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How a towering dragonfly and 20-foot deer are bringing people to Appalachia

 With a protective safety mask on, a man welds a steel sculpture sitting on a desk. It's a steel woman sitting cross-legged. Her hand is still just a wire frame, and his tig torch sparks the wires around the fingers.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
David Griesmyer decided to use his welding skills to create large sculptures that could attract people to Appalachian towns, like McConnelsville where his home is.

David Griesmyer flicks his torch on and off and delicately bends a wire into the shape of a palm. Bright flames flash off the ends of bits of steel while he fills in its metallic fingers.

This hand will soon belong to the stainless steel woman, who sits cross-legged on his desk.

“I want her one hand to be outstretched so that a little bug can be climbing on her fingers,” the rural welder said, stepping back to examine his work.

Soon, he’ll add wings and place her atop a 15 foot flower, also to be welded in his studio in Malta. It will join a trail of other larger than life sculptures scattered around 144 miles in southeast Ohio, known as the Ohio Arts Corridor.

Outside the welding studio in Malta, large metal sculpture of a dragonfly towers over David Greismyer, who looks up at it, stroking his beard.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
David Griesmyer looks up at one of his sculptures outside his studio in Malta. It was the sculpture that inspired the trail. He made it for his daughter.

Appalachian Ohio has been losing population for the last two decades. While many advocates have focused on creating jobs in the region, David Griesmyer believes culture is important too. He hopes the corridor will help highlight the beauty of the southeast corner of the state.

Bringing people in

He started in his hometown of McConnelsville. It’s the largest town in Morgan County, and its population is declining.

“There's no major roads coming through here. There's no real industry. There's no train tracks,” he said. “We want to start creating an environment where people start coming down this way off of 70 or 77 from West Virginia. We want them to come through here to see the art.”

So, he’s made sure there’s plenty to see. The route – which spans from Zanesville to Athens, Circleville to Portsmouth – showcases local art that celebrates each towns’ history and culture.

It includes the city of Lancaster, where Jonett Haberfield works for the county tourism organization, Visit Fairfield County.

“We're trying to inspire people to look at that area of the state as a place to live, a place to raise your family,” she said.

Haberfield said it’s worked – people who have never heard of Fairfield County have come into the community to see their sculpture park “Flight of the Hawks.” In it, a 2,500 pound raptor, and its vulture counterpart, tower over visitors.

An economic boost 

Even if the spectacle doesn’t convince people to move there, it still has an economic impact.

“They buy gasoline, they stay in hotels, they spend money, and that's what economic development is,” Haberfield said. “Getting people who don't live here to leave some of their money in our community, and then go home and tell everybody what a great time they had.”

That’s exactly the effect Griesmyer hopes his next sculpture will have. The soon-to-be 20-foot tall metal white-tail buck will sit in the center of his village’s roundabout. It’s a tribute to Morgan County and its place as “the hunting capital of Ohio.”

“They don’t have enough money here to afford art,” Griesmyer said. “This is my gift to the community.”

Sparks fly from his perch as he welds another scrap of metal onto the frame that stretches to the studio’s rafters. This addition will get him one step closer to making his quirky project the longest public art trail in the world – his dream.

 David Griesmyer stands on a ladder in front of the metal frame of a giant deer body. The sculpture is half-finished and Griesmyer, in his protective gear, is welding another scrap to it. Orang sparks bounce off the metal frame.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
This metal deer sculpture will soon sit in the center of McConnelsville. Griesmyer wanted to create something the town would have pride in.

He steps off the ladder, takes a step back and looks up at his work with a grin. He said he never gets tired of this feeling.

“We're just taking raw material and bending and shaping and creating something beautiful,” he said.

Griesmyer thinks of the Ohio Arts Corridor in the same way: he’s just unearthing beauty for others to see.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.