On Display: An Interview with Berea College Student Magenta Palo


Recently, Emily Masters sat down to talk to Magenta Palo about her role as curatorial assistant for the Appalachian Center and about her projects and aspirations. Magenta, an art history major with a proven artistic inclination, talks about the process of designing an exhibit from the ground floor up, about her self-discovery as an artist, about her current projects, and about her future goals for the Appalachian Center and beyond.

Emily Masters: Magenta, what sparked the idea for the “When I was 20” exhibit in the Center?

Magenta Palo: Before I left to travel abroad, Chris Miller emailed me and asked me to work with him for another summer. He had the concept of taking several narratives from Appalachian history, from the very first Native Americans to settle the area to present day Latinx immigrants, and to somehow present each story in a way that showcased what people may have been doing in the region when they were twenty years old. This concept did many things including breaking down stereotypes, shedding light onto multiple perspectives, and connecting to the viewers (mostly Berea College students who are close to or in their twenties). Chris had this fantastic idea, and he needed someone who could illustrate and piece together the individual characters in a coherent manner.

EM: Tell me a little bit about your creative process for this project. When you set out to draw a character, what are your goals? Where do you start? What are some of the difficulties you experience?

MP: We started by going through the collections and seeing what types of interesting artifacts we had and who owned them. Then, we began piecing them together with the kinds of narratives we wanted to share. After we had a few solid stories in line, I began working on the illustrations as well as further historical research.

I came to work on this project without even knowing how to draw a proportionate face. Disclaimer: I am an art history major, so drawing and painting are just my passions–I have very little technical or academic training. So, with the help of Heather Dent (another fantastic artist in the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center), I spent the first few days getting the hang of it and sketching out faces for characters such as Lydia Whaley and the Paleo-Native American.

I wanted these characters and notable people to be their exact likeness of what they may have actually looked like. There were challenges here, because many of the narratives we wanted to share did not have specific people or pictures to match. I spent time researching historical imagery or artwork (Daniel Boone pioneers, factory working women in the 1940s, Berea College nursing majors from the 1930s, salt mine slaves in the 1800s), and hand to imagine what they may have looked like from there. Some characters were easier than others. For example, we have a real photograph of Lydia Whaley, so she was easier to recreate than the characters we had to get more inventive about.

Another decision we had to make was how to tell these stories. We wanted to encompass general stories that several people may have had similar experiences with. Another issue we had was how to connect all of the stories for display. We ended up chasing the idea of a pop-up story book, so we arranged the characters and used backgrounds and layers of

objects with the hope that we would end up with a multi-dimensional exhibit, as a representation of the multi-dimensionality of the Appalachian people, themselves.

EM: Which representation of the Appalachian Experience was your favorite to sketch and examine in the “When I was 20” exhibit?

MP: I think the salt miner and the Paleo-Native American were my favorite people to create. I love how I accidentally created the miner in an action pose, and I loved creating both of their personas from my own imagination. Also, they both highlight very important events and circumstances in Appalachia.

EM: You also help with the hallway exhibits. Most recently, your work has consisted of how to display Mike Clark’s photographs. Soon after, Clark visited and presented at the Appalachian Center. Was it exciting to meet the man whose work you had been so focused on in recent weeks? What were some of the differences between preparing someone else’s photography display and creating your own work for display?

MP: I loved meeting with and getting to know Mike Clark! We had only corresponded through email and phone calls in the months prior, so it was a pleasure to talk to him in person about his photography, career, and social activism, and to discuss why I chose to present his images in the way I did.

There wasn’t a terrible amount of dissonance between what Mike wanted and what I wanted. I think it was actually more fun to piece together images of someone else’s story than to create my own. Of course, sometimes Mike didn’t like the photographs that I chose, but we ended up reaching easy agreements. The artist is always their own worst critic.

EM: You have done some of the other artwork in the Center including “Wildflowers of Appalachia,” “Fungi of Appalachia,” and “Appalachian Salamanders.” Do you have any of your own projects going on outside the Center?

MP: Ah, yes, the Appalachian Wildlife exhibit is what started it all. I had previously dabbled in art for years, but after completing that exhibit and having strangers tell me how beautiful they thought my creations were, I started taking my art a bit more seriously. I am currently working on a 100 days project, wherein I create a piece of art, no matter how simple or bad, every day for 100 days. I hope to hone in on more artistic skills and teach myself more as I go. I also use the project simply as a meditative practice. However, I do have an idea for a children’s book, so be looking forward to seeing that anywhere between next week until I die.

EM: What are some of your future artistic ideas you want to see played out in the Appalachian Center?

MP: Well, in the studio, we try to accommodate whatever new project ideas come along, whenever that may be. I am working now to recreate and program a new light show for the cloud installation based on Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night painting in association with rural living and poverty settings parallelled in Appalachia. Chris Miller has thrown around the idea of making my illustrations into a small booklet. Personally, I’d like to work further on connecting Appalachia to other regions of the world somehow, and to continue to debunk stereotypes about the region and its people. Also, MYTHICAL APPALACHIA! Think Mothman, Sheepsquatch, among other folktales. I’m all over it! But for now, I am here for all of your curatorial and creative needs, should they arise.