I have had a few folks ask about the Project Reclamation exhibit I’m participating in and I thought this post would be a good place to feature this. The exhibit opened a couple of weeks a go on November 2, 2012 and will run through January 12, 2013. About a year and a half have passed since curator and artist Mary Margaret Sparks asked me to participate in this invitational exhibit. There are thirteen artists represented in this group show with a nice cross-section of projects in various media addressing the complex topic of coal its use and extraction. The Carnegie Center for Art and History located across the Ohio River from Louisville in nearby New Albany, Indiana has done a fine job of installing and interpreting the works and has planned many activities that the public can engage in to learn more about the controversial topic of coal mining through the practice of Mountaintop Removal or MTR. This is a highly destructive way to extract coal from southern Appalachia’s mountains which also endangers some of the greatest biodiversity in our part of the world in pursuit of cheap and reliable energy. To further spur the artists along, the not for profit organization Kentuckians For the Commonwealth invited the participants to Whitesburg in Letcher County, Kentucky to tour Appalshop and watch a few coal-themed documentaries. A guided tour into coal country provided additional impressions of the mountains and the folks who call this place home.
All of the participating artists had some prior interest either working with coal as a social issue or material substance before accepting the invitation to show. There is a unity in the belief that the more we degrade the environment, the more we change ourselves and not for the best. For me, my entry came through the related issue of clean fresh water which is also our number one vanishing resource. I frequently find river-altered coal at the Falls of the Ohio State Park. Combining this coal gravel with discarded and river found booze bottles gave me an opportunity to work with ideas about consumption and addiction. The result was my “Mountaintop Mini-bar” sculpture, but I also have six photographs from my “Coal Flake Series” on view as well. My impression of our guided trip to coal country reinforced what I’ve previously seen and experienced. It seems to me that the people who were sacrificing their land and culture were not receiving much in the way of compensation for our quest for coal. Regrettably, this is an old tale seen time after time across the globe. People might think that this is something that only happens in distant poor countries, but we have our own share of material poverty in our own backyard.
Most of the participating artists took considered approaches that referenced and respected the uniquely rich culture of coal country. Several artists worked with traditional fiber and or needle and thread to produce their statements. Julie Yoder created a large wall installation, “Appalachian Patchwork”, assembled with woodcuts on handmade paper. Patchwork quilting is an important Appalachian art form and Yoder’s piece represents the landscape and local culture as being a composite of unique designs that have come together over time to form a whole. Mountaintop removal has a way of fragmenting this landscape and disrupting the continuity that life here depends upon for survival.
Other artists utilizing fabric, needle, and thread include Jo Ann Grimes with her sympathetic portrayals of miners. Joel Darland and his marvelous hand-embroidered quilt squares. Rachel Brewer’s two embroideries of song birds on dirty furnace filters. Mary Margaret Sparks’ imposing “Lest We Forget” hand-embroidered and sewn re-purposed fabric waterfall that is a memorial to lost mountain streams and creeks that were damaged by coal mining. Also in this group is a fascinating video entitled “Harriman” which is the work of Denise Burge and incorporates video, fabric, and thread. Burge’s video is a statement made in the aftermath of a disaster. A broken coal slurry dam in Tennessee had poisoned the surrounding watershed and imperiled the health of a community living in the area. Burge’s video documents some of the clean-up involved and how protective the coal industry is in guarding its own image.
Photographs by Joshua Howard contrast the natural beauty of coal country with the grim realities of the industry. A more overt political statement comes from Wayne Ferguson who sees Kentucky’s senior senator as being in cahoots with the industry that helps bankroll his re-election campaigns. Ferguson’s drawings chart the corrupting influences of money and power at the expense of the land and the best interests of the people.
The sense that mountaintop removal is a great calamity for nature at large comes through the works of two artists. Ceramic sculptor Alex Adams’ piece entitled “Wounded” suggests that MTR mining disrupts the very living tissue of the mountain range. He does this by representing two mountains that have had their peaks literally removed revealing raw, open wounds.
Painter Michael Koerner’s approach is equally reductive and he comes to a similar conclusion about the fate of the mountains. His diptych entitled “After the Canaries Left the Coal Mines, the Mountains Began to Leave Appalachia” is an argument reduced to its essential points. For example, in Koerner’s landscape, the painting is physically divided into two parts suggesting man’s indifference towards nature. The bare slopes past the forested mountains are a warning of what could occur with unchecked mountain top removal.
One last artist before closing. Aron Conaway’s work lies at the heart of our culture of consumption. His work entitled “Billions and Billions Served” features a Ronald McDonald clown driving a toy front loader on top of a large pile of coal. In his work, Conaway makes it obvious that we are all implicated in the big issues of our day. The demand for coal exists because we demand the energy to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer time heat. If we don’t like the side effects of coal mining, perhaps we should speed up our search for alternative energy sources, find ways to curtail our addiction to electricity or both? The demand for cheap coal and energy is what drives the supply.
The Carnegie Center for Art and History has a nice program of upcoming events that expands the breath of this exhibition. I have already participated in one gallery talk that drew an interested crowd. Film screenings, art making opportunities, and a panel discussion on mountaintop removal and renewable energy sources will also be held during Project Reclamation’s run. There is the hope that this show will travel which will be an added bonus. Thanks to Mary Margaret Sparks, Karen Gillenwater, and the staff at the Carnegie Center for their hard work. I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into an exhibition from our area. My next post will be from the Falls of the Ohio!