A picture may be worth a thousand words, but when the picture and the words both unfold in real time, the story is complete. Amy Ammons Garza and Doreyl Ammons Cain come together this month to prove this once again via their unique multimedia show.
Amy tells stories of a hardscrabble life in mid-20th-century Appalachia while Doreyl spontaneously illustrates the tales with her signature pastel art. The sisters grew up in rural Jackson County while the country was in the midst of World War II — Amy in Tuckasegee, and, a year-and-some later, Doreyl, when the family was living in Little Canada, near Horseshoe Rock. “Amy is one year older than me and she thinks she’s the boss,” Doreyl likes to say. The two girls and a younger brother rarely ventured outside the Ammons family homestead and helped their parents and grandparents keep the family afloat. The men cut timber, worked on the railroad, and found odd jobs, while the children helped with gardening, picking berries, and tending to livestock.
“With no neighbors, no electricity, and no running water in the house, we didn’t know we were poor,” Amy says. “Most children today don’t know about clothes made from feed sacks, or can’t believe that we didn’t have electricity or a bathroom in the house.”
It’s hardly surprising that one sister became a writer and storyteller and one became an artist, given that their mother painted abstract art in her rare spare time, their father played the guitar and sang, and their beloved Grandpa Ammons told stories drawn from the family’s Scots-Irish and Cherokee history. “Grandpa Tom was our father’s father,” Doreyl explains. “He took us under his wing and told us stories filled with adventure, showed me how to draw when I was four years old, read to us from the encyclopedia about foreign lands and even played checkers with us.” The stories that Amy tells and that Doreyl illustrates during their show are drawn from their grandfather’s repertoire, and from stories told by aunts and uncles. “When I first started writing about the family, I went into their homes and interviewed them,” Amy recalls. “How happy they were to tell me about their lives and what they remembered of the old days. They’re all gone now, but I still have the tapes with their precious voices.”
Amy has since published seven books, including a trilogy based on her family history, although the stories didn’t start bubbling up until Amy had left North Carolina for Indiana. In the early 1980s, the memories became so insistent that she enrolled in a creative-writing class at Purdue University, which led to her first book, Retter: A Novel of the Mountains, based on the life of Grandpa Tom’s wife Rita Jane Coggins Ammons.
Doreyl, after graduating from the University of South Carolina with a Fine Arts degree, had also left the mountains to settle in California, where she earned a Masters in biological illustration but found her peace in recreating in pastels the nature that surrounded her childhood.
Before long, the mountains called them back home. “We discovered we had the same dream,” Amy says, “to come home and try to reach as many rural children as possible with our message that everyone is wonderful and creative in their own way. We wanted to increase the self-worth of as many mountain children as possible.” The result was Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, a nonprofit the sisters established in 1989 and which still thrives, winning the Mountain Heritage Award from Western Carolina University, among many other accolades. “We were very busy in the first 20 years [of running the nonprofit],” Doreyl says. “Now we’ve slowed down somewhat, but love presenting the stories and art together.”
“All our stories are true to our experiences,” Doreyl says. There’s music, too, with the audience invited to join in on a variety of homemade instruments such as a bucket bass, a washboard, shakers with corn kernels inside, and a collection of antique kitchen utensils that can be put to musically creative use. It provides a rare window into a rural lifestyle that a busier world has passed by. “How free we were,” Amy remembers. “Our backyard went all the way to the horizon.”
The Ammons Sisters/Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, a free program presented by Friends of the Library, will be offered in Henderson County Library’s Kaplan Auditorium (301 North Washington St.) on Tuesday, February 6, at 4pm (snow date: February 13). To learn more, call 828-697-4725 or visit spiritofappalachia.com.