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The art of the tale: Pigeon Center storyteller series focuses on conversations

Pigeon Center program director Tausha Forney will lead the Pigeon Community Conversations with Storytellers Series, through August. Cory Vaillancourt photo Pigeon Center program director Tausha Forney will lead the Pigeon Community Conversations with Storytellers Series, through August. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Stories abound in these here mountains, almost as countless as the towering trees that cloak those familiar slopes. But beneath the canopy, if you look close enough and listen hard, there’s a whole other crop of them that rarely see the light of day. 

“For a long time, we haven’t been able to tell our stories outwardly,” said Tausha Forney, program director at the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center and host of the inaugural Pigeon Community Conversations with Storytellers Series that begins April 11. “We’ve been able to tell them to each other and inside our communities, and that’s where they have lived. But we’re able at this point, because things have shifted in the world, to get them out. People can actually see our real experiences, who we are, how our lives are, and just understand a little better so that hopefully, there’s a little bit more compassion, some empathy, some connection and relationships that start to grow.”

Founded in 2009, but with historic roots that run far deeper, the Pigeon Center has long been known as the center of an Appalachian community that is in danger of disappearing altogether, but the stories and songs of Western North Carolina’s Black community aren’t the only ones that can be overlooked.

That’s what gave Forney and board members Evan Hatch and Allison Lee the idea to create the series, which will bring five distinguished guests to the Pigeon Center for public performances once a month through midsummer.

But in an organization that’s best known for catering to children — afterschool programs, a summer enrichment course, holiday events and meals and the like — it was the tremendous success of an author event last year with Jackson County’s David Joy that really got things moving.

“We’re always trying to get more adults in the building,” said Lyn Forney, Pigeon Center executive director and Tausha’s mom. “We all love books around here. David Joy’s name came up, so once we got that all planned, the community showed up and they wanted more.”

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While authors DeWayne Barton, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle and Ann Miller Woodford certainly fit that mold, the art of the tale isn’t solely revealed in the yellowed, dog-eared pages of a favorite old book and the storytellers series is reflective of that — Adama Dembele is a 33rd generation musician and storyteller from Ivory Coast. Marsha Almodovar is a mixed-medium painter who uses her art to highlight social justice issues.

“Dance is a great way to tell stories,” Tausha said. “Visual art tells stories. It tells them from the perspective of what you experienced as the person viewing the art, but also you get to see a piece of the artist inside and experience their story —what influenced them to make it.”

Often, that influence can be seen as a culture’s way of self-preservation.

“Storytelling is important for all cultures,” said Clapsaddle, Thomas Wolfe Award-winning author and enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who closes out the series Aug. 8. “It’s the way that that we have passed down our origins, our value system. I think it’s the primary history of this world. Storytelling in any form is essential to who people are, and their worldview. Knowing the worldview of a diverse population, I think, helps us to be better humans on this earth.”

Southern Appalachian tradition reveres the work of legends like Horace Kephart, Wilma Dykeman, Gary Carden, Charles Frasier and Ron Rash — with Joy’s recent, gritty Appalachian noir foreshadowing his membership in that exclusive club — which is all the more reason to highlight the art of Black, indigenous and Latinx storytelling.

“It is certainly an art form,” Clapsaddle said. “And like any art form, it takes time and it takes studying the work of others who are much better at it than you may be. Effective storytelling reflects a sense of introspection, and in really ensuring that all the thoughts on paper have received the attention they need to be to be clear. What probably makes it an art form is its ability, in a reflective nature, to reach people across differences.”

Not simply a presentation or a lecture, the storytellers series is a two-way affair; it’s structured as a casual conversation that allows for audience engagement. Tausha will lead the events and moderate the discussion.

“I am just hopeful that it brings people together to experience some community around words, around literacy, around art, around history, around storytelling and preservation,” said Tausha, who hopes to expand the series for next year’s run. “All those things are wrapped up in storytelling, so I’m just really excited about it because I think it’s a really great opportunity for us to showcase voices that don’t necessarily get shown.”

Storytellers series lineup set

The inaugural Pigeon Community Conversations with Storytellers Series kicks off at the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center next week, examining the purpose and power of storytelling in underrepresented Western North Carolina communities. Through live storytelling, readings, music and focused questions, the series will showcase award-winning storytellers from the African American, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Latinx and communities.

Tickets are $10 for community members, $7 for seniors 65 and older and $5 for students. Children 12 and under are free. Purchase tickets in advance at pcmdc.org, or at the door. Series passes are available at a discount. Refreshments will be available for purchase. All events begin at 6 p.m. on the second Thursday of the month, through August. Sponsored by Friends of the Haywood County Public Library, The Smoky Mountain News and Janet & Bob Clark. The Pigeon Center is located at 450 Pigeon St. in Waynesville.

April 11 · Adama Dembele

ae lead dembele

Frontman for Asheville-based Zansa and a culture keeper with Lake Eden Arts Festival for more than a decade, Dembele brings 700 years of cultural tradition as a 33rd generation musician and storyteller. In 2015, his family’s home and music center in Abobo, Ivory Coast — a connection between the rich, distinct melodic heritages of Western North Carolina and West Africa — was demolished by the Ivorian government over environmental concerns.

May 9 · Ann Miller Woodford

ae lead woodford

Woodford interprets the history and culture of African Americans in Western North Carolina through visual storytelling with passion, determination and natural curiosity. The Andrews native’s massive 2021 anthology of regional Black history, “When All God’s Children Get Together: A Celebration of the Lives and Music of African American People in Far Western North Carolina” serves as an enduring testament to largely forgotten families from marginalized communities.

 June 13 · DeWayne Barton

ae lead barton

A veteran and artist with a focus on Affrilachia, Barton is the CEO of Hood Huggers International, a community development social enterprise rooted in the Burton Street community. Barton uses creative expression and experience to promote neighborhood-based revitalization initiatives. In 2023, he released “The CAP Playbook: Phase One,” which Mountain Xpress  recently called, “a vision for creating a sustainable, inclusive and economically empowered culture in historically marginalized communities.”

July 11 · Marsha Almodovar

ae lead almodovar

Almodovar is a mixed-medium painter who uses her art to highlight social justice issues and recently published, illustrated and authored a Spanish-language children’s book, “Mucho Mucho.” In 2023, she was awarded the 2023 Tzedek Impact Social Justice award. 

Aug. 8 · Annette Saunook Clapsaddle

ae lead clapsaddle

Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award winner Clapsaddle is an enrolled citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians whose debut novel, “Even As We Breathe,” was a finalist for the Weatherford Award and named one of NPR’s best books of 2020.

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