Riffing on Progress

Lori McKinney is making art work for her—and her community—in Princeton.


Written by Shay Maunz

Lori McKinney doesn’t have any trouble defining herself: She’s an artist—a musician, mostly—who is interested in all things creative. She has a harder time explaining the RiffRaff Arts Collective.

That’s where McKinney lives, works, and makes art. It’s also a base of operations of sorts for McKinney’s continued efforts to bolster the arts community in the small town of Princeton, near West Virginia’s southern border. And it plays a central role in the story of the town’s overall renewed vibrancy in recent years. Superlatives aside, the RiffRaff Arts Collective is a series of three downtown buildings—two side by side, the third across the street—that house a lot of things, including an art gallery, artists’ studios, a performance space, and a music school. That still doesn’t get to the heart of the RiffRaff though, so McKinney tells the story from the beginning.

“I grew up here in Princeton, and I was always really hungry for creative outlets—I found choir pretty early on, in church, and then was on my way quickly to any creative program that my school had,” she says. “But I had big-city longings.” When she graduated from high school she went on to a music theater program at James Madison University in Virginia. “It’s an abnormal college group because pretty much all the kids there are on a straight track to Broadway,” she says. She played the lead in some school shows and thought maybe she’d go the Broadway route, too. But then, during her senior year, she studied in London for a semester. “That’s the thing that changed everything,” she says.

In London the arts scene is different, weirder—think less jazz hands and more free-form poetry. “I was exposed to so much arts and culture that it just kind of popped my head open,” McKinney says. “I did a lot of walking around on my own and I noticed these arts organizations right on our block where people were always streaming in and out,” she says. “It really clicked that that was why the whole city of London was so vibrant.” She realized that she didn’t have to go to Broadway to be an artist and left London with a model for a community that can both foster creativity and hold its own in the real world.

Years later, after McKinney came home to Princeton, she would drive hours with musician friends to open mic nights in larger cities. “Then one day we were getting ready to go to an open mic in Beckley, and we were driving up this road where you can see the whole river. We decided to pull off and look at the beautiful view,” she says. “And that’s when we were like, ‘Wait a minute. Why are we driving to Beckley? There should be an open mic night here.’”

So they started one, rotating among coffeehouses and restaurants—any space that was available. “And it just exploded right away,” McKinney says. “There were surges of people. There are so many artists in this area and nowhere for them to go.” McKinney met her husband, Robert Blankenship, at one of those open mic nights, as well as countless friends and collaborators. Through those open sessions the artists and creatives in and around Princeton began to come together to form a cohesive arts community, and pretty soon McKinney decided they should start an arts festival, too. “I’d been to a music festival in Tennessee and loved it. They had a sushi vendor and I was like, ‘This is awesome. I can have sushi and music at the same time—we need that,’” she says. That festival, called Culturefest, started in 2004 and has expanded exponentially. It’s now held annually for four days at the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem.

Riding the wave of that success, and now backed by a large, active community of artists, McKinney and Blankenship formed the RiffRaff Arts Collective in 2006. McKinney’s dad bought them the first building, saying he was “interested in adventurous real estate,” she says, as well as the work they were doing in Princeton. That 10,000-square-foot building gave them a regular space for open mic nights—they’re every Monday from 7 to 11 p.m.—plus room for artists’ studios and performance space. McKinney and Blankenship live there, too. In 2008 McKinney’s sister Melissa moved home from North Carolina and started Stages Music School across the street—she now has more than 200 students. “Melissa’s like a magnet for this crazy talent and there are these kids and they are living like rock stars,” McKinney says.

McKinney has also orchestrated the painting of dozens of murals throughout Princeton, which has helped to put a new face on the once struggling downtown. “When we did the mural project the RiffRaff kind of spilled out onto the street, and people started to really notice what we were up to,” she says. McKinney and the RiffRaff have also been an integral part of the Princeton Renaissance Project, a program backed by the West Virginia Community Development Hub and designed to help rejuvenate Princeton’s downtown. One of its centerpieces is to restore the historic Lavon Theater, and when it’s finished in 2025 the theater will be yet another feather in the hat of this small community that has been reinvigorated through creativity and the arts.

McKinney channels her creativity to help her community instead of just herself. She’s less interested in talking about how she and Blankenship technically make a living with their art—through gigs, organizing events, writing songs, and doing sound production, mainly—than she is in talking about how the work she does is helping Princeton. “It’s not just an obligation, it’s a passion that comes from a really deep place,” she says. “We’ve poured so much time and soul and effort into this that we pretty much can’t stop now.”

Lori’s Tips on Art and Community

Identify Your Resources

Just start making an inventory of the nuts-and-bolts resources you have because it’s probably more than you realize. There are probably resources out there for you that you won’t even think of unless you deliberately sit down to list them, and list where the gaps are.

Consider a Gathering

I’m a firm believer in organizing an open event held every week—it helps you identify collaborators. It’s like a magnet that draws people in.

Find Allies

You have to know who else shares the spark. That’s not just the passion and the ideas but the drive to execute the ideas. There are some people who want to be involved and will come to events and be very supportive, but they can’t do more—and that’s OK. The people who can actually dedicate the energy to move the idea forward—that’s a much smaller group of people. And you need at least one other person who is really able to go after that idea with you.

Ask for Help

I love to have my brain picked by other people who want to make this happen. I think there’s a nuts-and-bolts approach to it that can help develop the whole creative community, and then the larger community, and if you keep it going then the circle will go on and on.

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