Environmental Art from Appalachia
Environmental Art from Appalachia
View from Home: acrylic paint, twigs, encaustic on wood panel, 20” x 30”
Every morning since 2003, I’ve walked along Sugar Grove Road. Dents Run starts here. It eventually empties into the Monongahela River at Granville. In 2007, after old Mr. Bucy died and his sons sold the land to a local lawyer, strip mining commenced on the easily accessible coal seam. In 2010, a big power line was routed through our neighborhood, using eminent domain on some farms. As a result, a chain reaction of strip mining took place on farms already disrupted by the big pylons. I started carrying my camera to document the destruction of my formerly bucolic neighborhood. Oak and maple trees came down and many were left to rot. Hillsides were upturned and streams turned red with acid mine drainage. We do use electricity in our house but we see clearly where it comes from and the real cost.
Seeing the Light: acrylic paint on wood panel, 20” x 30”
Most of us live our lives inside, where it is comfortable. Our comfort is largely the result of burning fossil fuels. As few people would visit an abattoir to see where their hamburgers come from, few people see where their electricity comes from. Our collective disconnect from the sources of our comforts makes it hard for people to understand the long-term costs of our comforts.
Work Space: oil paint on wood panel, 20” x 30”
I do my work inside, but while looking outside. Here I overlap the idyllic view out my studio window to a sunny hillside of healthy trees and grazing cows. The interior details dominate the image. This is a companion piece to the next one, which shows the flip side.
Tree Removal: oil paint on wood panel, 20” x 30”
The reality of the view from my window was that all the sugar maple trees that gave our neighborhood its name were cut down in advance of the strip mine. The mining permit did contain that slope but thankfully they went bankrupt before they got that far. It would have joined with the strip mine over the ridge where the heaps of coal are seen. So the cows continue to graze and time has a way of softening the raw edges with scrub vegetation.
Black Into White: oil paint on wood panel, 31” x 20” x 1.25”
We have lived in the same house, except for five years in Scotland, since 1978. The sliding glass doors look out over the deck to a scene that changes constantly, from morning to evening, summer to winter and decade to decade. The light, the weather, the activity on the slope are always different. Despite the changes, there was a cyclical constancy to the view, until the strip mine started in 2012. The wooden panel was split and slightly separated to stress the radical change this had on our view.
Midnight at Noon: oil paint on wood panel, 30” x 21” x 1.25”
A companion piece to the previous one, this contrasts how moonlight and sunlight alter the perception of a familiar space. The Amish table and chairs, where we eat every meal, look out to a southern view-scape. The sunny, safe interior also contrasts with the destruction to the land outside. The split and slightly nonaligned panel again emphasizes how out-of-sync the different views can be.
If my paintings seem overly dark, it is not because I’m a pessimist. Watching and hearing a strip mine unfold directly in front of us has provided me with a lot of subject matter and the opportunity to see the real cost paid for our comforts. My intention is to alert others to why we must stop extracting fossil fuels. As to why we should stop burning them must be obvious to everyone who watches the news.
NEIGHBORHOOD CHANGES, 18" x 24". A settling pond (left) and a future settling pond (right)
There has always been coal removal in my neighborhood of Sugar Grove, west of Morgantown, West Virginia. In the old days most houses near an exposed coal seam would dig their own coal for personal use from what was called a kitchen or punch mine. Some of these portals are still visible.
As machinery became more powerful, strip mining, or the removal of ground to expose a large swath of a coal seam, became possible. When we built a house in Sugar Grove in 1978, there were a few small strip mines around. Slowly they became bigger and the blasts to remove the ‘overburden’ more powerful. Interesting that the very ground on which people lived was described as a burden.
Our neighbors were mostly farmers who kept cows to breed calves to send to feedlots. We never kept animals ourselves but were glad to let a neighbor take hay off our pasture for his cows. Before 2007, a farmer named John Bucy, who refused to sell his coal seam to stripping companies, died and his sons who lived far away sold the land to a local lawyer, who soon had it stripped. The first Bucy mine, a most inappropriate name, began in February of 2007 on Sugar Grove Road.
I have walked Sugar Grove Road most days since 2003 and as the small hill farms gave way to strip mines, I carried my camera to document the changes. In 2010, a big power line was routed through our neighborhood using eminent domain. People forced to have the big pylons on their land decided to sell out to stripping companies as well. Soon, Bucy #2 Mine (S-2008-09) was underway, whose progress along Sugar Grove Road I photographed daily.
In 2011 we received a letter from the mining company asking us to come see them to ‘discuss business’. That was a dark day indeed because it meant neighbors close to us had already agreed to a stripping contract. We ignored the letter. The permit process for Bucy #3 Mine (S-2002-12) moved forward, despite our attempts to stop the permit. As West Virginia gets much of its revenue from coal severance taxes, the WV Department of Environmental Protection rarely turns down a permit application. So our attempts to stop another strip mine in a farming area went nowhere.
In August of 2012, the strip mine, whose boundary would come up to our fence line, got underway. We bought a movie camera to document the blasts, dust and noise from the heavy machinery that often began at 5 am and went on until midnight. I collected a lot of images. Apparently all the residents of the area just had to tolerate the cracked walls, noise and dust so that a handful of people could make money.
In May of 2014, the stripping company declared bankruptcy, having made their money, and skipped out on their debts to their employees and subcontractors. The insufficient bond money posted to cover the reclamation was forfeited and the state of WV is left to clean up the abandoned mines. But West Virginia has little money so reclamation may never happen. See a 3-minute video HERE showing the impact on our streams of the abandoned mines seven years later.
Much of the art work presented here grew from the photos I took of the changes in my neighborhood. Unlike words, images are understandable by everyone across time, space and culture, which is why we can look at Paleolithic cave paintings and know the ‘what’, if not the ‘why’. Looking for poetic meaning in my domestic space is another reason to make the images. But my images are also aimed at people of the future, to apologize for our collective squandering and destruction of their world.
The artwork presented here is about a particular time and place: the peripheral areas of Morgantown, West Virginia in the early 21st Century, a period of significant change from coal as king to coal as history. It will not be easy for the state to create a new revenue source and especially a new identity. But the state mascot is a mountaineer, not a coal miner, so perhaps we should return to the original mountain identity but with a 21st Century awareness.
My artwork is intimate and domestic. I think of it as a diary of the time I have lived here - a small sliver of the long history of this corner of Appalachia. It is set against the backdrop of the universe as seen in the many starry skies in my paintings.
Following is my 11-minute video to show the impact of a strip mine on our neighborhood. Blasting, noise and dust were the beginning. Acid mine drainage is the lasting result.
Betsy Jaeger was born in 1954 in Geneva, Illinois; a town on the Fox River which looks forty miles east to the Chicago Art Institute and west across Illinois farmland.
In 1976 she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Notre Dame and in 1978 a Master of Fine Arts degree from West Virginia University, both in painting.
In 1984 she moved to Edinburgh, Scotland with Glasgow-born husband Stephen Lawson. In 1989 they returned to the rural home they built in Morgantown, West Virginia, where they still live.
During the past forty years Betsy has had seven solo exhibitions and shown in many juried and group exhibitions in Scotland, West Virginia and regionally.