News & Updates

Meet Renee Margocee: Our Interview on Living and Working as an Artist (Part 2)

To welcome our new Executive Director Renee Margocee, the foundation’s Program Director Emma Pepper sat down with her for an interview to discuss her history as an artist, thoughts on the creative economy in West Virginia, and the work she is most excited about at the foundation. This is part two of our interview, read part one here.

Renee in her studio in Charleston, WV

Emma Pepper: The Tamarack Foundation’s mission is to build West Virginia’s creative economy through artist entrepreneurship. What are your feelings about the value of art and artists in the state?

Renee Margocee: It’s evident that creativity and making has always been a part West Virginia’s heritage. When the United States was first being settled, the people living on the eastern coast had the luxury of importing goods from all over the globe, so they could also import their culture, to a certain extent. But while you might be able to get a grand piano shipped into the harbor of Baltimore, you couldn’t with ease get it over a mountain. The people who were settling in what is now West Virginia had to tap into their own ingenuity and their own creativity.

We have been makers since the beginning, but West Virginians tend not to self-identify as artists. Our creativity was often spurred out of necessity. People from outside of the state may come and say, ‘Your baskets are beautiful. Your pottery is exceptional. Your glassmaking is awesome,’ but we still sometimes shy away from identifying in that way. We do have a shifting mindset somewhat, but these ideas of creativity out of necessity are subtle in our culture, and they stay in our head. Part of what I get to do now is work with people and help them really shine, to be able to stand up and say, ‘I am an artist. I have something to contribute to my community,’ and recognize that the work they are doing is actually a very important part of quality of life.

As West Virginians are looking more aggressively at diversifying our economy, this is the perfect time for people from the creative sector to step up and say, ‘We can stay here, and we can have a fulfilling and satisfying life right where we are, and we can continue sharing what we do with those who visit us from outside, and also with those who live here and our neighbors.’

EP: How do you think artists make a difference in West Virginia’s economy?

RM: We are in a special place and time culturally. When computers became mainstream, it seemed like everything in our culture focused on the digital. We moved away from analog and toward reliance on this new gadget that could take us forward. That was a very important time for us to explore, but also I think we’re ready to pivot now.

There are creative businesses in the West Side neighborhood of Charleston who incorporate digital into their business model, but focus on producing tangible products. They show that this is a viable way to earn a living. A new business, Base Camp Printing, uses an antique letterpress to produce their products, and they are experiencing tremendous success because people want that handmade element.

We went from fully engaging technology and seeing what that felt like, and now we’re moving back to a more integrated approach.

I also think the arts are becoming more and more alive in West Virginia, a more vital part of our communities and major players in revitalizing downtowns. Lewisburg is an example where this happened. People sort of accepted that because of the proximity to the Greenbrier, folks with money from the outside came through, and it kind of made sense for the town to be structured that way. Now, as we move along in our infrastructure with our roads improving and as our tourism industry expands, people are coming for different experiences here. It’s really making the whole landscape became dotted with these arts venues like what we are seeing in Lewisburg.

So the small town of Thomas, population 600, is now an art hot spot. In a town with one main street, there are three galleries. There is a place that you can go and hear musicians from all over the world perform regularly. There is a lovely coffee shop. These are all activities that, at one point, might have just been happening in a more metropolitan area, and now we’re having hip towns pop up everywhere.

Renee at her potter’s wheel

EP: Before coming to work at the Tamarack Foundation, you were the Director of Arts at the WV Division of Culture and History. How do you feel your work at the Division will benefit the foundation?    

RM: I very much enjoyed my work with the Division of Culture and History. I oversaw all of the competitive arts grants in West Virginia. I sat through hundreds of grant reviews, which I think is a tremendous benefit for me in this current position. It gave me the ability to see behind the scenes for so many organizations here in West Virginia, like Carnegie Hall and Greenbrier Valley Theater, Oglebay Institute, the Huntington Museum of Art, the Clay Center, to see how they approach their programming or how they diversify their funding streams. I also traveled extensively throughout the state, and I was able to meet and engage with so many different people from in and also outside of the arts community in West Virginia. I have a really strong network already established.

I was able to learn a great deal, and while that was very satisfying, my job at the Division was removed from my own creative work and the act of making. This new opportunity with the foundation will allow me to get back in touch with my fellow artists.

EP: What are you most excited about when you think about the work being done at the foundation?

RM: I think one of the most exciting things that the Tamarack Foundation is doing now is encouraging artists who live throughout the state to work together and become a more integrated creative community. The WV Creative Network on the website is one way we are doing that work. Regardless of where you live, or whether or not you’re a juried Tamarack artist, you can engage with us. The Network is breaking down a barrier. It’s a very inclusive platform, where we are not judging. It’s not necessarily about high, fine art where somebody is going to be critiqued, although we do welcome artists at every stage of their career. There is a place for everyone in this new, creative economy.

We are hoping to encourage the best in our communities, but also look to those people who might just be sprouting up. These entrepreneurs may be new and fresh and some assistance with business skills might be needed, but we recognize that there is value in what everyone is doing here, and we are bringing all of these elements together into a cohesive format.

I’m very excited to move beyond talk of diversifying our economy to actually making those conversations a reality. I think West Virginians are poised to be in a much better position as we move forward. We already have the foundation for a very satisfying life here. We’re in contact with our land and our heritage. We honor our elders, and we take time to engage with people and to be friendly. Our future can be about community engagement instead of what someone from outside of the state may take from us and then leave.

Interested in learning more about Renee’s career as an artist? Read part one of this interview »