The Potluck Ladies visit RCAH as the last WNL of 2014-15

On Wednesday, April 29, the RCAH welcomed singer-songwriter Julie Adams, artist and designer Colleen Anderson and actress and scholar Karen Vuranch as the last WNL guests of the 2014-15. Together, they make up the Potluck Ladies. The three friends travel around the country performing the Potluck Show, an amalgamation of stories, songs and poetry with a dose of West Virginia mixed in.

“It all has to do with food, women and community. It’s meant to honor women and what they do and to leave you feeling good,” Anderson said.

“And hungry,” Vuranch added, laughing.

In addition to their WNL performance, the group reconvened in the LookOut! Galley on Thursday to tell stories of life in West Virginia coal mining camps. The tragic story of Charlie Malone and his best girl Rose was interspersed with folk songs about the dangerous dirty work in the mines.

While none of the women were born in West Virginia, all three have grown to love Appalachia. Each of them says they were exposed to environmental issues and the ugly side of mining when they were in college in the 1970s.

Anderson was visiting West Virginia as a VISTA volunteer when the the Buffalo Creek Flood occurred. A dam owned by a coal company burst, destroying a number of mining towns and polluting the water, and 125 people lost their lives.

“The coal companies tried to call it an ‘Act of God’ and it was an act of the coal company,” Anderson said.

One particular form of mining, called mountain top removal, has become particularly contentious in recent years.

“It’s just shocking. They literally remove the top of a mountain and dump it on the side, which is normally where streams would find their way down the mountain. They dump it into the watershed,” Adams said.

“They’re mining the same amount of coal now as they did in 1950, but with 1/32 of the workforce. Right now, there are 95 working underground mines and 25 mountaintop removal sites. The 25 mountaintop sites are producing as much coal as the 95 underground,” Vuranch said.

Just last year, Freedom Industries spilled a chemical into the Elk River, poisoning the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people near Charleston, West Virginia. 

“It’s not just history, it’s still happening. It’s still the same story, it just hasn’t finished yet,” Adams said.

Another issue the Potluck Ladies are particularly concerned with is workers’ rights. Vuranch is descended from a long line of labor rights activists – her great grandfather started the Plumbers’ Union, and her father was also heavily involved in union activities. 

“When I moved to West Virginia, I was immediately taken by coal mining and coal history,” she said. Since then, much of Vuranch’s work has focused on women’s experiences in the coal communities. “Women weren’t represented in coal history. We knew how men worked, but how did women live?”

The group said they strongly believe in art’s ability to be political, although it can also be simply fun.

They also left a bit of advice for aspiring artists.

“You might as well be ready to be your own agent and do your own networking and set up your own website. Be your own self-promoter,” Adams added.

“Make yourself as versatile as possible. There’s a reason why the swimming pool salesman sells Christmas trees in December,” Vuranch said. 

Story by RCAH student Kelsey Block. Photos by Kelsey Block and Katie Wittenauer.