• Lillie Burke

‘Project Reclamation’ brings activist art to LCVA’s Gallery 121

Across the room, rays of sunlight reflect off the glistening glass surface of a bust of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s head. Take a closer look and inside you’ll see a solitary object fixed in place of the brain – it’s a dark, large lump of coal.

Artist McKinley Moore’s “Ditch Mitch” bust seems to stare blankly ahead. Follow its gaze and you’ll see an installation of 50 handmade paper pieces arranged in a 5 x 10 patchwork with woodcut mountains in earth tones staggered and repeated in each square panel.

The repetition of pattern and color, yet irregularity of form creates movement within the piece. This is Julie Yoder’s “Appalachian Patchwork,” but it’s also a glimpse at what Appalachia once was – an un-excavated landscape of green peaks.

Each square panel represents 10 mountains or nearly 24,000 acres destroyed by mountaintop removal.

Coal mining and mountaintop removal aren’t usually topics of everyday conversation, but Belmont’s Gallery 121’s latest exhibition features advocacy artwork that brings these environmental issues to the forefront.

Belmont is the first place “Project Reclamation” has traveled to, making this only the second time the artwork has been shown.

“I called it ‘Project Reclamation’ because it was kind of like, not just the idea of reclaiming the land, but reclaiming the voice for the people,” Kentucky-based artist and the exhibition’s curator Mary Margaret Sparks said.

But what exactly is mountaintop removal? Kentuckians for the Commonwealth calls mountaintop removal a radical form of strip mining.

It’s the process of leveling off mountains in order to mine for coal from the mountaintop, as opposed to its side, and is prevalent in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Meanwhile, it buries fresh waterways under debris and destroys natural habitats and wildlife.

But many of those affected are poor and uneducated and rely on mining jobs for survival.

“We’re trying to present it in a way that raises awareness about the issue because I think it’s a really complex issue, and it’s something that a lot of people don’t know a lot about and don’t know how they’re affected by it,” Sparks said.

“Project Reclamation” features artwork from 13 artists from Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. Those artists are Alex Adams, Rachel Brewer, Denise Burge, Aron Conaway, Joel Darland, Wayne Ferguson, Albertus Gorman, Jo Ann Grimes, Joshua Howard, Michael Koerner, McKinley Moore, Mary Margaret Sparks and Julie Yoder.

Sparks selected the artists based on their advocacy and interest in this environmental issue.

“Personally, I think it has impact because the work has a very personal touch to each piece, like you can just really tell from the care that went into it and the craft that went into it that there’s a very personal connection to the story that had influenced it or that they’re portraying,” said Jessica Owings, art adjunct professor and director of Leu Gallery and exhibitions

“That’s when artwork, that type of artwork, that kind of like message, didactic sort of artwork, is strongest – when it has that very personal kind of meaning and care behind it.”

The artwork spans a wide range of mediums including film, textiles, glass, paper, printmaking, painting, drawings, photography, sculpture, ceramic and embroidery.

“I feel like the show really does a good job of kind of hitting all the different aspects of mountaintop removal because you have pieces about the coal miners, you have pieces about the environment, you have political pieces,” Sparks said.

The exhibition’s depiction of the impact of mountaintop removal ranges from the subdued and less obvious like Julie Yoder’s “Appalachian Patchwork” to the literal and even biting like Wayne Ferguson’s “Daisy Series,” an illustrated narrative of the environmental effects of mountaintop removal.

On the same wall hangs “Wounded,” a muted-green ceramic piece with blood-red projections by Alex Adams.

“This piece represents the natural world. It is missing two pieces of its surface and the wound seems to go even deeper than that,” Adams wrote in his artist statement. “Red oil paint is used to color the mountain’s absent top. This piece was made to remind us that mountains do not grow back!”

Beyond the pieces on display, gallery visitors can watch “The Power to Move Mountains: Mountaintop Removal in Appalachia,” a documentary film by Joshua Howard and sponsored by The National Geographic Society, on the computer that’s in the space. Still photographs from the documentary are also featured in “Project Reclamation.”

“We’re not saying that coal mining is, you know, evil,” Sparks said. “What we’re saying is that the process of mountaintop removal is very damaging – you can talk to people who, you know, their water’s black. They don’t even have clean water.”

There have been instances when individuals in these areas have developed brain cancer, Sparks said.

The exhibition was launched in November 2012 at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany, Ind.

“You know, I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve never been a curator,” Sparks said. “I was just an artist with an idea.”

The exhibition’s primary goal is to serve as an educational tool and to open people’s minds to just how complex and far-reaching mountaintop removal is, Sparks wrote in the curator statement.

Though many of the artists featured in the exhibition have personal ties with coal mining and mountaintop removal, having grown up in areas affected by it, some didn’t have a direct connection with the issue. For those artists, Sparks made sure they were educated and informed about the exhibition’s theme

She and some of the exhibition’s artists traveled to eastern Kentucky to see the effects of mountaintop removal firsthand and met with residents who chronicled how they have been impacted.

She made it a goal to approach the issue with sensitivity because for many, especially in eastern Kentucky, coal mining is how they make their livelihood.

Sparks, who was raised in Asia, first learned about mountaintop removal after attending a rally while in college in Kentucky in 2008.

“I think that was kind of like a turning point in me as a young artist, you know, finding my identity.” Sparks said.

Having lived overseas until she was 18, Sparks said she had this idea of America as a perfect place, and when she was exposed to the quality of life of those living in areas affected by mountaintop removal, she was shocked.

“I guess for me, I was really more impacted by what was happening to the people,” she said.

And “Project Reclamation” makes people, as much as the land, the focus by weaving the human and environmental impact of mountaintop removal into a single, solid narrative.

Many of the pieces on display not only reference mountaintop removal or the culture of Appalachia in their imagery, but also incorporate techniques like quilting and embroidery that are traditional crafts of the area.

In “Lest We Forget,” Sparks uses repurposed, cool-toned fabric to create a waterfall cascading from the gallery’s ceiling to its floor. And hand embroidered on each piece is the name of a river or body of water directly impacted by mountaintop removal.

“Project Reclamation” is powerful in its ability to both subtly hint at and frankly point out the issue of mountaintop removal.

“We want this to start dialogue. We don’t want people to walk into the gallery and be offended,” Sparks said. “We want people to come and inquire and ask questions. You don’t have to agree with the message of the show, but let’s, you know, hear your side of it. What do you think about it?”

The exhibition will remain on view until Sept. 30 in Gallery 121, which is located inside and to the left of the Leu Center for Visual Art’s main entrance. A gallery reception will be held Wednesday, Sept. 25, from 5-7 p.m., and a gallery talk with Sparks will begin at 5:30.

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