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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!

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Hard to believe a week has passed since this exhibition opened and summer has made room for autumn as well.  Such is the passing of time.  As promised here are a few views of the show my work is in which opened at Bellarmine University’s McGrath Gallery on September 16.  The exhibit is entitled “Outcasts and Artifacts, artwork from a disposable world”, “Al Gorman and Scott Scarboro”.  I snapped a few installation views before people arrived for the opening.  Thanks to friends and family as well as a well-timed snippet in the local paper… a good mix of folks came out to see our work.

I have a lot of stuff I’ve gathered and made to select from over the years and I decided now was a good time to see my sign collection hanging on a wall.  I found that I still enjoy looking at these artifacts.  I like hand painted signs and one of my very first jobs was working in a sign shop.  I have this idea about history being interpreted from examining the existing fragments and this collection fits.  I also like finding the occasional sign where the universe is seemingly “speaking” to you by providing enigmatic clues.

My “Fake Food Collection” was another one of my various collections I put on display.  I have shown this before, however, it seems each time I go to the river I find another piece or two for it.  As a result, this collection keeps getting bigger and bigger and no longer  fits in the Styrofoam box I use to store it.  I found every piece at the Falls of the Ohio courtesy of the Ohio River beginning eight years a go.  These are the pieces I did find and I often wonder about the ones that got away!  To me, all the predominantly plastic representations of food are another signal of our disconnect from nature.  The smell of the plastic is really noticeable.  I think this collection presents initially as something humorous until the reality of it sets in.  This seems to be a part of my art’s modus operandi.

Among the sculptures I displayed are a couple of early pieces that I have never exhibited before.  Such is the case with “Fang” on the right and my version of the meeting of the explorers “Lewis and Clark”.  “Fang” still has its original dirt on it.  Also in this shot are my “Squirt Gun Collection” and a small predatory animal I called the “River Ghost” which I featured in a blog post last year.  Most of these Styrofoam sculptures I consider to be “relics” of a larger process I engage in and weren’t originally intended to be stand alone objects.  Although I have saved many works over time, the vast majority of them were left behind to await their fates in the park.

Scott Scarboro is an interesting artist who lives in New Albany, Indiana that also works with found objects and materials.  His stuff is more “urban” than mine and he makes use of old toys and yard sale and flea market finds.  He likes to tinker with the mechanical and electrical workings in these toys so they neither move nor sound as originally intended.  Of late, Scott has been exploring the uses of sound in sculpture in public art settings.  The paintings began life as wall paper remnants that then became drop cloths that Scott worked back into. Scott and I have been friends for many years and our artistic paths seem to intersect frequently.

Another view from the gallery.  Scott made the robot painting as well as the lamp.  The two of us spoke to an evening art appreciation class at the university that went really well.  We were able to engage the class with our art and ideas and I believe most of the students were not art majors? As a result of our talk many of these students came out for the opening reception.

Two “devilish” works by me and Scott.  The Styrofoam sculpture I entitled “Faun or Blue-tongued Devil” and the wall piece  Scott made using a toy jet fighter plane.  One idea that both of us like working with is “repurposing”  existing objects and making new statements from them.  The world is after all already filled with a multitude of objects that can be reinterpreted without using freshly extracted resources from nature.

Also in the show were two Styro-turtles I’ve made.  The white one was featured in one of my recent posts as the “Cottonwood Turtle”.  I was pleased by how that story and images turned out.  Both turtles include old bicycle helmets in their making.  The black one’s body under the helmet is actually a foam wig stand in the shape of a human head.  For many of the works I presented, I also included laminated hard copies from my blog posts that showcase the sculpture on exhibit.  I have to say that I still prefer seeing my works in the contexts of where they were created and as a result I probably don’t pursue the exhibition opportunities available to me.  In closing, here is one final shot featuring three of my pieces and a shameless sign I painted to get gallery visitors to also visit my riverblog!  I still feel that this is the best place to get a fuller sense of what I’m doing at the Falls of the Ohio.  All the rest is fragmentary and tells a smaller part of the story.  My thanks go out to Bellarmine University and Caren Cunningham for the invitation to exhibit and Laura Hartford for all her hard work in preparing for this show.

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