Looking at Appalachia – One Year Later

It has been one year since Roger May brought the Looking at Appalachia photography project to Alleghany County.  The 75 photos were exhibited in the Blue Ridge Business Development Center for one month and were viewed by people from 12 states and two foreign countries.  The timing of the exhibit coincided with an ongoing effort to engage in economic and community development in Alleghany.  It was hoped that the exhibit would generate conversation about how we, and others, view our county and region.

Since last October, the photos have been shown in at Radford University (Radford, Virginia), the University of North Carolina – Asheville, Adrian College (Adrian, Michigan), Robert Morris University (Moon Township, Pennsylvania), West Virginia University and will be shown at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, NC this November.  After that showing, the current exhibit will be retired.


Roger May – photo courtesy of Meg Wilson

Roger has also been busy.  He has led an online class with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and taught a class on Multimedia Storytelling at the Appalachian Writers Workshop.  He has also started a new photography project, Laid Bare, which examines the effects of mountain top removal for coal extraction in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

In a recent interview, Roger reflected on the past year and shared insights he has gathered along the way.

When he looks back at the show in Sparta, Roger describes it as exactly what he envisioned when he and others began talking about taking the photos on the road.  “The reception was one of the best attended, and was supported by a cross-section of the community,” he said.  “I’m glad that Alleghany took a chance on us.  At that point, we weren’t completely sure what the trajectory of the project would be.”

Roger said that one of the most surprising aspects of the project is how interest continues to grow in Appalachia.  He said that the region is incredibly diverse and defies broad generalizations.  “When you consider the breadth of culture, economy and even dialect, there are vast differences across Appalachia.  We tend to forget that cities such as Asheville, NC and Chattanooga, TN are in the heart of Appalachia.” He points out that those urban areas are much different that the stereotypical hills and hollows, and th extractive economies tied to coal and timber that we often associate with Appalachia.  And even in the more rural areas, an interstate highway or major manufacturing facility can completely change the socio-economic conditions of a county.

What’s next For Looking at Appalachia? May hopes that the project will continue to evolve and take on new shape and form.  He hopes to expand the website to include audio and video stories.  He has ambitions to start a podcast as a way to amplify voices of those in the region, especially those who seek to document the people and places of Appalachia.

Perhaps his most thought-provoking statement about the future of the project also strikes at the core of any regional social or economic strategy:  “We (Looking at Appalachia) have to be open to change.  We have to be conscious of not only how we view ourselves, but how others see our region.  Once we limit our perspective, we lose the reason for the project.”



Photos from 2015 can be viewed at http://www.lookingatappalachia.org.  Photos for 2016 can be submitted at the same site.




Andy Kakas


Andy and Vicky Kakas

From his home office in Ennice, Andy Kakas has an unobstructed view of Alleghany County landmarks Bullhead and Saddle Mountains. His home is surrounded by a community of hayfields, rows of corn, and rolling patches of bright orange pumpkins.  The setting is a stark contrast to his past life in south Florida.

Andy grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He began studying drums at age seven and by his high school years he played in progressive rock bands. Progressive rock contains classical musical elements with lengthy instrumental breaks.  Andy and his band were influenced by the artistry and originality of bands like Yes and Genesis.

Hoping to land on the technical side of the music business, Andy attended college at the University of Miami.  A requirement of the music program was that the students continue to play in bands.  It was through this Music Engineering program that he was immersed in the studio recording world.  Andy graduated in 1981 with a degree in music engineering and a minor in electronics.

His first stop after college was a stint in a recording studio.  There he had the opportunity to work with national acts, but he describes his role as pretty limited.  He got bored.  He joined a band and for the next two years they performed up and down the length of Florida.

After two years on the road, Andy settled into a job with Off the Wall Sound.  The company provided light and sound for concerts, festivals and occasional private parties in south Florida. While at Off the Wall, Andy worked with a diverse number of performers such as Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alabama and Julio Iglesias. Andy spent much of his time at behind a mixing board, ensuring that the delivery of the music and/or vocals were of a quality expected by the artist and the crowd.


The Miami Sound Machine

Then an opportunity arose to work with an increasingly popular band, The Miami Sound Machine.  When Andy joined the band as an audio mixer in 1984, they were beginning to transition from a pure Latin band that was wildly celebrated in Central and South America, to one with an eye on a broader audience.  As their fan base grew, Andy traveled around the world with the band.  As the travel became more complex, so did Andy’s role.  He became the tour manager and was responsible for logistical planning for future shows.

The tour schedule was grueling.  Andy recalls one stretch when they were on the road for two months without a break in the schedule.  He says that was common to lose track of which town they were in.  He left the band just as they were reaching their commercial peak.  A platinum record on his wall reminds Andy of those hectic and exhilarating days.


Commemorating the sale of 1,000,000 albums

He went back to Off the Wall in 1988.  He continued with work with audio, but utilized the skills he honed on the road.  He added tour manger to his role and begin developing proposals for clients.

In 1995, Andy joined the Multi Image Group. Based in Boca Raton, Florida, the family owned business is an audio visual products company that designs sets, and provides sound and lighting for business events around the world.  The clients include Deutsche Bank, Sikorsky Aircraft, Nissan, and Proctor and Gamble.  Andy is responsible for client relations, developing proposals, and onsite logistics.  He does much of the planning and prep work at his home then travels to the site to assist with the event.

In 1989 Andy was introduced to his future wife Vicky.  They married in 1992.  Their son, Nathan was born in 1998.  Around 2000 a friend bought a home in Sparta.  Andy and Vicky were considering buying land in the mountains and the friend suggested the Kakas’ check out Alleghany County.  They traveled to Sparta and met with local realtor, Mary Crouse.  They fell in love with the area and bought seven acres in Ennice.

For the next several years, Andy, Vicky and Nathan visited Alleghany County.  They often camped at Stone Mountain State Park and hung out at their place in Ennice.  They enjoyed getting to know their neighbors and were overwhelmed with how nice the people were to them.  The pace of life in Alleghany County  was a good fit for them. With each trip, the pull to move here full-time became stronger.

In 2014, Andy floated the idea to his boss of moving to North Carolina and working remotely with the company.  The boss said they could work it out though it may require move travel.  During Nathan’s spring break that year they came to Alleghany County.  Nathan spent two days visiting Alleghany High School.  The staff showed him around and let him experience the school.  When Andy and Vicky asked how he liked it, Nathan enthusiastically said that he loved it.


They found a house for sale near their property.  The owners were looking to downsize and offered the house complete with furnishings.  The Kakas’ house in Florida was on the market for five days when they received a cash offer.  Vicky also works remotely, helping patients in Florida navigate from doctor through insurance carriers to medical specialists.  Andy says that the ease in which all the pieces came together tells him one thing that’s certain -Alleghany County is where God wants their family to call home.