Ain't No Ordinary Riff Raff
Written by Martha Ball
As you begin driving down Mercer Street in Princeton, West Virginia, you are confronted with color at every corner. Vibrant shop fronts mix with beautiful murals on both sides of the street, and you find yourself slowing down to be sure not to miss the next one. The spine of Fahrenheit 451 on your left, a 12 foot tall purple and pink butterfly on your right; gorgeous murals come to life everywhere you look thanks to contributions from artists and the efforts of one woman to rebuild her community through the arts. You may even see her driving through town, talking to her neighbors, getting coffee from the shop across the street, and happily waving at drivers from the sidewalk, her brown hair down, an animal print mask on for COVID safety, wearing free-flowing clothes and jewelry made by local artists.
Lori McKinney has unleashed her creative passion to fuel community building and economic development in downtown Princeton. A native to the area, McKinney never planned to remain in West Virginia as an adult, “I begged my parents to ship me to New York City,” she told the Appalachia Rising podcast. She saw economic degradation, poverty, and a lack of creative resources and chose to leave at her first opportunity. On a study abroad adventure in London, England, McKinney saw beautiful buildings around her and realized that Princeton had those same buildings, she saw crowds of people congregating at neighborhood arts organizations and facilities and had an epiphany. She would create an artistic haven for her community in Princeton, a place to bring people together around her passions: theater, art, and music.
After college she returned to Mercer County with her husband and partner, Robert Blankenship, where together they have worked for almost 17 years to revive the community around them using the arts, all in a place that was ravaged by the loss of coal jobs, and along a street with a history of drugs and other crime.
Today, McKinney runs the RiffRaff Arts Collective which operates as a non-profit, gallery, boutique, and as a performance space. She also performs in her revolutionary band Option 22 as a vocalist, drummer, and spoken word performer, which often marks the “other” box in regards to genre as it mixes americana, rock, space-folk and others. Her efforts also include working to beautify the Princeton environment through partnerships with the city government to plant flowers, paint murals, and share art such as metal flower sculptures downtown. McKinney encourages fellow local business owners along Mercer Street through monthly Merchant Gatherings which create a space for business owners to bounce ideas off of each other, support for the businesses. She has also created a touring multi-media presentation called Create Your State. She is a woman of many talents, who wears many hats in the Princeton community that she has earned through years of hard work.
Beginning in 2004, McKinney’s first step in her plan to revitalize Princeton’s artistic was to establish both an Earth Day Celebration and Culturefest World Music and Arts Festival. Beginning as small, one-day events, they have grown into days-long celebrations with live music, vendors, food, talks, yoga classes, and so much more. These two festivals are held at the Appalachian South Folklife Center and are about to celebrate their 17th year bringing countless people to Mercer County in fellowship and celebration. Culturefest has allowed musicians, artists, and artisan vendors from the state, the region, across the country and even the world to express their creativity for local residents to admire. The success of these two celebrations set the tone for McKinney’s lifetime work in Princeton. However, festivals last mere days, and the need for a long-term, sustainable base for community development was McKinney’s goal.
Seeking to find a permanent, creative home in Mercer County, McKinney came together with other local artists and formed the RiffRaff Arts Collective in 2006. Walking into the RiffRaff, you will always hear music playing, smell incense burning, and see beautiful, soulful, pieces of art from floor to ceiling. Pottery, paintings, jewelry, clothing, soaps, and photos made by the hands of the cooperative owners of the RiffRaff grace every surface. The RiffRaff was created to give local artists a place to sell and show their work, and to allow for a social experience, connecting them with each other.
If you arrive on Monday nights and enter the concert venue above the RiffRaff, The Room Upstairs, you will be walking into a space of music, poetry, and creative fellowship: the RiffRaff Open Stage Night. McKinney has spoken many times about a friend who refers to the open stage nights as “church.” It has become a place of congregation, discussion, and friendship.
For young people, the RiffRaff has become a place of sanctuary and hope. Stages Music School, run by McKinney’s sister Melissa McKinney, is right beside the RiffRaff, and has taught and facilitated many young musicians in Princeton in a positive and tolerant space. According to McKinney, though Stages is a very capable music school, it is more about teaching kids how to make a positive impact on the world through music and providing them with a community to do so. Artists and musicians of all ages find “opportunities that are not typical for the area” as McKinney called it, when they approach her and the RiffRaff. They find a number of performance spaces including McKinney’s The Room Upstairs, their recording studio, Audible Art Studio, and event support including sound, lighting, video production and web design from McKinney, Blankenship, and their team through LLyniuM Entertainment.
McKinney and Robert fill a gap in support for artists in West Virginia that not only shows young people that they don’t have to leave West Virginia, like McKinney felt she had to, in order to be creatively successful, but attracts other musicians and artists to West Virginia. “I think that’s one of the things that’s so important is that we’re really needed here, and a lot of times when people said ‘Well, I would have thought that you would have moved to New York City, “I thought you would have gone to L.A.’ And it’s like, well, you know that would have been one direction but there are a lot of people who are filling that need in those places,” says McKinney in the Appalachia Rising podcast. “Here, people are thirsty.”
No matter your age, artistic medium, creativity or lack thereof, the RiffRaff is a meeting place to listen to good music, meet your neighbors, and open dialogues within your community. “From the beginning, it has always been about making our community a better place to live through creativity,” said McKinney when the RiffRaff was named the Princeton Times business of the week in 2013.
A new coat of paint
That same year, to make that dream a reality, McKinney began to work with other members of the downtown community to find ways to beautify and attract business to the downtown, Mercer Street area through the newly established Princeton Renaissance Project. McKinney, and other members of the Renaissance Project believe that public art and a beautiful environment attract business, and people, to the area. Together, and with the City of Princeton, they set about painting murals all along Mercer Street.
McKinney's talent for bringing people together through art can be seen through projects including the painting of 22 small murals by local artists of all ages along a formerly dingy and scary walkway, known today as the beautiful and bright Artist’s Alley. These murals and beautification projects have contributed to a shift in attitude in Princeton. In a 2019 local news article, McKinney said “I have had multiple people change their mind after they’ve seen what a difference we have made. It has signaled an attitude shift to me. Most of the non-believers are on board now.” With this attitude shift, came business.
When the RiffRaff opened, Mercer Street was operating at 80% vacancy, with a reputation for crime. Today, the RiffRaff is the heart of a downtown that hosts around 60 businesses, their former reputation nowhere to be seen. These businesses make up the Mercer Street Grassroots District which functions to encourage existing business owners, attract new ones, and hold events which bring people to town, including the annual New Years’ Eve celebration “Downtown Countdown.”
Create your state
Forever thinking of ways to bring creativity and joy to West Virginia, McKinney and Blankenship wrote a grant in 2015 to the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation for a project that would allow her to share her experiences of creative placemaking with other communities. This grant birthed the Create Your State Program, a multi-media event meant to encourage other towns to put their creative dreams to action.
As McKinney likes to call it, a combination of a TED Talk and a rock concert, Create Your State tells the story of the Princeton revitalization through the arts, beginning with Culturefest, the RiffRaff, Open Stage Night, the public murals, and ending with the economic development of the Grassroots District. It’s a call to action that tours throughout West Virginia inspiring leaders and changemakers in every city it visits. Murals have been popping up in Charles Town, Williamson, Romney, Weston, Hinton, Madison, Montgomery, Grafton, Morgantown, Beckley, Bridgeport, Phillipi, Huntington, Moorefield, and Welch. These murals exemplify West Virginia culture, local history, and the creativity and talent found in the West Virginia mountains.
Participating changemakers from across the state now have a support system in each other and are bringing their own communities together in groups small and large, as well as report new business openings. Participants in Create Your State report feeling “reinvigorated,” “inspired,” like they have a new “foundation to embark upon,” “supported” by their newfound creative network, “grateful” to McKinney and Blankenship, and “overwhelmed” by their own successes.
When asked about her impact on the Princeton community, local business owners responded with nothing but praise. Owner of the Hatter’s Bookshop, Tammy Dawn Dotson says the RiffRaff is “the birthplace and hub of all of the creativity on Mercer Street.” In her almost 4 years experience as a business owner in downtown Princeton, Dotson says that McKinney has been “instrumental” to the economic shift along Mercer Street, as she is constantly “searching for opportunities that will move us forward,” and provides constant encouragement, feedback, assistance, and friendship to the neighboring businesses in the Mercer Street Grassroots District. In her own words “I remember McKinney saying, ‘The more light you bring to a situation, the less dark you have.’ She was right. The more positive things continued to occur, the more light was brought to the street.”
Lacey Vilandry, also known as Silver Arrow Art, was drawn to the area by McKinney's Earth Day celebration, and has very recently made Princeton her home, all because of McKinney. “McKinney is who brought me to Princeton, and her love of this gem of a city is absolutely contagious. She dares not just to dream, but to act, and serves as an inspiration for all,” Vilandry said. As a member of the RiffRaff Arts Collective, Lacey says that the experience has been an “honor” and that “no other gallery has been able to support artists’ work like the RiffRaff.” Lacey’s incredible visionary paintings have been featured at Culturefest, and in events such as La Rouge put on by the Mercer Street Grassroots District and can be found for sale at the Riff Raff Art Gallery and Boutique.
Earlier in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the RiffRaff and the other business from the Grassroots District to close for the safety of their artists, employees, and patrons. Events, such as the All Together Arts Week and the Celebrate Princeton Street Fair were cancelled, as were the weekly open stage nights. However, McKinney works tirelessly to bring art and joy to her community, even during a global pandemic. McKinney and the RiffRaff have found that adapting to the circumstances and sharing positivity and creativity like their normal programming has been met with eagerness from the public.
Thanks to social media, they have still been able to hold these events, but virtually. The incredibly successful All Together Arts Week Virtual Celebration has been viewed over 5 thousand times and the Celebrate Princeton Broadcast has been viewed over 9 thousand times. Open Stage Nights at the Room Upstairs have continued thanks to weekly replays of past performances that still allow for creativity to flow through the community. A pandemic may have temporarily closed the doors, but it did not stop McKinney from sharing her passion for music and art with her community and audience.
McKinney and Blankenship, the RiffRaff Arts Collective, the Princeton Renaissance Project, and the Mercer Street Grassroots District have plans to continue growing, to continue beautifying Princeton, and to continue drawing new businesses, jobs and a diverse economy to their city. McKinney works tirelessly to find ways to fund new projects, attract artists like Lacey, hold events like Culturefest, help businesses like the Hatter’s Bookshop, bring together her community in art and fellowship, and inspire other changemakers across the state. Not even a global pandemic could make Lori McKinney quit, and the future has so much to hold.
A part of that future is the West Virginia University Center for Resilient Communities, a learning laboratory whose mission is to encourage and support organizations throughout West Virginia and Appalachia to socially, economically, and justly transform their communities, with whom the RiffRaff Arts Collective has a burgeoning partnership. Student workers, research, and other organizational support are all tools that the Center for Resilient Communities can provide to help McKinney and everyone at the RiffRaff Arts Collective reach their full community building potential.
If you were to ask McKinney, she would say that she is a creative, community organizer, and a musician, first and foremost. In the spirit of creativity, of McKinney's inspiration to others, and her constant work in her community, here is a call to action from her song “What We Came Here For,” on the Option 22 album The Change.
“There's a light in the distance, and the sound of beating drums, there's a light in the distance, and the sound of beating drums. If we all grab hands, and we, thirsty, we run to the river and we drop to our knees and we drink of the joy of life and we pass it on, yes we pass it on, yes we pass it on and on and on. What we came here for, that’s what we came here to do, that’s what we came here for.”