The Role of Art in Storytelling and Activism: An Interview with Lacy Hale

Art is a powerful tool for social impact and can support activism, resistance, representation, dialogue, and community building. 

In Voice of Witness books, each oral history is accompanied by a portrait illustration of the narrator. These visual depictions foster further connections with the narrators and their stories.

For VOW’s latest book, Beginning Again: Stories of Movement and Migration in Appalachia, we were honored to partner with award-winning Appalachian artist Lacy Hale for the illustrations. Beginning Again documents oral histories from refugees, migrants, and generations-long residents that explore complex journeys of resettlement and community building. Watch a video clip of Lacy’s illustration process here.

Four narrator illustrations from the book. From left to right: Sohaila, Babikir, Cindy, and Rufus.

Lacy Hale was born in southeastern Kentucky and knew the age of five that she wanted to be an artist. After attending the Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn, NY, she returned to southeastern Kentucky to pursue her artistic career with a focus on fine art, murals, and printmaking. Lacy received the Eastern Kentucky Artist Impact Award in 2018 and the Appalachian Artist of the Year award in 2021 and 2022.

Lacy is also the creator of the No Hate in My Holler slogan and design—originally designed in 2017 in protest of a group of white nationalists coming to a nearby town to recruit.

“Since then it has blown up and people all over the country and the world who identify with being from a holler adopted this phrase and bought T-shirts and screamed it from the rooftops, and I couldn’t be prouder of that.”

With every No Hate in My Holler item sold, Lacy donates 25% of proceeds to a local nonprofit working toward equality in the central Appalachian region (donations currently go to the Southeast Kentucky African American Heritage and Cultural Center).

We had the chance to catch up with Lacy and ask a few questions.

VOW: Why did you want to collaborate on this project? 

Lacy: One of my favorite things to do is draw and paint people. I think that everyone has an interesting story to tell. I also feel strongly that space should be made for people to tell their stories, especially when they have faced some sort of oppression. It’s a way to learn about your neighbors and fellow humans. When I was approached about this project, I thought it would combine these three things and that perfectly aligned with me and the work that I want to do. 

VOW: In Beginning Again, many of the narrators talk about community building and connection to the land. How does your community inform your art?

Lacy: I grew up in a very rural community. When it was time for me to go to college I knew it was going to be hard for my parents to afford it. We were pretty poor. And I also decided to go to an out-of-state art school. My community rallied and helped raise money to send me that first year. Even though I could only afford to go for two years, the generosity I received from my community made a huge impact on me and my work. I also believe in central Appalachia and the people here and I try to make work (whether it be something as simple as my sticker designs to something as large as a community mural) that uplifts these communities. I feel very tied to the region, to the land, to the people.

VOW: The oral histories in Beginning Again push back against stereotypes, expand our ideas of who belongs, and add to the movement countering harmful myths about Appalachia. How does your art interact with and respond to misconceptions of your area?

Lacy: The No Hate in My Holler project is one way that I fight the stereotypes about our region. I have seen surprise on the faces of many people from outside the region when they learn about the project and movement. I also try to make work that touches on the strength and beauty of the people and the land here. After the flood in eastern KY in the summer of 2022, I saw many disparaging comments about the region. I created a piece called, “Eastern Kentucky: Strong and Resilient” that addressed those comments in a way that resonated with myself and many people in the area. 

Being from Eastern Kentucky and living in a very rural area for almost all of my life, I have seen the importance of creating the environment that you want to be part of. If you want to see change and growth in your community, you have the power to make that happen. I believe that art is important and powerful and that artists can do so much good (for themselves and their communities) when we work together.

Visit Lacy’s website here.

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