Environmental Art from Appalachia
Environmental Art from Appalachia
JULY FOURTH, 30" x 25" x 1.5", oil paint on wood panel
My brother, John, was born in 1958, four years after me. It was another year before he was diagnosed with Down Syndrome and not until he was an adult that autism was also diagnosed. As a child, I just accepted his DS as a given.
Despite being mostly non-verbal, John had attitude, personality and took distinct pleasure from pushing people’s buttons, especially of his five older siblings. Growing up with someone who didn’t communicate much with words, apart from a few expletives, maybe influenced me more than I realized. Temple Grandin, an autistic woman with a PhD in animal behavior, said she thought in pictures. I don’t know how John thought, but living with him may have showed me how to look outside the box.
With each passing year of living in a rural landscape and in close proximity to birds and wildlife, I grow more convinced that other species think about things and feel emotions, although maybe not the same way humans do. Why not? We all share the same DNA. We always refer to our birds as 'people' and as 'he' and 'she' when talking about them. American Indians do too. It really alters one's relationship to the natural world. Humans are just one part of a much bigger whole.
With these thoughts in mind, I painted a series of portraits of John based on photos taken of him over the years. He died of old age at 53. People with DS age faster than others. I never had a conversation with him and often wonder how he perceived the world around him. For me, his mystery overlaps the mystery of the natural world.
Double portrait of my brother and me
TREE REMOVAL, oil paint on wood panel, 20” x 30”,
WORK SPACE, oil paint on wood panel, 20” x 30"
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 Chicago 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.