Two of my three favorite songs about West Virginia were written and performed by
Colleen Anderson. They are “West Virginia Chose Me,” and “Trail through the Trees.” The third song, performed by the late great Hazel Dickens, is “West Virginia, My Home.”
Songwriting and performing are only two of Colleen’s many gifts. She is another of the multi-talented artists whose work we benefit from seeing and hearing in Charleston and beyond.
According to Colleen, she mostly creates in order to entertain herself. She does not have big plans to sell art or hit the Top 40. She does it because she likes to do it.
She loves the process of getting away from herself and getting lost in color or rhyme or a sentence. She says that it is a wonderful feeling to forget about time when she is trying to create something - a poem, a song, a collage, a logo, or a page design.
In all of this, her added goal is to communicate a message.
Colleen articulates that she is a generalist, not a specialist. She does not feel a need to be the best at anything. She likes whatever she can fit into one life and just needs to be happy.
She also points out that she is very frugal by nature. She grew up with parents who were young and poor during the Great Depression. Following their example, she hates to waste anything, food in particular. She likes to make do. She shops at Goodwill and enjoys finding something like a skirt that she can then turn into a pillow.
She says that activities like this tickle her brain. They also reduce her support for a consumer-based economy that exploits workers around the world.
At the same time, she is not a skinflint. She spends what she can on things like art and travel while also using a clothesline instead of a dryer.
Colleen refers to herself as a fixer and tinkerer who loves to invent things. She inherited her father’s toolbox and makes good use of it. She said that fixing a practical problem is almost as much fun as making art.
All of these characteristics go together and are interrelated.
She also likes to be silly and to laugh. I told her about how my younger son used to give me silly lessons after I had spent too much time at work and tried to unwind at home. The fact that she has this quality sounds really good to me.
Colleen is excited about doing a lot of things in the future. She is now working a bit less than full time. She plans to travel more and spend more time with friends. She also wants to be a better cook.
She plans to keep up with graphic design enough to stay current on the technology and do the jobs she most loves to do. These jobs include working on print materials for womanSong Chorale and teaching at the Ghost Ranch in Santa Fe, at Cedar Lakes, and for the Morgan County Schools.
She has signed up for ReadAloud West Virginia. She wants to keep working while being more selective in what she takes on.
Coleen grew up in Bay City, Michigan, and spent two years at the Honors College at Western Michigan University. As a freshman she studied creative writing with Ken McCrorie, who wrote a number of books about creative writing and was a brilliant teacher.
She dropped out of college to join VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America), which brought her to West Virginia. She stayed on here and years later finished a BA in English at WVU and, at fifty, an MA in Humanities at the Marshall University Graduate College. She loved reading a lot of Irish literature with Dr. Joyce East as part of the masters program.
Colleen’s VISTA assignment, at the age of twenty, was with Cabin Creek Quilts. After a rough start, she came to love the people, including the older women who told her great stories. When she thinks about other places where she could be, she said she could not afford them. She also feels like West Virginia needs her more than a progressive place like Brattleboro, Vermont.
Being of service and making a difference have always been in the background. Colleen does not like loud crowds or loud noise so her activism is more on the quiet side. She uses her graphics skills to make posters and banners, writes letters, makes calls, and has also written some protest songs.
Early musical influences came through Motown performers like Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. Colleen heard singer songwriters at the first FOOTMAD festival and thought that she could do that also. She had taken piano as a child and went home and wrote her first song.
After starting out by singing for friends she has completed three albums over the past several decades. Before covid, I enjoyed frequent performances where Colleen sang with George Castelle or joined in on songs with Julie Adams and Steve Hill at Taylor Books. I was able to catch her performance as part of a more recent FOOTMAD festival that was held outside here in Charleston.
Colleen said that songwriting is one of the most demanding and satisfying things that she does. She calls it a very complicated puzzle, with many moving parts, that includes words, rhymes, music, and melodies. The work satisfies the needs both to tinker and to communicate a message.
She is also a published poet and views poetry as similar to songwriting. She says that poetry communicates emotion better and is more moving than any other form she knows.
You can explore and purchase Colleen’s art from her website motherwitdesign.com. She includes different pages for writing, graphic design, music, and also origami, which is another love. I have often bought Colleen’s origami note cards as gifts for friends.
She is now fiddling with collage, which she wants to learn more about. She said she attended a studio tour in Santa Fe where she saw an artist who does only collage.
As I finish writing this profile I realize that collage may be the perfect medium to describe Colleen’s creative life and work. It will be great to see where her interest in this new medium takes her and what her products will reveal for the rest of us.