Two sisters and a brother work to save their heritage in Appalachia
Away back in the late ‘40’s my sister Doreyl and I, along with our brother David sat at the foot of Grandpa in the mountains of Western North Carolina, watching his hands as he drew birds and caned chairs while telling stories of our heritage. We stored what we learned within our hearts.
Living in a modest house set deep in the side of a mountain, we lived miles from the nearest neighbor and down the mountain from our grandparents. We played together, ate together, worked together and created our own world. Naive to the pressures outside our nature-filled lives, the simple ness of making our parents, grandparents and each other happy brought us joy, while all the time we learned values, respect for others, and integrity by example. Little did we know this closeness would draw us together in a bond that few have known.
As we grew into adulthood, like birds, we flew away from home. As the eldest, I wound up in Northwest Indiana where I married, owned my own truck and trailer repair shop, and raised two daughters. Doreyl, the middle child, married and had her own art design company in California, where she brought up two boys. David married and he and his wife became teachers in the South Carolina school system. Constantly, we were on the phone talking to each other, always longing to be together, feeling the call of the mountains.
The Ammons Sisters
In 1987, for Doreyl and me, this longing for the mountains erupted, so much so that we began walking down a path that would eventually bring a complete change of life for both of us. Knowing the way would be difficult, we were still determined to pull ourselves out of the web of life we had made for ourselves, and go back to the “simple life” we had experienced as children, with desires to honor our heritage. By this time, I had become an author of six books, three of which are a trilogy of our family's heritage in the mountains.
Doreyl had become an artist who owned her own art company--both professions that helped us discover the value of family and our childhood.
We came home to Western North Carolina. Neither of us had a job, but we had a plan. While in Indiana, I had begun telling the mountain stories I had heard from Grandpa in libraries and schools. In California, Doreyl had recaptured the sheer joy she’d felt watching Grandpa draw birds with abandonment, and had been spontaneously illustrating to the music of performing musicians. We discovered that if we put our talents together, we could tell a story complete with spontaneous illustrations to make the story come alive. Indeed, we could truly go back to living the simple lives of our childhood by sharing it with the children—thus the storytelling performance of “The Ammons Sisters” was born.
Storytelling by the Ammons Sisters
Word Pictures and Picture Words
The way to tell a “story” is as different with each person as the stories and individuals
themselves. My sister Doreyl, as an award-winning pastel artist, creates pastel paintings and sketches by stroking the sticks of dry pigment across the abrasive surface, embedding the color in the “tooth” of the paper, sand board or canvas. Techniques vary with individual artists. Pastel can be blended or used with visible strokes. There is no drying time, and no allowances need to be made for a change in color when dry, unlike oil paint or acrylics.
“Pastels originated in the 16th century,” she says, “and still exist today, as
fresh as the day they were painted...no restoration needed, ever! ’Pastels’ does not at
all refer to pale colors, as is commonly thought, but comes from the French word‘pastische’ because the pure, powdered pigment is ground into a paste, with a small
amount of gum binder, and then rolled into sticks. The infinite variety of colors in the
Pastel palette range from soft and subtle to bold and brilliant. I love to work with
Pastels because of this freedom. My art is best ‘in the moment,’ and my subject of choice is the nature that surrounds me at home here in the mountains. I love to illustrate Amy’s stories as she tells them, for I’m completely ‘in the moment.’”
As a storyteller today, I begin all my performances with:
"Stories...Grandpa told me stories. High on the mountain, I'd sit on the floor at Grandpa's feet. The warmth of fire crackling in the fireplace, the flickering shadows of the lamplight on the wall, the swish of the wind on the tin roof...all this intertwined with the sound of his voice as it echoed in the quiet of the room. He told stories of stalking panthers, of front porch music, of people born and people dying. And all his stories brought real-life drama to a little girl searching for heroes...heroes she could just reach out and touch."
My stories fall into place as I continue...for deep down I can feel myself back sitting on the floor, listening to Grandpa tell how our Scotch-Irish ancestors, seven generations past, were a part of those who traveled to Western North Carolina and settled the isolated mountains. I want to be like him, and tell his stories once more to the hungry ears of today’s children.
Most of the time, all eyes are on Doreyl’s easel, as her bright colors bring my words alive to the audience. You could hear a pin drop.
A lot of unseen things are going on in our performance. Without anyone knowing it, they are experiencing total communication. With my words, I represent the left side of the brain, and with Doreyl’s pictures, she represents the right side of the brain. Result? Our audiences will never forget what they see, hear, feel and store away in the memory sense. When I tell them they are “wonderful and creative, and can do anything in this whole wide world,” they will remember! When I tell them they “are somebody!” they will remember.
For twenty years, my sister and I have performed for the general public
and in school settings, hoping to instill in our audience the knowledge that we are all different, yet wonderful in our own way; that “story” is a way to preserve and honor
our past to help us know that we are each a link to the future of the family of mankind.
Meanwhile, as our storytelling was becoming established, Doreyl and I cofounded Catch the Spirit of Appalachia (website: spiritofappalachia.org) in 1989 as a nonprofit organization, with its purpose to awaken people of all ages to their self-worth, to the wisdom of their ancestors, & the beauty of their natural environment and culture. Situated in Jackson County, North Carolina, our organization’s main thrust was to draw attention to the need to conserve, protect and save the natural & human heritage of the local mountain people in our region.
Vision and Mission
“Our mission is to treasure and preserve our regional Appalachian heritage & traditional music through the arts.”
While the storytelling and community work grew in Western North Carolina, David and his wife Sherilyn retired from the SC school system. Suddenly, a new world opened for David as he remembered the awe and admiration he felt as he had watched Grandpa cane a chair. He knew within his heart that he, too, could cane. Another profession grew from the act of watching and listening to “Grandpa,” for today David is known far and wide for his caning and dedication to the heritage of the mountains that is in his blood.
Together Once More
Today, when you visit the festivals of Western North Carolina, you can find Doreyl, David and me, together once more, dressed in traditional clothing, representing Catch the Spirit of Appalachia...with books, art prints, and chair caning. Be sure and look for “The Ammons Sisters” and our brother David Ammons, Chair Caner.
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Written by Amy Ammons Garza