Appalachian sisters joined by creative ‘spirit’
Amy Ammons Garza has always looked out for her little sister, Doreyl Ammons Cain.
“Make sure you mention when the mural will be unveiled,” Garza said. “She’s always forgetting things.”
“I am not,” Cain countered with a laugh. “Ever since we were kids, she’s made sure everything I needed is taken care of.”
Despite their married last names, the two are known as “the Ammons sisters.” Through sheer passion and dedication, they have risen to the top rung of the Appalachian arts and cultural ladder, widely considered as experts of the region’s heritage. The pair have made it their life work to showcase and pass along the arts, crafts, music and cultural traditions of Western North Carolina, and especially their home county of Jackson.
One’s a writer — Amy. One’s an artist — Doreyl. Both are storytellers and musicians.
Doreyl’s latest masterpiece, a giant mural called “On Hallowed Ground” will be unveiled in downtown Dillsboro next weekend — for the record at 10 a.m. Oct. 5, noted Garza.
SEE ALSO: Mural brings Dillsboro’s past and setting to life
When she was four years old, Cain decided she wanted to be an artist. Watching her grandfather, “Ole Tom” Ammons, draw inspired her to follow suit in her own creative endeavors.
“I just thought it was magic seeing him draw,” the 70-year-old said. “And it’s just what I’ve done all my life.”
When she was 18, Cain headed for the West Coast where she acquired a Masters of Arts in Biological/Medical illustration at California State University at Long Beach. Though she was immersing herself in new experiences, she longed for her homeland in Southern Appalachia.
“I saw a lot of the world, but I’ve never found another area like this, with the people that are here,” she said, tearing up. “I get emotional talking about it, but the combination of the Cherokee and Scotch-Irish heritage creates these magnificent people, whose intelligence and creativity are unparalleled as far as I’ve seen.”
These days, Cain and her husband Jerry live on the Natures Home Preserve in Tuckasegee. She spends her days painting in a yurt studio. It’s her own slide of paradise, one hidden in the majestic depths of Western North Carolina.
“My true love is nature, the beauty I see when I walk out of my front door is phenomenal,” she said. “It’s about knowing and seeing all the incredible surroundings, and having a sense of place here.”
When she’s painting, Cain channels her innermost emotions, where her love of nature and humanity flows out of her fingertips, ultimately dripping onto the blank canvas.
“It’s a challenge to paint, but that’s what I like about doing it because it pushes me,” she said. “There’s a feeling when I’m painting where nature, the human and the spirit come together because they’re all connected.”
In search of the word
While Cain was fascinated with Ole Tom’s drawings, Garza was mesmerized by his words. He was a talented storyteller, a trait cherished in these parts. Being able to pass on the oral traditions and history of this area was something he wanted to instill in his granddaughters.
“My grandpa told me as a little girl that it was up to me to save these stories, and that was really important to him,” Garza said.
But, it wasn’t until she was 39 years old that her creative urges bubbled up to the surface. At the time, Garza was raising a family in northwestern Indiana, all the while running a tractor-trailer repair service. She started to think about the old stories her grandfather told her, and started jotting the details down. Eventually enrolling in nearby Purdue University for creative writing, Garza had found her passion.
“The people who came before me are within me, and when I’m open to writing I become that person and that person speaks through me,” she said. “I come up with things I’ve never thought of because I’m open to it all and they speak. I laugh and I cry when I write, but you’re putting something on that paper that’s an emotion within you, and the reader will have that same emotion.”
With the release of her first book, Retter, Garza began to win awards for her Southern Appalachian storytelling. It was picking the fruit of her labors, which get sweeter each year. She continues to write and perpetuate the traditions of the past. It’s all in effort to not only educate and nurture the future, but also preserve the memory and tales told by Ole Tom.
“I knew if I could tell the story and put it out there, then my children would learn about the past, which would help them in the future,” she said. “When Retter came out, I was so excited because I had finally done what he had told me, which was to preserve the heritage.”
Catch the Spirit
After returning to Jackson County, the Ammons sisters co-founded Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, a nonprofit art organization that would be a conduit for their passion of preserving the culture, arts and heritage.
Alongside their community endeavors and art workshops, Catch the Spirit has also been sponsors of the Greening Up the Mountain Festival, Mountain Craft Fair at the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s Railfest, Patchwork Folk & Fabric Festival, ColorFest: Art & Taste of Appalachia, and Heritage Alive! Mountain Youth Talent Contest, among other events and celebrations. They’ve also conducted the Festival of Many Colors, Appalachian Arts & Craft Bazaar, Gateway Heritage Day, and Saunooke Village Folk Festival.
Catch the Spirit has published over 70 books of Appalachian history and produces a “Celebration of the Writers” program. Scholarships are also given by them to students pursuing Appalachian studies. As if there wasn’t enough time in the day, the CSA hosts the weekly hour-long radio/online program “Stories of Mountain Folk,” which airs at 9 a.m. on Saturdays at WRGC radio and online at www.storiesofmountainfolk.com.
The sisters also conduct writing and painting workshops, which can be found online at www.spiritofappalachia.com.
ColorFest brings artsy slice of Paris to Dillsboro’s streets
“ColorFest: Art & Taste of Appalachia” will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5, in downtown Dillsboro. The annual festival brings together artists, musicians and Southern Appalachian culture for a day of fall celebration.
“There’s so much here within this little town,” said Amy Ammons Garza, co-founder of Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, one of the sponsors of the event.
Festival-goers can immerse themselves in downtown as they interact and observe crafters, storytellers, growers and musicians. The participants will be positioned under colorful Parisian umbrellas and tents, performing and demonstrating their talents. Artists include painters Jane McClure and Susan Phillips, jeweler Nanci Leigh and chair maker David Ammons. Restaurants and shops will also be open during the celebration.
ColorFest is produced by Catch the Spirit of Appalachia in partnership with the Dillsboro Merchants Association, Jackson Visual Arts Association, Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, with funding support from the Jackson County Arts Council and North Carolina Arts Council.