By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Lori McKinney’s love of the arts has come full circle.
A Princeton native, McKinney has served as co-founder and administrator of the RiffRaff Arts Collective on Mercer Street since 2006, and worked to establish Culturefest World Music and Arts Festival in 2004 and All Together Arts Week in 2009.
However, long before that McKinney was taking part in school music programs and dance classes in Mercer County.
“I was drawn to creativity from an early age,” she said. “I loved music from the beginning. My grandfather played the guitar, and I really got involved with music programs at school. That was really my introduction to the arts. I took dance from Randy Lamb. I always knew I wanted to do something with the arts after school. It was something I knew I would find.”
It took a trip abroad for McKinney to realize how her own love of art could benefit her hometown.
“Like any other creative person, I knew I had to go outside the area to learn about art. I spent a year abroad in London,” she said. “While I was living there, I noticed there were arts communities and buildings on every block. These artist communities brought the entire community together. I saw the old buildings they were using there and thought about all of the buildings we have here. I thought it was something that could be easily done back home. It was sort of a series of small epiphanies until I reached the larger epiphany that I could bring this home and do it here.”
McKinney, who is also part of local music group Option 22, said these early experiences in the school music program led her to pursue music as a career.
“My main work is with song writing and recording,” McKinney said. “Finding a group of extremely talented, creative artists to work with has been incredibly fulfilling for me. My inspiration comes from many different places. For my music, I draw inspiration from everything I’ve ever heard and the musicians I work with.”
When McKinney talks about the art world, she said many people tend to only think of painting, sculpture and visual arts.
“When I talk about arts, a lot of people think I just mean visual arts, but there is a broad spectrum of art,” she said. “There are literary arts, healing arts, and performing arts. Anything arts related can bring people together. Any human expression of creativity to me is art. It isn’t about how good one person is at something, but rather helping everyone tap into that creative energy inside themselves.”
McKinney said she feels creativity is something that can be fostered within anyone.
“Everyone is creative,” she said. “The entire planet is a work of art, and I believe God created us to be tiny creators ourselves. We were put on this earth to create. Creativity is really the source of everything. Everything had to be created. Any product or business or entertainment medium had to be created by someone. Technology had to be created by someone. Places can be created, whether by making a walking trail or opening an ethnic restaurant.”
McKinney said working with the arts has helped her showcase the best of her hometown to visitors.
“One of the coolest things is the knowing that we are making things happen that people think only happen in big cities,” she said. “We have seen people move here because of the arts community, because they came to Culturefest or visited the RiffRaff and wanted to become part of it. When you come into an area, what you see while you are there colors your perception of that area, your idea of the place. I know people who have moved here in the afterglow of Culturefest.”
Additionally, McKinney said her work with the RiffRaff and local festivals has shown her how to use her own talents to benefit others.
“I have also learned to develop that part of me that serves others,” she said. “Using your talents to serve others is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. Through creating events and places, I have found out how humbling and how amazing it is to bring people together. There were already tons of creative people in this area for various reasons. What was needed was a magnet to bring them together. A lot of people shared that vision of wanting to get together for a more creative community. Southern West Virginia is primed for this kind of revitalization. This area is a blank canvas. Not everyone can actually obtain properties and physical spaces, but everyone can contribute to that establishment, patronize it, and become part of the space. People can carve out their own niches in that space.”
Bringing like-minded people together is one of McKinney’s favorite aspects of her job.
“The idea behind the RiffRaff was making a place for people to collaborate, to get inspired and to feed off of each other’s creativity,” she said. “If I’m working here and someone is playing music downstairs, I get inspired. One of the most important things to me is bringing people together. Creative people can be isolated. We have people who have met here and gotten married.”
McKinney said she has seen firsthand how the arts can revitalize communities, like Princeton’s downtown Mercer Street.
“Anything that gets people up off the couch, out of the house and mingling is revitalization,” McKinney said. “A coffee shop with art on the wall gets people out and talking and creates a vibrant scene. Splashes of color downtown and making spaces beautiful enhances the morale of a community. Studies have shown a person’s environment directly impacts their behavior. If someone lives in a neighborhood where all the windows are busted out, they won’t think twice about busting out someone’s window. Art enhances not only the aesthetics of a community but the overall vitality and morale of the community. The arts are a huge component of a community.”
When she is not at the RiffRaff, McKinney said she is often across the street at Stages, an art-based organization for kids her sister Melissa runs.
“We have a lot of teens come to our open mic nights and make it their place, their spot to hang out,” she said. “As a kid, I was hungry for creativity. There are school programs available, but nothing really beyond that. There are a lot of kids who don’t really feel like they fit that mold. We offer them an alternative and help them find their niche. These kids really are the future of our community. These kids come from different backgrounds and many are very disadvantaged. They come from different cliques at school, but art brings them all together. It makes them feel good about themselves. It’s great to give them something to identify with, that they can become part of a group and that they are part of creating something.”
— Contact Kate Coil at