On August 20th 2004, at about 2:30 a.m., a half ton boulder, dislodged by a heavy equipment operator on an active strip site, crashed down a mountainside, hit a stump, went airborne (and so locals call such boulders “flyrock”) and smashed into the bedroom of three-year old Jeremy Davidson, killing him in his sleep. In the following weeks the “Mountain Justice” movement formed in the response to this insanely irresponsible industry’s continuing threat upon people’s homes, watersheds and heritage.
In early 2008, United Mountain Defense, the Tennessee chapter of Mountain Justice, received a copy of The Post-Katrina Portraits – Written and Narrated by Hundreds, perhaps the most entrenchant and immediate single collection of first hand accounts of Hurricane Katrina and Rita survivors and the grassroots disaster relief efforts to surface out of all the copious media that bloomed in the aftermath.
It seemed to some in the movement for the Appalachians that this kind of aesthetic media would make the dilemmas of artificial disaster in the Appalachian coal fields also compelling for public sympathy and mobilization to stop the atrocities of amoral “mad-bomber” corporations doing “strip mining on steroids” vastly and irrevocably detonating the geology. A few phone calls later, The Portrait-Story bottom-liners had committed to bringing their “media solidarity,” to what they could identify as a “self-determination struggle.”
They came as soon as they could, March of 2008, for the first time to the Southern Highlands of North America. The results, now available for posterity have come to be known as “Voices for Appalachia – A Portrait-Story Project – Written and Narrated by Hundreds.” View it on http://www.mountainjustice.org/portrait_story_gallery/index.php
These portraits indicate every demographic that they had the privilege of co-generating content with during their nearly two years of travels. Many of the people drawn were friends and friends of friends so the project reflects a greater sense of expanding or overlapping rings of community. Dozens of households embodied this “art-media-social phenomenon” by inviting these creatives amongst themselves, kin, neighbors and associates, supplying them with bed, board and morale for the volunteer service and then asserting their narratives upon the original drawings of themselves. As awareness of The Portrait-Story Project spread, it tended to keep manifesting, provided specific request or explicit desire to participate, which happened by word of mouth or e-mail, and hospitality upon arrival.
On these Appalachian Portrait-Stories we have a panorama of expressions: snippets of everyday life, relationship to the land and culture and struggles for empowerment or at least survival - as handwritten by those living it. In a few cases, where an otherwise able participant stated their illiteracy, a relative by blood or marital commitment volunteered to write their words for them and annotated so.
Initially roughly envisioning a five month commitment of making this“positive self-fulfilling prophecy” present throughout the active coalfields wherever residents and sympathizers in solidarity had begun to organize resistance against "King Coal," they quickly became overwhelmed by the scope of consequences these landscapes suffered under “the energy curse” and the complexity and diversity of regional issues. From coal extraction [mountain “top” removal, or more truly, mountain range removal, contour-mining, cross-ridge mining, high-wall mining, long wall-mining etc. and deep-mining] to coal-washing [coal slurry impoundments and injections and subsequent leaching and disaster-spills] to burning [emissions, coal ash or combustion-waste impoundments and subsequent disaster-spills] to accelerated erosion, de-population, prescription drug and other hard drug addiction, economic depression and other results of an unsustainable industry’s unilateral domination . . it became apparent the necessity of getting this very large sense of story consolidated into a form to yield a much larger audience than a conventional documentary and the persistence and vigor necessary to collaborate with hundreds an indicative series worthy of public discourse beyond the bituminous seam. Their journey transformed into a 16 month commitment turning pan-Appalachian, cross-organizational and broader than a movement. The Portrait-Story Project soon pushed its capacity for geographic envelope, staying on the road for the parts of 2008 and 2009 warm enough to reasonably draw people outdoors in a temperate zone.
The drawings began simply enough with penciled charcoal and carbon, woodless and wooded graphite, colored pencil, china marker and plain sketch paper. Adopting progressively thicker papers to accommodate an evolving and more intensively layered style, spectrums of media emerged from powdery to oily, common to uncommon, natural to synthetic: vine charcoal, both primitive and conventional, conte crayon, chalk, colored charcoal, woodless colored “pencils,” soft, semi-soft, hard and oil pastels, watercolor, encaustic oil sticks, industrially manufactured oils, tempera, aerosol fixative and then hand-crafted oils, tempera, glair, emulsions and varnish. On a few occasions they bartered for local clay or found clay in streambeds, dug it out, dried and pounded and shifted it into pigments of pure but subtle colors obviously not available on the mainstream market. You can notice these changes at a glance. Sealing many pages archivally from the acidity of the oils are base coats of ground chalks, pastels, or loose dry pigment whipped into a primer or several layers of other paint, leaving a kind of minimalist abstract on the page before the representational drawing began. Brief were the detours into tempera sizing and aerosol primer, walnut and acrylic ink, gouache, acrylic and fabric paint, wax crayon and paint markers or oil pens. Sometimes the artist struggled with making grateful use the materials that were donated, to keep this almost budget-less endeavor frugally underway. Yet a seamless integration of unlikely materials kept arriving in an austere aesthetic of stylized realism with intense tonal values, which sometimes appeared “black and white” to some viewers at a distance or in a dimly lit room. Often those drawn would pick which “underpainting” of tinted primers and the like which suited their fancy. In just a few cases they even helped grind a piece of chalk of their choosing with a muller and pestle into powder, then scraped the dust into a porcelain dish to vigorously stir in egg yolk to make tempera.
Their vehicle running on waste vegetable oil, which restaurant managers routinely had to otherwise pay a contractor to haul away, made their long-distance and non-commercial context possible as local supporters located the caches of this particular post-consumer waste stream, to fuel these Portrait-Story nomads driving onwards.
Even though they often emphasized to the many they met, the difficulties of their way of life, one of them said, “We’ll remember this journey as one of our most rewarding.” As this “art and story documentary” traveled, a quickly growing show, it became it increasingly tough to display its entirety in all places where denizens desired exhibition: cafes, conferences, community centers, galleries, family reunions, grassroots campaign houses and so on. As once announced, “The phenomena is only as real as we all make it, and you can be phenomenal too!”
Most spectators after reading or skimming just a few narratives quickly realize the plurality throughout these Portrait-Stories. Folks wrote of everything from their sense of identity, sometimes genealogy traced up to the present, to childhood memories, to their exercise of folk culture, to old United Mine Workers Association struggles, to perceived changes in the land and impacts upon their life from surface "mining," to non-violent direct action or civil disobedience to halt or bring attention to the industry's callousness, to trying to create a more tenable Appalachian economy to practicing primitive skills or permaculture. Stories range from silly to sentimental to tragic to folksy to transgressive, from incidental, myopic or immediate to serious, implicative and far-sighted, from meanderingly diffuse to decisive.
Excessive demand for explanation defies credulity - The Portrait-Stories speak direct, individuated by writing style in the most literal sense – the actual writing most “writers” don’t do anymore. For some, the act of handwriting brought a meditativeness and style of prose unachievable otherwise. As we exhibit these Portrait-Stories, in our own community spaces, we find ourselves with a landscape of faces, faces of and for a land.
Early on the bottom-liners had not foreseen the immense challenge of drawing portraits and gathering stories from such a large region. They came to accept that Appalachia or even the coalfields could be elastically defined, stretching over thousands of square miles. They also realized, that as more and more whom they would meet would self-identify as "Appalachian" and find "Voices for Appalachia" as relevant to their communities, it became as though they ran to keep up with a course that so many others kept setting for them.
And what a long fascinating journey it became. In geological terms, they explored mostly the Cumberlands and also the Tennessee Valley and Blue Ridge and to a much lesser extent the Alleghenies and Piedmont. In ecological terms, they overwhelmingly moved within mixed mesophytic forest, arguably rainforest. In statist terms they mostly went through eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, to a lesser extent western North Carolina, western Virginia, northern West Virginia, and to a lesser extent still, southeast Ohio and central Pennsylvania and way too many counties to name here. In social terms they hopped from academia and high profile conferences to moonshining shacks and roadside camping, from parks, community centers, cafes, galleries, museums, to homesteading farms, family reunions and festivals, from intentional communities to downtowns, from grassroots campaign headquarters to private residencies, from indigenous to old-timers to back-to-the-landers to newcomers, from second-home retirees to the homeless, from fundamentalists and evangelicals to pagans, agnostics and secular humanists. They learned, and from The Portrait-Stories you will see, there is no one Appalachia.
Only a few times, where several worthwhile events occurred at once, some they had already committed to, and the driving just got too strenuous, did they have to regretfully decline further invites. Some hosts or organizers expressed pleasant surprise at the absence of monetary charge for summoning The Portrait-Story Project to their event. Many were pleased to discover there was no charge for being drawn as long as one desired to contribute the content for their handwriting so their perspective could be rendered authentic to the world as intellectual commonwealth.
Some feared government, coal company or local community reprisal for writing their uncensored stories, yet most came to understand the very safe and nurturing nature of this patient and gentle media which had no question and answer format and gave full breadth to all need for confidentiality - neither ambush makeover nor muckraking. In practice, despite the severity of concern, sensationalism seemed relatively absent or at least mild, even when participants wrote of socially-conscious days of action aimed at awareness-raising to disrupt business-as-usual or of industry-induced calamity and violence.
One began and ended the narrative where they chose and one did not have to sign their name if they didn't want to. Privacy stayed sensitively respected, innuendo never projected. Very often portraits were left with participants so they would have as much time as they needed to consider what they would write. Some were drawn several times over many visits.
In some cases those drawn had already enjoyed a whole plethora of media about their concerns or heritage. In many cases, those drawn told their visitors they had never gotten drawn before and had never experienced any professional form of media at all. Many seeing The Portrait-Stories exhibited then wanted the series to grace their own spaces as well. Despite the odds of seeking a "critical mass of input" over great distances in an overwhelmingly rural context the artist drew nearly 2,000 portraits altogether in Appalachia.
Convincing folks they "have a story" or at least that memories of their experience could become one, often stood as a challenge. Others had the opposite “problem,” having such a long, variegated and interesting sense of their lives that they became overwhelmed considering which of their many stories they might take the time to scribe. Often the bottom-liners would engage participants in conversation, usually during drawing sessions, until a winning or compelling anecdote became apparent. Often participants sought to know what others had written, eagerly reading through stacks of originals, generally realizing the impossibility of a quick omprehensive sense. Many, still unsure of “their story,” opted to mull on it until the next visit.
As the artist increasingly had to deal with the finite reality of his labor capacity, (his bouts of tendon strain and wrist weakness, which threatened carpal tunnel kept returning) he also had to place a higher premium on his labor in drawing in relation to participant's effort in writing. Finding it produced a higher yield of “archived protagonism,” the bottom-liners increasingly encouraged the The Portrait-Story protagonists to do rough drafts before the drawing sessions began, as a demoralizing number of would-be Portrait-Stories remained unfulfilled as mere portraits, as so many individuals had their own extenuating circumstances. Later still the phenomena bottom-liners starting favoring to go where folks composed autobiography for the occasion before they arrived. Sometimes a very enthusiastic member of a community would make it their task to spread The Portrait-Story concept beforehand, instigating neighbors figure out their narratives. In regard to the growing scope of the series, revisiting every place, to attempt retrieval of every drawing they could recall, became steadily more impractical. Reluctantly, the bottom-liners began offering a mailing address, a formality they had earlier avoided in favor of finished stories always being handed directly from one person within the phenomena to another. Given this choice, many enjoyed the longer opportunity to deliberate their narrations.
Yet many of the portraits never returned as Portrait-Stories within larger series where they become synergistically more powerful. Over a thousand unwritten on would-be "Voices for Appalachia" originals float or languish out there in the world, hopefully still intact, in the hands of over a thousand drawn. You know who you are. For some of you, it's been over a year since your immortalization. If so in your case, write your Appalachian story on your portrait and mail it to:
Attn: Voices for Appalachia c/o: United Mountain Defense P.O. Box 20363\Knoxville, Tennessee 37920
... or the series will move on without you.
As it stands now we are very proud to be able to present this body of over 500 Appalachian Portrait-Story originals. If you have adequate interior wall space within Appalachia to exhibit the bulk of this original art and handwriting at approximately eye level, and desire this precious, unique collection for your public event, then contact United Mountain Defense:
Please take proper advantage of this voluminous living history of outreach and education about the movement for Appalachian sustainability and “life after Coal.” While Portrait-Story originals themselves are never for sale, you may either display Voices for Appalachia originals for public viewing at no charge or for public viewing as fundraiser for groups which The Portrait-Story Project has partnered with, in order to support direct action defending the Appalachians or moving towards build sustainable, ecologically sound, local economies for Appalachian communities.
We also continue to hope that a coalition of not-for-profit, non-authoritarian, non-electoral, grassroots organizations, for and of Appalachia, which The Portrait-Story Project has partnered with, will someday self-publish this series as a fine art book.
END MOUNTAIN RANGE REMOVAL!
You see exhibted here a merely recent collection of telings of a generations-long saga. Welcome to the story of a land linked, yet unbelievable, to the lives of hundreds of millions who live all around and apparently not too far beyond its foothills.
Within the borders of an overdeveloped and under-ethicized nation-state, a chaotic tyranny lays it vicious claim of extraction and ruin, escalating its ambitions, which have inflicted voluminously documented and yet seemingly untold loss and abuse. A tiny and insulated elite, commanding engines of surreal scale, desecrates the most biologically diverse ecosystems of North America, its "mother forest" from Paleolithic times, down through their very Paleozoic bedrocks, wreaking the purest nihilism the earth has ever faced. A land quite rural, yet mechanized and subordinated to a "progress" it overwhelmingly has never reapt, has bled the psychologically and geologically incommensurable for decades virtually unnoticed, until very recently, by the outside world for the majority of its disporportionate burden.
This, in Tim Butler’s words in Plundering Appalachia, (Earth Aware Editions, 2009 earthawareeditions.com) “. . . may be the ultimate manifestation of modern industrial people’s ideology of conquest. It symbolizes a toxic culture, a culture so thoroughly divorced from humanity’s roots in wild nature that it views the living Earth merely as a smorgasbord . . . Blowing up mountains and burying streams in pursuit of coal is a practice that could only be conceived by people who have forgotten – or rejected – our species’ kinship with all life.”
Thousands of tons of munitions blast some of the earth’s oldest mountains beyond the plausibility “reclamation” advertised by corporate mad-bomber terrorists. A pathetically imaginationless and short-sighted“boom & bust” paradigm irrevocably liquidates the firmament of thousands of square miles into dust and rubble, eliminating the chance of any life or livelihood worth speaking of.
As coalfield resident Tanya Turner said in the summer of 2009 heat wave of mountain defending actions, "This is an Appalachian apocalypse. We must end (mountain range) removal now."
And when considering global anthropogenic climate destabilization, where all non-renewable fossil fuel industries stand culprit, no one remains an outsider and virtually everyone carries some responsibility.
In our age complicity means ecocide. Passivism around big business-as-usual surrenders our species and forfeits our future. A 19th century robber-baron frontier mentality, 20th century consumer mentality and 21st century brute efficiency of political corporatism (call it “King Coal”) brings this nightmare of waste chains wreaking greater havoc than production chains bring security and a tenable standard of living. Picturesque summits become “overburden” and “valley fills.” The hydrology, fossil record and sequestered carbon of mountains become wastelands of accelerated erosion. Coal slurry injections into people’s water tables and recent artificial disaster-spills of coal slurry and coal combustion waste, on a scale of billions of poisonous gallons, into the tributaries of major rivers, which serve as the drinking supplies of entire cities hundreds of miles away, have re-enforced the notion that eventually “we all live .”
Erik Reece, of the University of Kentucky, in Lost Mountain, A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness, Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia (2006) writes, "Back in the [1950's] and '60's, most companies would have augered the periphery of those [coal] seams and been done with it. But modern explosives, larger equiment and a rapacious public that uses 70 percent more electricity than it did twenty years ago mean that the entire mountaintop must go."
Disbelief, shock, denial or approval surfaces from within and without the region, amongsth the patriotic, naive, apathetic and myopic, the ecocidal and complicit. Recent coal disasters of slurry and coal waste, on a scale of billions of poisonous gallons, into the tributaries of major rivers, which serve as the drinking supplies of entire cities hundreds of miles away, have re-enforced the notion that eventually "we all live downstream." For the day-to-day details of this non-monetary cost of coal,
As Knoxville native Chris Irwin put it, “My grandmother once told me that the rest of the country viewed Appalachia as America’s ‘Fourth World.’ . . . (explaining) that practices (unacceptable) for a Third World country are somehow considered acceptable in Appalachia . . .” - Tennessee Mountain Defender, 4th edition, (2008)
“This is the enduring paradox of Appalachia," Chad Montrie clarifies in the professionally dispassionate, historical text, to save the land and people, (2003) "that the inhabitants of a land so rich in natural resources could be so poor . . . Appalachia is marked by poverty not for a lack of modernization or because of inhibiting cultural traits, but as a consequence of a particular type of modernization . . . Because so much of the timber, minerals and land had been bought up by northern speculators and many of the companies from outside of the region, the great wealth of the land flowed out from the highlands never to return.”
“It’s like we’re selling our children’s feet to buy shoes,” Julia Bonds, coal miner’s daughter and granddaughter once told a visitor, “ . . . It’s from cradle to grave. The cradle is the mine, from which the coal comes forth in corruption and evil and sorrow and death. The grave is when they dispose of the waste.” Bonds once related, “. . . We live in a war zone . . . I don’t mind being poor. I mind being blasted and poisoned.” Revealing, coming from and confronting this existence, several hundred of these Appalachian Portrait-Stories distill the most pertinent themes of purpose and sanctity, joy and trial in the hollows, coalfields, watersheds and nearby towns. Augmented by a specialized form of art, these narrations, as a travelling show of originals, have sprung from those concerned and familiar to the beauties and pains of the “energy colonies” and “national sacrifice zone.” Both delineations, the former one of obvious critique, the latter of intensively bleak status quo propaganda, nakedly bespeak the source of the area’s fate remaining external to it, dubiously laying an unfathomable and amoral parasitism upon it.
As we find ourselves in an unprecedentedly huge and deep energy crisis with no clear end in sight, an imploration from Warren Wright of the Council of Southern Mountains in 1971, rings with particular relevance, “It is now imperative that we be heard in defense of our land and we should be more encouraged in knowing that incidental to our striving, we are striving against the national disease of technological pretense and technology’s demand for worship.”
As Big Lick native Mike Sathers monologued in Voices from the Mountains, (1975) “There is much in traditional mountain culture worth cultivating and emulating. Mountain People have valued simple adequacy rather than super-abundance, over-consumption and waste . . . friendship and neighborliness above influence and power . . . to adapt rather than manipulate.
I used to think that what was needed was to bring mountain people into the ‘economic mainstream.’ . . . to do this and still preserve some of the positive, humanizing qualities of mountain cultures. I no longer think that this is either possible or desirable.
Our challenge is . . . to re-create a renewed and authentic form of what the mountains have always been. From the time that the first (European-American) settlers deliberately cut ties with the coastal culture of colonial America to start a new life in the wilderness, (these) mountains have offered an alternative to mainstream America . . .”
As Jason Ringenberg essays in This Train Passes Through But Doesn’t Stop, published in the collection subtitled America’s First and Last Frontier, (2004) “. . . When pioneers began crossing Appalachian Mountains in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of the hardy folk . . . saw no need to join the feeding frenzy across the Mississippi. Their fathers and mothers were buried in those hills; how could one leave that? When the Civil War began, many of them resisted both Confederate and Union attempts to impose agendas on their valleys and hills. When New Dealers arrived in the 1930’s and 1940’s, some ended up on the bottom of rivers and caves. Even today, that independence still lives in the hearts of those who disdain the tackiness, commerciality and upward mobility of the‘New South.’”
As Laurel Shackelford and Bill Weinburg introduce Our Appalachia, (1977) “The Mountain people talk about a way of life not walled in by state or county lines . . . There is no ‘typical mountaineer.’ The region has been plagued by overnight experts, who, in the words of one mountain person,‘pop in, pop off, pop out.’ Such writers have often concentrated on sociological pieces about the Appalachian people. Over the years bad sociology becomes bad history . . . Exploitation in the mountains has occurred through publication as well as the more common means of controlling resources from afar.”
Harry Caudhill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands,(1961) My Land is Dying, (1971) and the Watches of the Night, (1976) like many natives, know that the deep trap of unconscionable poverty imposed via The Mad Reign of King Coal's audacious dispossession politics has forever greatly complicated their landscape. Vigilance over legacy, provincially, or in Larry Gibson of Kayford Mountain’s words “within your circle of concern,” has then arisen as an ongoing strategic necessity amongst contemporary goals of Appalachian self-realization.
We, the Portrait-Story Project bottom-liners, became aware in our travels, while graciously hosted in so many of the homes of those drawn in this series, of our work being within the grand momentum of the 21st century Appalachian literary revival. Blessed in absorbing and running in tandem with this creative phoenix, we observed its contributors generating fresh and culturally competent understanding, depiction and uplifting of a roughed and proud milieu.
Enter peoples that have borne a cornucopia of intellectual analysis and political controversy for a century and a half since the “War Against the States” or “The War of Northern Aggression” laid so much waste upon populations who have sustained the arrogant excesses and negligence of outsiders in one form or another ever since. Traditions here have roots tapping centuries deeper, strained and tenacious, crucial, informative and respected at last. Erik Reece succinctly concludes “The literature of Appalachia is a literature of place.”
These Portrait-Story entries appear here conspicuously alive and developing for us at the moment of display, rather than merely remembered. In other words, although such public memoirs and contemporary lore will stand as the raw stuff of one of our own versions of living history, many of us Portrait-Story subjects, have also made it to exist as our journal, even a forum or an organizing tool, for grappling with our dilemmas in our geography.
Incisive artist critic Robert Hughes once wrote in reference to the 1980’s SoHo scene, “What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture.” Steering clear the pitfalls of vulgar extraction, this archival craft emerges as intellectual commonwealth in the worlds of fine and folk art, without a commercial incentive. With greater intuitiveness in production and spectatorship than digital media, through the grace of so many participants, a landscape of personhoods solidifies for visual prosperity. A people of, and more broadly, for a land, bestows upon us the weight of a multiplicity of perspectives, indisposable shards in the longer story of this mountainfolk and their allies.
These are indeed, voices for Appalachia.
As we try to address our own needs towards diversified local economies conducive to ecological care, empowerment and dignity, steep and met with tremendous inertia as this path may be, may we say as the namesake of an old time and bluegrass band once toasted in defense of our mountains,
Many thanks to the dozens of households and groups who invited us into their communities or otherwise embodied and made broad this art-media-social phenomenon, many could not be publically thanked, but amongst them are: