Amid this wild last year, we are still finding plenty of things to be thankful for – one of which is The RiffRaff Arts Collective (RRAC) on Mercer Street. Located in the heart of downtown Princeton, this is a special place that inspires and empowers arts and creativity in southern West Virginia and throughout the greater Appalachian region. It was established in 2006 and is set up in a dynamic arts complex featuring a fine art boutique, two performance venues, a recording studio, artist studios, and a music school.
Amid this wild last year, we are still finding plenty of things to be thankful for – one of which is The RiffRaff Arts Collective.
The RiffRaff is co-founded by Lori McKinney and her husband, Robert Blankenship, both of whom say they believe in the power of music and the arts to promote healing, growth, and transformation. Lori is a songwriter, creative place-maker, and specializes in community development. Robert is a multidisciplinary artist excelling in photography, video, music, sound engineering, lighting, and design. By providing a space for expression and events, as well as experiences that inspire and uplift, the RRAC is helping to re-establish the social and economic vitality of its neighborhood, known as the Mercer Street Grassroots District.
The RRAC is helping to re-establish the social and economic vitality of its neighborhood, known as the Mercer Street Grassroots District.
You can stroll into the boutique from Monday-Saturday, 10a-6pm. It is conveniently located across from Appalachian Coffee House, which serves up some excellent espresso, and is just a short walk from Sophisticated Hound Brewing Company. Inside the boutique, you will discover handmade items from over 40 Appalachian artisans, from jewelry and sculpture to pottery and paintings, to handmade soap to stickers and more. Some of the artists have their own brand identity like Silver Arrow Art and Spiral Roots Sanctuary. This is more than just a boutique though. Lori tells us, “We are a driver of creative community transformation. We provide support and promotion to not only the artisan entrepreneurs whose work we show and sell, but to all the businesses in downtown Princeton, with creative media, and programs like Honey Money” (grassrootsdistrict.com/honey-money)
Lori and Robert say their work began in 2004 when they founded Culturefest World Music & Arts Festival (culturefestwv.com). Now in its 18th year, this is a weekend-long oasis of creativity on a mountaintop in Pipestem. Lori tells us, “We wanted to keep the special spirit that’s cultivated through that event year-round, and so we planted roots in a historic structure on Mercer Street in 2006. At the time, Mercer Street was boarded up and about 80% vacant.” Lori goes onto share that the RRAC was driven to bring people together through music and the arts. She says, “I met my husband Robert through open mic night in 2003 and we connected around that shared desire to bring positive and uplifting entertainment and experiences to our area, and to make Southern WV a more vibrant, welcoming, livable place to live, work, and play.”
The journey to improve Mercer Street started when it had a really bad rap.
Princeton is Lori’s hometown and she spent a semester abroad in London during her senior year in college. She says this time in her life inspired her to recognize how vibrant and exciting life can be. “I hadn’t really considered coming back here, but at a certain point when I visited, something just clicked— I got inspired and realized that you can create wherever you are, and people around here really need people like us and the other creative people that are attracted to this work. We can really make an impact here— and that is truly fulfilling,” says Lori.
The journey to improve Mercer Street started when it had a really bad rap. Lori shares, “Robert and I noticed how judgie people were. They would turn their noses up to anything happening on the street, and to anyone that dared to walk on this sidewalk. That’s so presumptuous! We all know you can’t judge a book by its cover, and if you don’t look past what’s on the outside, you might miss out on something extraordinary.” Today, Mercer Street is a blossoming neighborhood where craft, culture, and commerce come to thrive. There are art galleries, music venues, retail shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and the brewery.
The term riff-raff is defined as, “Disreputable or undesirable people…
The term riff-raff is defined as, “Disreputable or undesirable people… Considered by some to be worthless and low.” Because no one is worthless, Lori and Robert chose the name RiffRaff Arts Collective as a statement. “It’s like, don’t worry about us… we’re just The RiffRaff. Haha. People at first were like, oh that’s just those crazy artists doing their music and their crazy festivals… little did they know, we were an economic development engine just waiting to be tapped!” says Lori. The duo would also like to share another journey they are working on called the Create Your State Tour. They say, “We love to pass on what we’ve learned through our creative community transformation journey through this program and you’re welcome to reach out anytime if you’d like to pick our brains!” This is a multimedia educational presentation and workshop that inspires and empowers creative community revitalization and development through visual projects and music. To learn more, visit createyourstate.org
Really, the underlying message is— look beyond the surface. Always look deeper, and remember that everyone you meet has a story, and a struggle. We should respect our fellow humans enough to remember that. Take a stroll down Mercer Street and stop in the RiffRaff Arts Collective. Their address is 869 Mercer Street. For more information, call 304-425-6425 or visit theriffraff.net. Follow them on fb @RiffRaffArts for the latest downtown happenings.
– HashtagWV #134. August 2021.
HashtagWV Art & Entertainment is a high-quality print and digital multimedia platform for all things West Virginia and the greater Appalachian region. The editorial focus is local music, unique shopping, the arts, events, theatre, and food and drinks. tiktok.com/@hashtagwv