The Ruins Project: Finding Common Ground

The Ruins Project, Perryopolis, PA

Indra’s Net is a Mahayana Buddhist metaphor used to describe the interconnectedness of the universe. This metaphorical net hangs over all of space and time. Where each net strand intersects, there is a multifaceted jewel, and each jewel reflects every other jewel in the net. When you bump into one thing, everything is affected.

For the last four months, I’ve found myself parked at a jewel called mosaic. As I turn the jewel and pull on the strands connected to it—mosaic as metaphor, medium, material, lineage—I end up running into…everything.

How did I get into mosaics? Do I begin with: I was born in New Jersey in 1975? Or: Ms. Crosthwaite’s high school arts and crafts class? Or: The internet? The truth is more like: Mosaic found me, and it won’t let me go. Maybe it’s a past-life thing. I’ve seen ancient mosaics of slaves cutting stone into tiny tesserae with hammer and hardie and thought: Maybe I’ve done this before…

I also don’t know exactly how I first learned of mosaicist Rachel Sager, but I have been staring at and studying and marveling over her work via Instagram and downloaded photos from her website ever since. Unable to attend her unique four-day mosaic workshop, The Ruins Project, I decided to take a mini-road trip with my partner to Perryopolis, PA, for a tour of The Ruins with Sager herself.

We arrived late Friday morning on an unseasonably warm and stunning late-October day. Sunlight filtered through fall foliage, the Youghiogheny River flowed past Sager’s studio, along with occasional cyclists on the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail. Charlotte the impeccably taxidermied bear and an American flag highlighted her studio’s porch. Inside, her sister Molly worked behind the shop desk, radiating warmth and hospitality.

Sager took my partner and I across the road to The Ruins Project entrance. The “Ruins” referred to here are the remnants of the Banning №2 coal mine. Sager purchased the property a few years ago, with the beautiful brick former mine office as her house. The ruins across the road came with it. Sager says she was dimly aware of the decaying facades when she purchased the property, but it was wintertime, with lots of snow, and so she didn’t know exactly what was there until the season turned. She quickly saw the potential of the mine ruins as a near inexhaustible exterior substrate for mosaic artwork.

Visiting The Ruins Project was like going to an outdoor museum where all of my favorite artists’ work is on permanent display. Looking at the walls, I could spot the segmented picassiette circles and crockery-rim andamento of Kelley Knickerbocker, the tight-set tesserae and unmistakable color progressions of Anabella Wewer, the natural precision (and playfulness!) of Julie Sperling, the tinted-thinset dots of Erin Pankratz, the large-scale visions of Deb Englebaugh. My partner took photos while I struggled to bring my senses under control enough to listen to Sager talk about the work.

The Ruins Project is a testament to Sager’s vision — her deep trust, faith and conviction that “they will come.” And they have. For the past two years, well-known and established mosaic artists have installed work at The Ruins alongside rank beginners, and the effect is gorgeous, moving. Works so subtle you might miss them — Karen Dimit’s vine creeping up a threshold, Lynn Donihe’s red dog flowers. Bonnie Kinnaird’s little install behind a rusty padlock slayed me. I would have missed Rona Pietrzak’s ladder-high install without Sager’s pointing-out; it looked like it had been there for eons.

Mosaic installation by Rona Pietrzak

As more artists install their pieces, dialogues are developing, pieces speak to each other and to the Ruins themselves — graffiti and markings and mosses and molds, crumbling brick and mortar and concrete and rebar, grapevines and trees and the earth itself, embedded with coal and red dog, littered with leaves, the Youghiogheny within earshot. All of these elements combine, sparking conversations spoken in sandstone and smalti, shale and slate, set into mortar.

A symbol for alchemy — a center triangle by Helen Miles worked around by Sager and Julie Sperling in gold smalti and red dog — occupies a place on the Ruins wall, visible also from a distance through a square aperture, like looking through a spyglass aligned on a special, secret message. The Ruins Project is real-life alchemy. I also saw The Ruins as a phoenix, creative energy rising up out of dissolution. What struck me most about The Ruins, however, was the immutable law of impermanence running in both directions — inexorable disintegration alongside creative evolution in the language of mosaic. Time’s arrow shooting into the past and the future from the ground of the present.

Our Ruins tour included lunch with Sager on the porch of her studio. She’s an excellent cook. White bean stew with sausage, a crisp fresh salad with tomatillos from her mother’s garden, a neighbor’s homemade applesauce. We got to throw leftover buttermilk biscuits to her flock of gorgeous chickens. There is nothing more comical in this world, I think, than the sight of a chicken running at full speed. A couple cyclists from California stopped in to browse and shop. Sager and her sister were superlative hosts.

After lunch, I had time to wander through Sager’s studio, which is like candy for the senses — an old curiosity shop filled with jars of smalti in every color, hammers and hardies and works in progress. Among her works for sale hanging throughout the studio are pieces I had stared at and read about on her website, and now here they were, in all their three-dimensional glory.

Rachel Sager Mosaics studio. Works: “Political Statement” (2016), left and “Printlandia” (2012), right.

Shiny glass tesserae set at angles glinted in the light. Hand-cut sandstone and shale and unique-to-western-Pennsylvania-coal-country red dog revealed craggy and undulating landscapes in miniature. Mosaic artwork is meant to be seen with the naked eye, unmediated by flattening LCD screens. It was like the moment in the Wizard of Oz when black-and-white becomes color. These works were suddenly, thrillingly alive.

I gazed in wonder at “Printlandia,” a 19 x 24” work made entirely out of the hammered bits of Sager’s malfunctioning Epson printer: plastic, circuit board, wires, buttons. It’s not a novelty, or a gimmick. It is beautiful. It is a dreamscape — undulating coastline and subtle color progressions forming a map of a fictional landscape made out of something very real. Turning a plastic printer into a transcendent artwork? Yes: alchemy.

While her larger pieces are priced for those who can afford artwork that has taken months to create, her shop is also full of artwork made in her own hand priced for everybody. A little 4 x 4” green smalti color study with a clay piece hand-stamped TIME was waiting in an inconspicuous corner of the shop for me. “She bought ‘Time,’” Molly told Rachel as she returned to the studio. We laughed at how that sounded. Time — our most precious resource, a useful fiction, the thing we’re all running out of.

“Time” (2017), 4 x 4"

I was hoping to catch a glimpse of some works from Sager’s Marcellus Series, but aside from a piece titled “Utica,” none were left in her shop. The series is a collection of stunning works depicting the stratigraphy of the earth in Western Pennsylvania and the pipes that burrow through it to extract natural gas from the 8,000-foot-deep Marcellus Shale. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has become a polarizing issue. Polarization, by definition, takes something complex and complicated and flattens it into: Which side are you on?

“Mighty Marcellus #4” (2013), 36 x 13"; image courtesy of

I find the artwork in Sager’s Marcellus series mesmerizingly beautiful. In interviews I’ve read with her, and in writings on her own website about the series, she does not come out and say what “side” of the issue she is on. I have shown friends images of artworks from the series. One said: “She’s making it look so sanitized and innocent.” Another: “You can tell where she stands on the issue. She gets it,” meaning: she’s obviously against fracking.

13-Century Japanese Zen Master Eihei Dogen wrote in his “Mountains and Rivers Sutra”:

Thus, what different types of beings see is different; and we should reflect on this fact. Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object? Or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object? We should concentrate every effort on understanding this question, and then concentrate still more.

What does Sager think about fracking? What side is she on? Look! These works depict the layers of sandstone, limestone, the aquifers, all the way down to the Marcellus shale. The layers of earth in the mosaic are made out of that very earth itself. The cutaway copper pipe running through the layers glints with Italian gold smalti. Her works in the Marcellus series point directly and intimately to something far richer and more complex than a “side,” larger than an opinion or a position. Instead of saying This is what I think, her artwork says: This is what I see. And it asks: What do you see? What is your experience?

Artistic “language” makes it possible to express something out of deeply asked questions, out of not-knowing, out of wonder. Out of the things that obsess us, that linger as we drift off at night and that rush in when we wake up each day. When we practice art-making out of our deepest questions, what we express has the potential to communicate directly to those who experience it, touching something deeper than “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” Something closer to: What is this? or Who am I? When we ask a question, it becomes possible to see something we haven’t seen before.

I’m not suggesting that social issues require nothing more than art-making and deeply-asked questions. The world is burning. We need to act every day to actualize our aspirations and values for the world we want to live in. Every action we take, no matter how large or small, is, in fact, creating the world we live in, whether we’re aware of it or not. But I have come to appreciate the space that art-practice and creative expression has given me to slow down, look more closely, ask more deeply, about things I think I “know” about.

Because the world is on fire, exploring through creative expression can feel like a luxury. Slowing down can feel like an abdication. But it is dawning on me at a deeply personal level that the way forward will not come out of trying to reconcile two sides of a balance sheet, of convincing others that my “side” is the right one, of gathering everyone who agrees with me on one side, and putting everyone else on the other.

Harmony, justice, peace —I have to live these values every day if I want to see them actualized in the world. Which means I have to cultivate them inside myself, in my relationships, and in how I look and how I see. Which means I have to notice when I’m not doing that, and I have to want to find another way. To call this a challenge is an understatement. This is the work of my life. And if it’s challenging to realize it in my own body and mind, how much more so between me and another person? Between groups, communities? Between nations?

It may sound silly, or naive, but fitting irregularly shaped pieces of rock and glass together to create a harmonious whole—does that happen in isolation from everything else? Does anything happen in isolation from anything else? Touch one strand, and the whole net shivers.

That Friday evening following our tour, around a fire pit within sight of The Ruins Project, my partner and I sat with Sager and a close circle of her intimates, and I listened to people with views different from mine talk about the issues of the day. I understood how much of my life is spent in nearly exclusive contact with people who think like me, agree with me, on the big political, social and cultural issues. In such an environment, it’s easy to feel right, and righteous.

With tree branches veining the starry October sky above, gold smalti glinting in the firelight reflected on the distant threshold of a Ruins Project wall, I searched my mind for the things all of us had in common. They weren’t hard to find—a desire for happiness, the safety and health of our families and loved ones, a sliver of stability in an insecure world, a sense of purpose, a love of beauty, a desire to help others and be useful in our corner of the world.

Is there a place where we can meet, beyond our opinions, beyond our “sides?” I live in a monastery where new people arrive every week to learn about Buddhist practice. As a monastic, I welcome them into my home, hopefully making them feel at home. I share who I am, and am interested in who they are. This is what I try, and vow, to do. Others do this, too. I was deeply moved to be invited into Sager’s literal circle, to sit among people willing to be their authentic selves with relative strangers, people with questions and views, desires and fears, just like me. I wonder if it’s the sacred art of hospitality that might save us all.

For more: Sager herself has written about The Ruins Project, and Laura Paull, who attended a Ruins Project workshop, has written a beautiful piece about her experience, about Sager’s work, as well as the history of the mine and the economic and environmental issues taking center stage in Fayette County. Sager also maintains a wonderful blog, about mosaics and other things. For The Ruins Project in pictures: #theruinsproject.

Shea Ikusei Settimi is a Zen Buddhist monastic and nascent mosaicist living in the Catskills of New York. @zuikoikusei on Instagram

Unless otherwise noted, photos are by Jeffrey Onjin Plant.