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'Appalachia USA' shows life in coalfields

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For more than 45 years, Builder Levy has traveled throughout central Appalachia photographing the people, buildings and landscapes of historic coal towns.

"Appalachia USA," his new book, reprints 69 of his photographs from the coalfields. Some portray historic coal towns like Welch, along with pictures of nearby tipples and churches.

The book offers an array of powerful images of men and women working underground in mines across the coalfields in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, in places like Mingo and Wyoming counties. Other pictures show miners heading home after the end of their shifts in places like Kayford Branch Mine on Cabin Creek.

Several photographs feature African-American miners and families living in the Appalachian coalfields.

"Appalachia USA" is filled with engaging photographs of children living in coal camp houses, many happy and some rather sad. Some play with friends, ride bicycles or feed their dolls. Others just stand inside their homes.

During a visit to a preschool/kindergarten class at Dixie Elementary School in Nicholas County in 2008, Levy asked Shelby Mari Hagan, "What are you doing?"

Holding her doll, Shelby told him, "I'm feeding the baby because it's hungry." The school principal told Levy most children in the school, including Shelby, qualified for the free lunch program.

Dramatic images Levy shot from 10 airplane flights he recently took in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky portray major damages caused by mountaintop removal mining.

These photographs also include shots of former Secretary of State Ken Hechler being arrested during a 2009 protest against mountaintop removal near Sundial and of Marsh Fork Elementary School, which was relocated after years of being in the shadow of a nearby Massey Energy sludge pond.

"The mountains themselves - the most biodiverse in North America and among the oldest in the world - have been central to my interests," Levy wrote. "My primary focus remains, however, the quotidian life of the people and their enduring humanity."

Country music legend Kathy Mattea, a native West Virginian herself, said, "These pictures took my breath away the first time I saw them. There's a fierceness and a reverence juxtaposed in these images. They capture the spirit of a place, a time, a way of life."

Born in Tampa, Fla. in 1942, Levy was raised in Brooklyn. He received a B.A. in art from Brooklyn College in 1964 and a master's degree in art education from New York University in 1966.

"I grew up during the Cold War and the McCarthy era in a family that encouraged art and believed that the world needed to be changed," Levy said. "By the 1960s, people in our nation were marching in the streets for civil rights at home and for peace in Vietnam.

"In communities throughout America, people were standing up for their humanity and dignity and struggling for social justice. As an artist, I needed to find a way to have a direct connection to these realities."

Levy, who lives in New York City, has also photographed people from inner-city neighborhoods near his home and people halfway around the world in Mongolia.

Levy photographed, and participated in, civil rights and peace demonstrations in the late 1950s and 1960s, including the March on Washington in 1963.

Levy also taught at-risk adolescents in New York City schools for 35 years, between 1965 and 2000.

Levy's photographs have appeared in more than 200 exhibitions, including more than 50 one-person shows. His exhibition -- "Images of Appalachian Coalfields" -- had 70,000 visitors when it was displayed  the West Virginia Culture Center during the spring of 1991.

Levy has received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Alicia Patterson Foundation, Puffin Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts.

"Life of the Appalachian Coal Miner," a portfolio of 12 of Levy's early photographs, was published in 1976.

Levy has two previously-published books featuring his work in the coalfields: "Images of Appalachian Coalfields," published in 1989, and "Builder Levy Photographer," published in 2005. His photographs have also appeared in 25 other books.

More information about his work is available on his website: www.builderlevy.com.

"Appalachia USA" is available for sale at Taylor Books on Capitol Street in downtown Charleston. The new book can also be ordered through the West Virginia Book Company at 304-342-1848 or www.wvbookco.com. Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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