Artist Marie Cochran never picked cotton, but her parents did.
They were sharecroppers who eventually went to work at the Coats and Clark textile mill in Toccoa. Marie was the dreamer in the family. She didn’t talk much, but she always doodled in the margins and sketched portraits of her parents’ friends.
Integration was slow to hit northeast Georgia. In 1968, she was among the first Black children to attend kindergarten in Stephens County, which is named for the vice president of the Confederacy.
“I came along at an interesting time,” says Cochran, raising an eyebrow.
She received many of the predictable mixed signals as a young racial pioneer in the mountains, and she looked around her largely white community for Black role models.
Early on, she had the inklings of a possible identity crisis. “I had a crush on John Boy from ‘The Waltons,’” she says, “but I also had a crush on Michael from ‘Good Times.’ I loved ‘Soul Train,’ but I also really enjoyed ‘Hee Haw.’”
She shrugs and, to prove her point, launches into a twangy version of “Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me.”
Moreover, her explorations of Currahee Mountain — my “touchstone” — and Tallulah Gorge felt a world away from her friends in Atlanta who “thought we were the only Black people up here.” She knew that wasn’t true. “But I didn’t see anybody on television or in the movies who looked and felt like a Black version of me,” she says. “I knew I was from a special place.”
It wasn’t until she moved to North Carolina to teach at Western Carolina University that she heard the word “Affrilachia” and “suddenly, everything clicked,” she says. “I knew exactly what that meant, and I knew there were more people out there like me. People associate Blackness with Atlanta, Detroit, D.C., but we have it here in the mountains. We may be small in number, but we’re large in impact.”
A portmanteau of African and Appalachia, Affrilachia was coined by Kentucky poet Frank X Walker 30 years ago.
“I created the word back in 1991 after reading a dictionary definition that defined Appalachians as white residents of the mountains of Appalachia,” he says. “The official Appalachian Regional Commission map of official counties in Appalachia has always included Birmingham and Pittsburgh, which made that definition problematic. I wrestled with that problem on the page and came up with Affrilachia.”
Cochran was honing her skills as a multi-media artist when she latched onto the catchword, and it soon became her calling. From her base in Toccoa, she established the Affrilachian Artist Project a decade ago.
A coalition of 3,000 creative types and allies committed to the diversity of Appalachia, the project maintains a directory of Black artists in the region and presents exhibitions and lectures.
“I’m a cultural-pollinator,” she says. Cochran, now 59, helps artists in different phases of development with an eye toward preserving the work of elders who might be otherwise overlooked. For these reasons, she has become known as the “Appalachian Zora Neale Hurston.”
For example, she recruited Charlotte Ka, a painter and mosaic maker for a show she curated at the prestigious August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh and also took her for a round of artist talks in Kentucky.
“Marie opened up opportunities for me and helped my career, as she does for countless other people,” says Ka, 79. “And makes it look so cool and effortless — you never see her sweat.”
Cochran seemed destined for this path. She has always created, and she has always connected. One of only a handful of African-American art students at the University of Georgia when she attended and taught there, she created a club for them called the US Collective, which exists to this day.
“She showed us how to find a path by leading by example, because there were so few of us,” says her former student Rodrecus Davis, now department head of Visual and Performing Arts at Grambling University. “She opened up how we thought about ourselves while she was setting a standard of fostering excellence.”
A multi-media artist who draws, paints, sculpts and creates collages, Cochran is drawn to ambitious installations. Her professor, Judith McWillie, recalls a piece that exemplified the artist’s style. “She configured these ritualistic and ‘found’ objects that evoked the imagery from the Black church that was mindful of the struggle. It compressed at least 30 years of African-American history into one display. Everything Marie does is layered, ambitious and evocative like that.”
Cochran holds a BFA from the Lamar Dodd School of Art at UGA and an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, and she has shown work at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and the High Museum of Art.
But her focus these days is on the Affrilachian Art Project, which encompasses all forms of expression including music and literature and has contributed to something Cochran likens to a “Harlem Renaissance” in the hills.
Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Black old-time string band that won a Grammy for the 2010 album “Genuine Negro Jig,” sums up the nesting-doll approach of Cochran’s Affrilachian Art Project: “Marie is trying to bring awareness and understanding to a marginalized group within a marginalized group, to talk about how they intersect and enrich each other.”
It’s a tricky endeavor.
“Appalachia is stereotyped,” says Cochran. “Black people are stereotyped. I want to dispel stereotypes of both. I vow to honor the messy, bittersweet contrast of my home region’s historic challenges.”
Currently, Cochran is collaborating with photojournalist Chris Aluka Berry on “Affrilachia: The Remnant That Remains,” a collection of photographs of Black people in the region. One of his treasures is a shot of an annual Black camp meeting in White County that dates back to 1886.
“Outsiders think Appalachia is just ignorant white people,” Berry says of the stereotypes that plague the region. “But I’ve met some of the smartest people in my life there, white and black. Throughout their history these people have had to lean on each other, so I think race relations are actually a little better here than in Atlanta.”
Their project celebrates that neighborliness, but because the Black experience inevitably entails a history of pain in this country, the Affrilachian Art Project also has tackled subjects such as environmental racism and institutional discrimination in education. The city of Asheville last year commissioned a mural of the words “Black Lives Matter” to be painted on a street encircling a plaza that contains a monument to Zebulon Vance, a Confederate governor with a Klan history. Cochran was the lead artist in charge of the word “Matter.”
The Lehman Brady visiting professor at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cochran is the subject an exhibition at Piedmont College in Demorest through March 25. “Marie T. Cochran: Notes of an Affrilachian Daughter in the Time of Covid” features a different installation every week incorporating photographs, sculptures and drawings. The two constants will be a short film explaining the concept of the Affrilachian Art Project and on one wall, a panoramic photograph of the north Georgia mountains.
“The mountains are my home,” says Cochran. “I claim them.”
‘Marie T. Cochran: Notes of an Affrilachian Daughter in the Time of COVID.’ Through March 25. Free. Mason-Scharfenstein Museum of Art, 567 Georgia St. Demorest, 706-894-4201, www.piedmont.edu/msma. For more on the Affrilachian Art Project, to go www.facebook.com/affrilachianartist
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