The coal that I find at the Falls of the Ohio looks like the image above. What I mostly come across in the park are pebble-sized stones and coarse gravel that have been polished smooth by the Ohio River. The same river processes that shapes Styrofoam and wood also alters coal. Over the last two years I have been collecting this coal off of the riverbank and creating site specific art installations and images using this fossil material. Although coal is organic and natural, what I’m finding does not belong in the Ohio River. I believe this coal comes from the commercial barge traffic delivering fuel to hydroelectric plants throughout the Ohio River Valley. During times when the river is running high, materials carried into the water seem to eventually find their way to the Falls of the Ohio.
Before getting to the heart of this post, I would like to share a few other associations I have with coal and Christmas. My Dutch mother told me stories of her childhood and St. Nicholas Eve which is celebrated earlier in the month than our Christmas. Good children might expect small toys, fruit, or candy to be placed in their shoes as gifts from the white bearded saint. If, however, you were badly behaved over the year…you ran the risk of getting coal in your shoe as punishment. St. Nicholas has a chimney sweep friend named Black Pete and he usually does the dirty work. Fortunately, my mom doesn’t recall anyone she knew who this happened to! There are times, however, when getting coal in your shoe isn’t a completely bad outcome.
My mother also recalls how important and scarce coal was one particularly bitter winter and Christmas. It also happened to be during World War II and the city of Amsterdam was occupied by foreign soldiers. I believe she said the particular year in question was 1942? When resources became scarce, people would walk the railroad tracks at night looking for chunks of coal that fell off the railroad cars. People risked their lives doing this. Found coal would be burned in home stoves to keep everyone warm. When coal wasn’t available wood was burned next. My mom remembers that by war’s end, every wooden piece of furniture in the entire apartment was cut up and burned for heating and cooking purposes. Back then, a bag of coal would have been as fine a gift as receiving an orange or piece of chocolate. The times have really changed since then.
It’s becoming more difficult for me to believe that the events of 1942 occurred seventy years a go! Since then, the peace was won (for a short time) and the western economies thrived and grew on cheap and abundant fossil fuels. If populations had stayed relatively the same size, perhaps we wouldn’t be noticing the effects burning those fossil fuels have had on the environment? But the world’s population grew and then grew a lot more which puts pressure on all our resources. Today we live on a planet where billions of people want to live at the same standard of living that the west has squandered away. With China and India experiencing their own industrial growth moments being fueled by coal…the environment at large will surely see further damages.
Since beginning this Falls of the Ohio Project nearly ten years a go…I have created my own unique holiday cards. Every year I send something different out into the world. This helps me get into some kind of holiday spirit. Friends and family tell me that they enjoy receiving these admittedly odd cards. The last several years I have waited for the weather to get more seasonal perhaps with snow or ice present before rushing out to document the moment. As it so happens, it’s been getting warmer and warmer over the past several winters. As a whole, 2012 was our warmest year ever and the calendar page hasn’t yet turned to the new year! Our December began with temperatures in the low 70 degrees mark. Finally, the day after Christmas it has become cold enough and we may see a dusting of snow over the ground.
Currently, I have artworks (a sculpture and photo series) on display in a coal-themed exhibit at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany, Indiana. While working on my projects, I had a conversation with a sculptor friend of mine who grew up in a steel making town in Pennsylvania. He recalled from his childhood that it snowed a lot during their winters, however, it didn’t take the snow long to turn from white to dull black because of all the coal soot in the air. This inspired me to envision black “snowflakes” or “coal flakes” and I began to create small site specific designs on the ground based on this idea. No two coal flakes I’ve made has been exactly the same as another.
I have located these coal flake designs in fairly public places along side walking trails mostly used by fishermen. A photograph documents each one I have made. To me, this is a form of public art and it’s interesting to see how people will react to these modest designs. Some coal flakes don’t make it because there is something else in the human spirit that needs to disturb or destroy what it doesn’t understand. Many of these designs were rubbed out nearly as quickly as I made them! By now, I’ve created enough coal flakes that it occurred to me that I had my newest holiday card theme already completed in sixteen different designs! The images in this post are just a few of the ones I sent out this year.
And so I ask myself, what am I hoping might occur by sending out these unfamiliar images? Hopefully, people will register that there is a connection between burning fossil fuels and the changing climate we are currently experiencing. The environment isn’t just something that’s out there, but is a big part of the context of our lives that we contribute something to. I also continue to hope, that people will see personal creativity as an advantage our species has over others and that we honor and use this creativity to figure out how to live harmoniously with ourselves and the planet. I feel a lot of our hyper consumption is based on low self-esteem where creativity is replaced with consumption. Here’s hoping in the new year that more people learn how to tap into their own internal resources to help aid the earth! Happy Holidays to all from the Falls of the Ohio!