Ben Kolb is helping me tear the feet off a coyote corpse. It is the second body we've picked over today. From the first, he took some deer bones to fashion jewelry. The coyote feet are for me — a gift for friends who just like having weird stuff around. He points out the ligaments, still strung across the joints, and notes that people once made bow strings from them.
A few nights previous, I watched Kolb gently instruct children in a creative watercolor project. The memory of their laughter seems sharply contrasted by the sound of tearing sinew. But one thing you quickly learn about Ben Kolb is that his life does not lend itself well to neat categories.
In late July of 2017, severe floods swept through West Virginia. The city of Mannington – 20 miles west of
Fairmont – was almost completely submerged. County employees described the flooding as “complete devastation”. Governor Jim Justice declared a state of emergency and mobilized National Guard units.
One of the few Mannington buildings not hit by the flood was the city’s old B&O railroad station. In 1957, the station was decommissioned, and it went through a long succession of various uses – community center, game room, shoe store, etc.
In 2016, Ben Kolb moved his art studio, Nativibes, into the building. As the water that had flooded all the surrounding buildings receded, Kolb considered it a community responsibility to help with the aftermath.
It was clear just how little government agencies understood the disaster when they situated the area’s relief center at Blackshere Elementary School, two miles away from the center of Mannington. Lost on the decision-makers was the fact that most residents had lost their cars to the flood, and there was no way for them to get to the supplies being offered. Compounding the situation were the imminent (and growing) dangers of mold and infectious disease, which often sweep through flooded areas after the waters recede.
Kolb was determined to get antibacterials, bleach, and other cleaning supplies to the people in his community. He began picking up loads of supplies from the relief center and bringing them back to his building, where residents could walk to pick them up. Then he started making delivery runs into neighborhoods and helping to tear out carpeting and floors in businesses and homes.
The community noticed his efforts almost immediately, and by the day after the flooding, donations were building up at Nativibes. People with trucks started showing up, offering to help. Kolb barely knew any of them.
Within a few days, he had drawn a topographical map of the region on a large dry erase board, and began marking places he’d run shipments to, and places he knew were flooded but hadn’t been reached with aid yet. The growing crew of volunteers began organizing supply routes to the areas they knew best, marking their own locations on the map.
What developed was an entirely organic network of church outposts, runners, and self-organized community relief. Kolb says that the group had an intimate familiarity with the situation on-the-ground and no bureaucratic oversight, making them far more efficient than the government agencies that were simultaneously trying to help. He claims that some towns in the region decided to wait on FEMA rather than organize their own relief efforts, and some still have people living in church basements almost a year later.
“I think that’s what made our place so effective. We didn’t ask any questions of anyone or need people to sign paperwork. These eight or nine people knew their hollows really well, so they knew who was flooded. They didn’t have to ask questions.”
Then the National Guard demanded all of their supplies.
National Guard troops often stopped through Nativibes during the days following the flood. Mannington residents were dropping off crock pots full of food at Kolb’s depot almost hourly for the many volunteers working there. The troops were welcome to partake in the food.
But one day a National Guard unit arrived claiming they were there to “survey” the supplies. This turned out to be a military euphemism for confiscation.
“They were going to take all these donations and put them in a central location, where they were going to mete theme out," Kolb said. "They were young boys who were just following orders, so I really meant no disrespect. But I said, ‘Look, the only way that you’re taking this stuff is by force.’”
The National Guard left, promising to return for the supplies. “Don’t get me wrong, I was not going to get shot for Clorox and paper towels,” Kolb says. “I was bluffing my ass off.” But he was also not about to turn an effective operation over to the government if there was any way to avoid it.
Later that night, under cover of darkness, several of the volunteer drivers gathered together and began packing up and moving all of the donations out of Kolb’s building. Over the course of the evening, they devised a tongue-in-cheek nickname for the group, “Uncle Jessie’s Midnight Riders.”
(When asked why the group was named after Jessie, one of the volunteers, instead of him, Kolb just laughs and says, “It was a funnier name than ‘Uncle Ben.’ That’s the rice dude.”)
A few days later, Homeland Security came calling. After a lengthy meeting, in which Kolb laid their entire system, the officials could see that the organization had the support of the community – indeed, was comprised of the community – and that the efforts were effective and efficient. They agreed that the Midnight Riders could continue delivering their goods.
“That was one of my proudest times here,” Kolb says of the weeks following the flood. “It’s definitely 60% of the reason I have so much support here. Before the flood, I was definitely the weirdo faggot outsider.”
Kolb defies easy stereotyping. Apart from the fact that artists do not typically end up challenging branches of the Unites States Armed Forces, his biography does not read like the artist stereotype. Kolb grew up wrestling and playing football. His early jobs involved working in a hay field, as a lifeguard, truck stop attendant, night shift security for Fairmont State University, and various similar odd jobs. Eventually, he found his vocational calling as a millwright – an industrial mechanic.
“I loved it. I love being 60 feet up on a crane rail, hauling some rebar. It was fun not knowing what you’re gonna do every day.”
While most people do not generally associate artistic and mechanical inclinations, Kolb says that there is a surprising amount of overlap.
“If you went through 100 people who were in the trades – electricians, millwrights, masons – you’d probably find that 80% or more are artsy. I really think so. You’ll find hints everywhere.”
Kolb recalls once finding a collection of tie wires twisted and shaped into a scorpion statuette high up on some machinery. He says that if he hadn’t been working on the rig, “nobody would have ever seen it.”
Two years ago, Kolb quit his job working with machinery for an office position that leaves his evenings and weekends free to focus on Nativibes Gallery & Art Studio, which is housed in the very building where flood relief once shipped out of.
Mannington no longer depends on Kolb for cleaning supplies. Nativibes organizes a different service for the community at the old B&O building: creativity.
Kolb attended his first arts and crafts festival in 1997, selling handmade scrimshaw work. He worked bone and abalone for years, and has produced tattoo art, T-shirt and logo design, and other artistic niches. The festivals were his true passion. He speaks about the connection that can spark between himself and festival goers in quasi-mystical terms, a “spiritual hug” of sorts.
Kolb is painting a series of images next year that will be housed in a frame with small stage curtains, then sealed shut. He plans to try to sell the paintings sight unseen. “No one will ever know what’s on that painting except me and the person who buys it,” he says. “I think that is the ultimate in the artist-viewer connection.”
He had originally thought about using his own name for his business, but discovered that "Ben Kolb" is also the highly publicized name of a child who died under anesthesia. (As of publication, the top result for his name in Google is a Time article titled, “Doctors’ Deadly Mistakes.”)
The same year he opened Nativibes, Kolb discovered Seeking Stars Art, an organization that stages runway shows and events featuring wearable art, mostly modeled by girls and young women in the Fairmont-Mannington area. The events are often connected to other creative projects and nonprofit fundraising opportunities, and also seek to advocate for the arts more generally.
Kolb brought his collection of bone jewelry to Melissa Craig, owner of Seeking Stars, and the two soon started working together closely. He is now the creative director of Seeking Stars, and is featured on its website as a resident “Artist, Writer, Flintknapper & Carver”. He develops the concepts for the shows, and makes much of the material worn on the runway and in photo shoots.
Kolb also teaches painting at Nativibes to pay the studio’s bills, with classes for both children and adults. Often, he barters his teaching away. The mini-fridge in the studio is stocked with items he has received in exchange for instruction: apple butter, quail eggs, moonshine.
Kolb is a plain dresser, and does not have much interest in wearable fashion for himself. “I’ve worn a T-shirt, jeans and a ball cap for 40 years,” he says, noting that he usually wears one of two outfits. But the space he provides for kids to be themselves, and the self-confidence developed by the painting and runway shows is something he seems to value more than anything.
“Most people are grateful that this is here now, because we didn’t have anything like this, where someone could express something different, or act differently than wearing a camo hat and mudding in your truck. Which I love, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes I want to be here on a Saturday night in a boa dancing around. A lot of kids don’t get a chance to even see anything like this, let alone think it’s okay to do it.”
Kolb has seen how encouragement in the arts can shape lives of children for the better, and he has the letters of thanks from parents to prove it.
“I’ve seen the changes in so many kids after coming here… it makes me feel like I will make a difference in the end,” Kolb says. His memory returns to one girl in particular. “Her self esteem was so bad that she could hardly look in a mirror a couple of years ago. Now I’ve got her painting self-portraits. That means a lot. That’s all that really matters.”