Q&A: “Where Sky Meets Eternity” documents an extraordinary artistic hand-off in the WV hills

“Where Sky Meets Eternity” by Richard Anderson Productions | YouTube link: youtu.be/ArdAR8iWOR4

By Douglas John Imbrogno | WestVirginiaVille.com | nov3.2021

The documentary “Where Sky Meets Eternity” by Richard Anderson Productions profiles an ambitious, offbeat art project from deep within the West Virginia hills. The recently released, hour-long film traces what happened when a bunch of creative folk across the state were asked to bounce off each other’s work — and witnesses what happened next. The film plays off the old game of ‘Telephone,’ where a story gets embellished and transformed as it passes from person-to-person. In this case, artists in wholly different artforms reacted to and re-interpreted what they had been handed.

The documentary starts with the poem “Almost” by the poet laureate of West Virginia, Marc Harshman, a line from which — “almost off the map, almost heaven, almost where / sky meets eternity” —lends the documentary its title. In July 2020, he passed “Almost” off to glass artist Elizabeth Braun. That began a process that unfolded through that Autumn, Winter and into Spring of 2021.

Braun’s glass piece was then shared with photographer Rick McCleary, whose photographic response was passed to poet Kirk Judd. His poem inspired painter/printmaker Cheryl Ryan Harshman, who passed off her work to young digital artist Aren Hobbie. His artwork inspired a poem by Sue Silver. That poem inspired the creation of fiber art by Susan Feller, to which painter Tara Holl responded. Teen artist Taylor Mowrey reacted to her painting via her drawing and animation skills, while Mowrey’s work then inspired writer and essayist Leenie Hobbie.

The final handoff in April 2021 was to singer-songwriter Dakota Harper. Her sonorous fiddle music is infused throughout the film — embellished by master instrumentalist Joe Hermann on banjo — as she plays variations on the song, “Mist on the Mountains,” that resulted from reading Hobbie’s words. 

The final results of this sprawling, artistic conversation were seen in the show “Passages” at The River House, a community hub for the visual arts and music in Hampshire County, WV. That exhibit is depicted in the documentary along with interviews with the artists, describing how they were inspired to forge their own links in this chain of creation.

“Freshly vaccinated, I started contacting the artists.”

~ Richard Anderson

“Where Sky Meets Eternity” recently earned a Best Cinematography award and a third place award for Best Documentary at the 2021 Berkeley Springs Film Festival. It was shot by Richard Anderson, a filmmaker with a long interest in West Virginia subjects, including “Mike Morningstar: Here’s To The Working Man”,  and “What About Auburn?”

The documentary came to be as Anderson contemplated a film on Capon Bridge WV, and its robust arts and music community centered around The River House. He met with John Berry and other key folk in the local arts scene to discuss a documentary with the title of  “The Capon Bridge Revival,” showcasing how the visual arts and music can drive community growth.

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“COVID-19 made filming the Capon Bridge movie impossible, but fortunately John hatched the ‘Where Sky Meets Eternity’ art project as something that could be done during the pandemic, since it could all be handled remotely,” said Anderson in an e-mail exchange.

As the artist hand-offs neared completion, Berry asked him if he might be interested in documenting all the results, said Anderson. “I figured we could do that once the vaccines were rolled out. So, freshly vaccinated, I started contacting the artists.”

To illustrate the poet laureate’s piece, he and cameraman Paul Newell-Schamp drove hither and yon in search of images inspired by the poem, he said. “That’s where we encountered the bear, the birds, the deer and other wildlife, and the mist and mountain views. We also had to shoot our drone down out of a dead fir tree with a shotgun. But that is another story…”

A Different Story in the End

To dive deeper into the back-story of the project, WestVirginiaVille conducted an e-mail Q-and-A with John Berry of The River House in Capon Bridge WV.

“Nauvoo Ridge” by Cheryl Ryan Harshman from “Passages.”

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: How did this documentary come to be? It sounds like it was partly born of necessity, to create a project within the limitations of a pandemic, which, however, was pretty ambitious in scope.

JOHN BERRY: Oddly enough, the project was conceived of well before the pandemic. It was inspired by a similar project conducted by the Arts Council of the Southern Finger Lakes, and my dear friend, Michael Czarnecki, a traveling poet of some renown. Their (and our) project is based on the game of ‘Telephone,’ in which a message or a story is passed in secret — invariably becoming an altogether different story in the end.

In Michael’s version, a poet wrote a poem, which was then passed to a painter. The painter’s task was to “pass” the message they heard in the poem through, I suppose you could say, the language of the canvas. Their project continued from poet to painter, poet to painter and so on. But I had been wondering what it might be like to stretch it a little.

Fast forward a year or so to 2019, and the executive director of The River House at the time, Johanna Murray, and I were talking about some upcoming grant opportunities. She liked the idea and we submitted it for a grant. We added several mediums besides poetry and painting. My job as coordinator was to facilitate the passing of the “message” from artist to artist, and to keep all of the artists on schedule. It was everyone’s job to keep their work a secret to ensure the integrity of project — which they all did without exception.

GALLERY: Aren Hobbie reacts to Cheryl Ryan Hardiman’s “Nauvoo Ridge.”

If the pandemic had any negative effect, it was in the manner of exchange. Our original intent was for all of the work to be physically exchanged, save written pieces, which were passed easily electronically. In some cases, though, we had to rely on photographs for the passing due to the ongoing restrictions.  Luckily, this had no adverse effect on their process. Nothing like a little isolation to keep an artist on task. 

Now about Richard Anderson. Richard, as you may know, has filmed a number of projects specifically about the culture and people of West Virginia. He was showing his wonderful film “What About Auburn?” at The River House a few years ago, which is where I met him. Richard and his cameraman, Paul Newell-Schamp, truly brought our project home in a way we had never imagined, becoming in so many ways our thirteenth artist — if unintended from the outset. 

WV: What were your initial hopes and designs for the creation of “Passages,” compared to how it actually turned out? It is an odd and challenging concept —  to pass inspiration forward between so many different artists and art forms, hoping to keep the thread of the project alive with each interpretation.

JOHN BERRY: As a poet myself, I place an enormous amount of value in the art of listening. I think if I had any personal designs in mind it was that each artist draw on their faith as listeners, too. What I hoped for was to see not a literal interpretation such as one might encounter in ekphrastic poetry, wherein the art is about the art, but more a profound attention and trust paid to whatever image came through.

From my perspective, I think these artists fulfilled this design tremendously. A case in point that you don’t see in the film: our glass artist, Elizabeth Braun began by cutting out shapes in paper representative of the rolling hills of West Virginia. Then she cut various hues of blue glass in these shapes and joined them together. What I saw when I went to her Paw Paw, WV, studio were two pieces, the one I just described, and the one you see in the film. She created the second because she felt the first — which was stunning — was too literal. And, oh, by the way, she did this even though she was (and is) in the midst of a terrible bout with cancer. 

Did the project turn out as we expected? Well, that’s an interesting question, especially when you consider that the best artistic endeavors are always a surprise. I’m still being surprised by this project and the artwork it inspired. That’s the artistic answer. 

A little closer in and there was also the hope of building something through the collaborative energies of several artists. The River House is as much a community as it is a supporter and promoter of the arts, and we care deeply about the artists and audiences that pass through our doors. In so many ways, this project was like a community supper; each artist bringing a part of themselves and  the community to the table. 

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WVVILLE: You have said that such a project is eminently do-able for other communities and artistic centers. What advice might you have for pulling it off — without pulling out your hair — to get it done right?

JOHN BERRY: If there was anything “difficult” about the process, it was probably the requirements of receiving and reporting the grant. That being said, I think there is enormous value in having to articulate your vision in a clear and concise way. It can be a little intimidating going to a state agency for funding. But in our experience the people behind these programs are eager to help and they want to give you money. With or without a grant, I think it is important that the artists and facilitator be compensated. There is a sacredness in this reciprocity, and if an artist does not want compensation, they can always donate back to the organization. 

“In so many ways, this project was like a community supper; each artist bringing a part of themselves and  the community to the table.”

~ John Berry

A full year for the project should be allowed if engaging 12 or so artists. Allowing for the time involved in preparing for the exhibit, we gave our artists a little over three weeks to complete their work — which was adequate in all cases. 

We had a little consternation about how to handle the music and spoken-word pieces which two of our artists created. These were performed live at our opening. But otherwise we printed out the lyrics and the poem, and included a QR code to direct viewers of the exhibit to an embedded recording of the performances. 

Was it an ambitious project? Yes, but since we gave ourselves plenty of time, and thankfully stayed on schedule, overall it was never too stressful. 

Dakota Karper, the final link in the “Passages” project, crafted the song “Mist on the Mountains,” performed with Joe Hermann. The tune is the capstone to a series of handoffs that began 11 artists ago with a poem by WV poet laureate Marc Harshman. | IMAGE from documentary.

WVVILLE: The River House is at the center of a rich local arts community deep in the West Virginia hills. What is your own background in the arts? And what are your thoughts on seeding and growing arts communities and centers in places where they may not have existed before or have struggled?

JOHN BERRY: My primary background in the arts is poetry. Much like my lifelong work as a woodworker and carpenter, I have largely learned some modest skills on my own through practice. My most recent collection of poetry, “The Lawnmower Poems,” was published in 2019 by Foothills Publishing, and more recently one of my poems, “Human Beans,” received an honorable mention in the Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Contest, sponsored by the Center for Interfaith Relations. I absolutely love the spoken word, and will pretty much jump at the chance to read or recite my own or other poets’ poems. 

“Art and music, in my experience, is a living presence that moves and breathes in both seen and unseen ways.”

~ John Berry

I’ve always enjoyed volunteering so I suppose it’s no wonder I am deeply entrenched in the workings of The River House. And just like anything else it takes a lot of time, energy and hard work. I can’t speak necessarily for how the development of an arts community might work in other places. But in our experience something truly powerful happens that cannot entirely be reduced to the hard work and desires of its founders and volunteers, or the money (or lack thereof) you put into it. 

Art and music, in my experience, is a living presence that moves and breathes in both seen and unseen ways. The deeper I go into my poetry and my work at The River House, the deeper the blush of the unseen grows — which is a fancy way of saying the work has a reach we can scarce imagine. 

How do we seed this in other communities? Well, the one thing we have in this country besides willing and helping hands is the knowledge that our communities are in pain. And while we may speak of it in more specific terms — whether that be racial and economic injustice or the divides of politics and religion — maybe it’s time to stop fighting over the same old arguments, end this endless conversation and begin a new conversation.

I like to think “Passages” stopped the vicious cycle of our conversation, even if for a short time, round about the time Marc Harshman wrote the opening line to his poem, “Almost.” There really is nothing all that complicated about climbing out of a valley, except, perhaps, the decision not to stay at the bottom. Forgive me — that is the philosopher in me talking, but I do think there is a great deal of truth in it. Begin a conversation that people are unfamiliar with, or heard once and can almost remember, and you might just get their attention. Which is, in effect, to say — don’t begin the conversation by talking about how much something costs.

“I like to think ‘Passages‘ stopped the vicious cycle of our conversation, even if for a short time.”

~ John Berry

WVVILLE: Ask yourself a question — then answer it.

JOHN BERRY: I guess I’d have to follow up on that last statement and ask: ‘What is the new conversation?’ For myself I think it has a great deal to do with beauty. Or perhaps I should say ‘Beauty.’ I’ve actually been sort of ensnared for the last several weeks in thinking and writing about Beauty: how universally accessible it is, how potent and powerful it is for our very survival. But rarely do I think people take Beauty all that seriously. It’s a nice distraction, but then we carry on with our day, completely unaware that without it we would die as surely as if deprived of water and air.

Yet, isn’t it interesting that there is no end to Beauty and it can never run out even if it only exists in a person’s mind? The trouble is we’ve misplaced our understanding of Beauty, and I think you might agree when I say it ain’t on Facebook.

Now, that’s a conversation.


POEM: “A Year of Few Apples” by Kirk Judd: nov4.2021: ‘Pantry shelves and freezer bins/ Scavenged for this season’s solitary pies/ Settled atop cooling racks/ On cinnamon evenings/ In oven-warmed kitchens.’

POEM: “Almost” by Marc Harshman: nov4.2021: ‘The world will go on without me but for these few moments I am/ sitting on top of the world, a simple summer’s day, away/ from the busy rush of roads, the scrolling of screens,/ almost off the map, almost heaven, almost where/ sky meets eternity …’

POETICS: The Art of Being West Virginia’s Poet Laureate: We sit down — digitally — with longtime West Virginia poet laureate Marc Harshman and quiz him about his “Dispatch From the Mountain State” in the NYTimes and the obligation of a poetry to be the sort of “political being” described by W.H. Auden.

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