, statues and decorative vessels.

Other scientists and researchers say that the performing arts were actually the precursors to visual arts. They say that as language and cultures developed, so did rituals like drumming, dancing and chanting before hunts. Possibly singing and even storytelling were parts of these early tribes' lives.

The desire to make, enhance or invent is innate. Each person has his own level of creativity, but it is there and has always been there even if only to use a stone to pound nuts open.

In more recent and local history, Ohio Valley arts have been influenced, in large part, by immigrants arriving during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most were English, Irish, Scots-Irish and German. Several "waves" of Scots-Irish (mainly from Ulster) and Irish arrived here after religious persecution, changes in land lease agreements and the potato famine plagued their homelands. Folklore, instruments, stories and ballads from these and English immigrants were "discovered" and documented in Appalachia in the early 1900's and are considered the roots of modern country and bluegrass music.

Early supporters of this music genre began showcasing talent in 1933 on the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree radio program. Listener demand was so great that after the first three months, show producers started broadcasting the live show from Capitol Theatre stage at midnight on Saturdays - after the theater was done showing movies.

The Jamboree was a huge success and brought more than 1.7 million visitors to Wheeling in its first 20 years, though it stopped the live theater shows during World War II. Today, the Jamboree radio program is the second oldest country music program (next to "The Grand Ole' Opry") and hosts the "Jamboree in the Hills" every summer in Belmont County. Estimated annual contributions to the local economy total $10 to $15 million over and above ticket sales.

Another creative industry along the Ohio River, the glass factory, has not fared as well over the past few decades. Changing markets, materials and technology have overpowered this classic industry.

East Liverpool to the north and Zanesville to the west were both known as major pottery centers thanks to Ohio's clay and natural resources. Today, Zanesville Pottery seeks out quality imports to sell. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Martins Ferry, Bellaire and Moundsville were homes to three renowned glass works whose products have become collectible since the traditional factories' demise.

In 1905, brothers Frank and John Fenton founded Fenton Glass Company in Martins Ferry. They began by hand-painting glassware from other manufacturers, but decided to create their own glass designs and moved south on the river to Williamstown, W.Va. and set up their own factory. Their iridescent "Carnival Glass" line was created there. In 2011, Fenton stopped their traditional glass works and sold the company assets. Fenton is still, however, based in Williamstown where their artisans redefined their market and create art glass jewelry and beads using the company's color palettes and designs.

Fostoria Glass was founded in 1887 in Fostoria, Ohio, but moved to Moundsville in 1891, where natural gas and coal were more readily available. They developed a line of blown stemware and became the first company to offer a complete dinner service in blown glass crystal. In the mid-20th century Fostoria employed 1,000 people and produced 8 million pieces of glass annually, including commissions by United States presidents. Fostoria Glass was purchased by Lancaster Colony in 1983, but the new owners closed the obsolete glass works in 1986, just shy of its 100 year anniversary.

Across the river in Bellaire, the Imperial Glass Company began operations in 1904. In its efforts to expand its consumer lines into art glass and increase production too quickly, the company floundered by the end of the 1920's. The Great Depression and the death of board chair and marketing powerhouse Victor Wicke set the stage for bankruptcy. However, reorganization in 1931 brought about a new leadership team, employee confidence and development of the Cape Cod and Candlewick lines. While the next 30 years would be successful, the effects of more expensive materials and less expensive overseas competition took their toll, and the board of directors sold Imperial Glass to Lenox, Inc. Lenox sold the company to a private investor in 1981, and in 1984, the company was dissolved in bankruptcy.

Evidence shows that communities can benefit from creative thinkers. While the country music Jamboree has remained an institution, where is the rest of the Ohio Valley's creative capital - the artists, the innovators and their supporters - critical to an area's revitalization? There are isolated pockets of activity, but other places around the country embrace the creative economy and enjoy the benefits.

The next article will visit some of those places and compare demographics with the Ohio Valley.



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