90 artists recall Dunkard Creek's bounty

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The stench of death is always a signal that something has gone terribly wrong, and it became overpowering as artist Ann Payne approached Dunkard Creek in 2009. An art exhibition, brimming with wonder but underscored by sorrow, is testimony by 90 artists to what she saw.

"Reflections: Homage to Dunkard Creek" commemorates the thousands of living things that died when coal mine wastewater changed the chemistry of the waterway, producing a golden algae bloom. All gill-breathing organisms -- fish, rare populations of mussels, amphibians -- suffocated.

The exhibition of 90 "portraits" of a variety of creatures in a variety of media is at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Downtown, through Saturday. It will next travel to Maryland and West Virginia.

"People, even a local politician, have walked into the gallery and burst into tears when they saw what is hanging there and realize why," Ms. Payne said.

Over its 43-mile length, Dunkard Creek wends several times across the Mason-Dixon Line separating Pennsylvania and West Virginia before emptying into the Monongahela River near Point Marion. Ms. Payne, a scientific illustrator who lives in Morgantown, was made aware of the fish kill by a friend who lives on the stream.

"As we walked down to the creek, we noticed a disturbance to the left and saw a strange grouping of birds including usually shy wading birds like green herons. They were picking at fish bodies that had washed up on the shore."

Wearing borrowed waders, Ms. Payne entered the water.

"It was horrible. Everything was dead. There were big fish, little fish, every kind, floating slowly in the low water. You could see how they struggled. Their mouths were open as though they had been gasping. Their gills were bleeding.

"I grew up in West Virginia and my best friends were salamanders. They're very shy, ugly. They died trying to crawl out of the creek. They would never do that. Little fish were trying to get up into the little seeps along the shore, but there wasn't enough water. They tried until they died."

"I was just stunned. I didn't believe what I was seeing," Ms. Payne said.

There were meetings held to discuss the kill, she said, but they were bureaucratic.

"There was no real way to own the situation, to grieve the situation. It seemed so dishonorable that we as a community did this but were not even going to pay homage to what we've done."

Ms. Payne considered an appropriate response and, being an artist, she began to depict each of the species that had died, a kind of visual litany.

"The inception of this [project] was my amazement at how something this catastrophic can happen right here and yet people weren't owing it. You have to be a witness to something. Most people are kind-hearted. You have to get their attention. Then I think people's hearts would be open."

By the end of 2010, she had made about 10 paintings. "At age 70, I realized it would take me a lifetime to finish." That's when she began recruiting artists.

She received support from the Appalachia Program division of The Mountain Institute, a global nonprofit that, according to its website, "empowers communities in the world's great mountain systems through education, conservation and sustainable development." The institute also funded a 25-page full color catalog that illustrates each artwork and provides background on Dunkard Creek. The catalogs are free to exhibition visitors.

Ms. Payne wasn't sure about how to recruit artists, or even which to approach. One qualification was that they had to have a tie to the Monongahela Watershed. "We live here, work here, grew up here, study here, and/or vacation here. The watershed is literally a part of each one of us," she wrote for the catalog introduction.

She was familiar with Pittsburgh artist Ron Donoughe's well-respected urban and rural landscapes and particularly liked the effect he achieved by grouping several small works into wall-sized installations. "He's my test case," she decided. "I'm going to cold-call him." She was nervous, but delighted when he enthusiastically agreed to participate.

The only provision she made was that all of the artworks be the same size and start with the same ground.

Ms. Payne's entry is the Fowler's toad (Anaxyrus fowleri), its depiction reflecting her training in and years of experience as a scientific illustrator:

"Often occurs along the banks of Dunkard Creek. Native to eastern and Midwestern North America. Eats small invertebrates. Call can be mistaken for a herd of sheep in the night."

Did she have a special attachment to the toad? "Well, when we were growing up we had a toad living under our porch."

But Ms. Payne is clearly attached to all of these creatures, from Mr. Donoughe's Variegate darter, a fish, to Pittsburgher Sharon Arffa's Pistol grip, a mussel proposed as endangered in Pennsylvania, to the tiny Green stonefly by Nancy Maunz of Clarksburg, W.Va. Media includes paint, graphite, pieced wood, fiber and pencil shavings.

The diversity of the artists reminded Ms. Payne of the creek, which is one of the most diversely populated in the region, she said. "One of the artists is an illustrator of the Torah, another a landscape artist, an abstract painter."

Many didn't know the animals they were championing. Ms. Payne drew the names out of a Mason jar to give each artist as he or she signed on. They could swap with one another, she said, but not come back to her for a different choice.

"Get to know it before you hate it," she advised. "It was fun to watch all these people go through this first date."

Each artist researched his or her own animal, and they all learned by it. For example, several mussels have developed specialized relationships with fish to complete their life cycles. The Snuffbox mimics the rocks that darters, sculpins and log perch root in when feeding. When the fish approaches, the mussel clamps down on its "nose" and holds it while injecting larvae into the host's gills.

The exhibition is "a modern-day cautionary tale for Appalachia's waters," Appalachia Program director Brent Bailey wrote in the catalog, "told through the images of 90 species who once called the creek their home. This heartbreaking and true story of a collision between the energy industry and natural resources is also about 'us' -- all of us who have a stake in our water."

In what must be a nightmarish replay for all of the project participants, the lower 5 miles of Dunkard Creek have again been polluted with high levels of total dissolved solids, the Post-Gazette's Don Hopey reported Saturday. The TDS concentrations were caused by a combination of low stream flow due to drought conditions, abandoned mine discharges and the discharges from Dana Mining's Steele Shaft treatment plants, he reported. The Department of Environmental Protection prognosis is that the levels will worsen before they improve.

Ms. Payne has been heartened by the interest in the exhibition as it has traveled, and has had inquires about it from outside the region. But she plans to retire the show by fall 2013, in part to allow patrons who have purchased artworks to take them home. She also sees the exhibition as a model for similar projects elsewhere. "The methodology is done, and it's fairly simple."

The most important contribution such an exhibition makes is showing that "it's real," Ms. Payne said. "Here's the animal. Here's how the animal died. Somehow it's outside of debate and speculation."

"They died but the issue is not dying."

"Reflections" continues at 420 Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown, through Saturday. Admission is free. Hours are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. today and Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

The exhibition will travel to the following venues: Aug. 1-22, Frostburg State University, Md.; Sept. 7-Oct. 5, Parkersburg Arts Center, W.Va. November dates to be announced, National Conservation Training Center, Shepherdstown, W.Va.; and Jan. 4-March 8, 2013, Carnegie Hall, Museum Gallery, Lewisburg, W.Va.

Humor in Craft

"Humor in Craft," ironic, sarcastic and just plain amusing artworks by 32 artists, opens from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Society for Contemporary Craft, 2100 Smallman St., Strip District ($5 donation at door). A "live installation" by floral design studio Bill Chisnell Productions, complements the show. The exhibition continues through Oct. 27. Information: 412-261-7003 or www.contemporarycraft.org.

NEA grant for WMAA

The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, has been awarded a $75,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to support Bridging the Gap, a public art project the museum is organizing in conjunction with the City of Greensburg.

The grant is among 80 Our Town awards totaling nearly $5 million that the NEA is distributing to 44 states and the District of Columbia in 2012.

The intent of the project is to revitalize the Maple Avenue and Main Street bridges, which separate downtown Greensburg from the museum's hilltop location. Plans for the forthcoming renovation and expansion of the museum include new green space for public gathering, and the bridge redesign will focus on providing an inviting gateway to that space and the museum beyond.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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