Alumnus aids self-expression in Appalachia

Not many Yalies move to the heart of Appalachia, live in “little shot-gun motels,” or set up businesses in dilapidated tire shops. But Bill Richardson ARC ’69 is not your typical Yalie.

Richardson has worked in Appalachia since 1969, when he founded a small workshop in Whitesburg, Ky. equipped with video cameras and other movie technology to facilitate the people of Appalachia’s expression of their regional identity through films. Thirty-five years later, what started as a small workshop financed by a modest federal grant has grown into Appalshop, an arts and education center with an annual operating budget of about $1 million that sponsors over a dozen projects including Appalshop Films, JuneAppal Records and Roadside Theater.

“The idea was really how to use media in documenting problems in the community and letting people voice their concerns,” Richardson said.

Richardson’s interest in issues of low-income housing and poverty along with a heightened social conscience took him to Appalachia for the first time in 1966, where he set up a community center with several of his friends for Yale credit, he said.

“This was pretty unusual,” Richardson said. “It was off the chart really and difficult to do because it was so nontraditional.”

But it was his senior project — a film documentary on the Yale Drama School — that stimulated his interest in film and ultimately led to the idea of using media to develop the Appalachian community through Appalshop, Richardson said.

Richardson said he was pleased by the success of Appalshop ever since its inaugural year, when it produced eight prize-wining films.

“That just got everyone sparking and cooking and people started writing grant proposals and pretty soon, we got grants to do new films,” Richardson said. “It was awesome.”

Since 1969, Appalshop has slowly expanded and in addition to films, it now produces videos, theater, radio programs, photographs, books and music and spoken-word recordings while still maintaining its original objective to empower the Appalachian community, the Appalshop Web site said.

Kit Kinkade ’64, who met Richardson through the Yale Alumni Association of Kentucky, praised Appalshop for its goal of empowering the community of Appalachia.

“One of Bill’s notions was to help these people understand that they were not helpless and help them depict themselves as they saw themselves and take some pride in what they did have,” Kinkade said.

Rowan Claypool ’80, Bulldogs in the Bluegrass founder and program director, said he was particularly impressed by Richardson and his wife’s ability to stay on the cutting edge with respect to Whitesburg’s needs.

“Frequently, you find that Yalies are interested in global issues, but this is a couple that has been able to focus effectively on local issues,” Claypool said.

Whitney Gratrix ’06, a Bulldogs in the Bluegrass participant who met Richardson this summer, said she was struck by how Richardson turned what was an experiment into a way of life.

“It shows there’s potential to experience something that throws expectations off base,” Gratrix said.

A self-proclaimed “block-builder king” in preschool, Richardson’s architectural talents led him to the Yale School of Architecture in 1965, where he studied under renowned architects such as Charles Moore and Paul Rudolph, he said. He is currently working on several architectural developments in Whitesburg, including an elementary school and a hospital chain.

It was Richardson’s “willingness to experiment and try anything that came along,” that Lou DeLuca, assistant dean of the School of Architecture at Yale when Richardson was a student, said he remembered most vividly about Richardson.

Even after 35 years, Richardson said he and his wife continue to regard Yale fondly.

“We never forget Yale,” Richardson said. “It was a very cool place and it gave us a tremendous shot of energy and adrenaline.”

Bill Richardson ARC ’69 was drawn to Appalachia in 1966 by his interest in social issues. The filmmaker seeks to give area residents an outlet for self-expression.
Courtesy BillRichardson
Bill Richardson ARC ’69 was drawn to Appalachia in 1966 by his interest in social issues. The filmmaker seeks to give area residents an outlet for self-expression.

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