CHARLES TOWN – An elaborate mask hangs on a wall in Tish Appignani’s Jefferson County home. With soft black and green feathers, delicate purple and gold beading, and ribbons, the mask sheds light on why the new Jefferson Arts Council president so believes in the power of art.
In 1995, when Appignani was teaching at a youth detention center in Kansas, a 16-year-old prisoner completed the mask as a routine assignment.
“The students had to make a mask and write about one,” she recalls. “They had to explain the mask, colors, design. My assistant director and I wanted to talk to each one of them. So I went to Curtis and he asked, ‘Am I in trouble?’
“I said, ‘No, I loved what you wrote about your mask. I just want you to know I’m really proud of that mask and I want you to know that, too.’”
Despite rules prohibiting physical contact between the prisoners and staff – risking a lockdown – Curtis threw his arms around her. “With tears rolling down his cheeks he said, ‘You are the first person that told me I done something right!’
“That is the kind of impact that the arts can have on even a broken life.”
Curtis later gave her the mask to remember him by – and Appignani has never forgotten him. She was happy to learn that despite his early conviction for robbery, he’d been mentored by a state senator and later graduated from junior college with a degree in graphic design.
Over the years, Appignani said she has seen other lives changed for the good by art.
“Here’s my theory on kids,” she said. “Children who participate in the art test higher. For instance, kids who participate in music test higher in math. Children who participate in theater do better in speech classes and English. Some courses challenge the mind, but arts also nourish the soul.”
New Name, New Leadership
Appignani has lived in the Panhandle for 10 years and has long been involved in the Jefferson Arts Council, formerly known as the Arts and Humanities Alliance of Jefferson County.
She grew up in Kansas, in a family that owned pharmacies and balanced politics and a love of the arts.
“My dad was president of the [state] senate and still is a federal judge,” she said. “He was state senator for Kansas. My mother was a musician and an artist. She was a phenomenal woman who wrote music and needlepointed her headboards.”
Her dad even worked on fellow Kansan Bob Dole’s political staff, including his presidential run in 1988. Appignani was appointed by multiple governors to work on the Kansas Art Commission.
Appignani said she hopes to use the positive experiences she had in Kansas with the Jefferson Arts Council, and make an impact on the art community here.
The JAC promotes the arts in a variety of ways, including by advocating for the arts, creating cultural alliances, and providing direct grants to artists, cultural projects and education.
In July, the JAC board of directors accepted the resignation of the group’s popular president Ginny Fite, whose husband was battling lung disease and passed away late last month.
Appignani agreed to step in and finish the year left on Fite’s two-year term.
An experienced grant writer, Appignani is already putting her skills to good use for JAC. The organization recently learned it had gotten a grant from the state.
“We’ll have $12,000 to fund grants to arts teachers in Jefferson County,” Appignani said. “Teachers will write little grant applications — to bring an artist in to work for their students, to buy music for a band or to fund a trip to see a play in Washington. A lot of goes for art supplies.”
Other projects the JAC is involved with include exhibits at Charles Town’s Fire Hall Gallery and the popular Artomatic that Fite spear-headed last year. That free, month-long community arts event had been held only in D.C., Cleveland and Frederick, Md., until it came to Charles Town. Now the JAC is planning to host Artomatic@Jefferson every other year.
Appignani says that although the JAC has no paid staff, it boasts a board of eight members who want to expand the organization. She said JAC is in a transformative stage, and how she and her team are helping to redefine the organization.
“We have chosen a new name and a new mission statement,” she said. “It’s really simple – JAC makes art happen for everyone. We want this to be an absolutely inclusive organization, from children to seniors to people with disabilities – anyone who wants to work in art or write a story or recite a poem or do a film.” The JAC is also looking for new collaborators.
“Craftworks would be a wonderful place to do a weekend or partnership of some kind,” she said. “I think we need to be more involved with Shepherd University and their students. At Artomatic, those students and their exhibit was an absolute knockout. It was exciting and outside the box.
“I want people to know who we are. And to understand that – the arts are a quality of life issue. They are important not only to you personally, but they are very important in economic development, very important to small businesses … and they are important for that sense of community.
“I want to see art on the streets. I’d love to see public art in our parks.”