What We Leave Behind
Building on the ruins of a coal mine, a mosaic artist quietly documents what is happening in Pennsylvania’s fracking country
On the crumbling wall of a former coal mine operation half-hidden in the woods just beyond her house, mosaicist Rachel Sager left a signature message: I walk the line. What can this mean? Is it just a technical wink-wink to others working in the mosaic medium? Or is there a stronger implication for this country daughter in the self-aware lyrics of a Johnny Cash song?
Sager is a mosaic artist born, raised, and rooted in southwestern Pennsylvania, a place steeped in critical conflicts over the uses of the land — and a swing state in the 2016 election.
“So many of us here come from coal,” she has written of Fayette County residents. “Our fathers, uncles, brothers, and grandfathers mined coal and left behind legacies of loyalty to an industry that was terribly hard on a family unit.”
After many years of economic depression following the closing of the coal mines and decline of American steel in the ’70s, the rainbow of fracking has residents looking up. A not-unrelated result is that, since 1996, growing numbers of voters in this traditionally blue state are voting Republican.
A year ago, after earning a college degree, discovering and studying mosaics in Italy, and experiencing New York and Pittsburgh, Rachel Sager came home. She bought an old brick building in Whitsett on ten forested acres that used to belong to a coal mining operation named Banning №2 and settled in to do her true work, in peace with the land and her neighbors.
I went to Pennsylvania because, as someone who also makes mosaics, I admire Rachel Sager’s art. I wanted to “walk her lines” — to get inside the making of them. But above all I saw her wrestling with the question of what to make — not how to make it, which she has mastered — but the what of creation. Anyone can make something pretty. Sager is seeking that deeper thing: an art of personal meaning.
“I believe in the Power of Place and its ability to shape a person,” her artist statement declares. “My roots are in Appalachia and my hometown is Pittsburgh. These special places have stamped their mark on me …through my art, I enthusiastically shout from the rooftops, ‘Look at this imperfectly beautiful corner of the world!’ ”
Her subject matter is often geographical and her choice to forage for materials on her land is a constraint that supports that quest and drives her focus on the line; it is also practical, as mosaic materials can be expensive. Although what inspires us will always differ, I wanted to witness a contemporary artist tapping creative sources so fundamentally connected to her identity.
In the weeks preceding this nerve-wracking 2016 election, I also wanted to get out of my own West Coast corner and see what it felt like in Sager’s electorally important state. As a journalist, crucial questions nudged me to go: how were people there feeling about the critical choices to be made regarding our society’s ultimate values, and who would they choose to provide the leadership? The concept of ‘choice’ turned out to hold multiple meanings in Whitsett, PA.
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Since the development of unconventional methods to extract natural gas from shale, Sager notes, living in Southwestern Pennsylvania “has been a bit like finding oneself onstage. Our small corner of the world has become a lightning rod for environmentalists and a literal gold mine for the gas industry and landowners.”
The furor over fracking has required that she walk the line between polarizing positions on environmental alarm and local economic need. People she’s known since childhood are delighted to see her thriving in her split log studio along the Allegheny Bike Passage, making art out of the very stones in the fields and nearby Youghiogheny River. Sandstone as porous as brown toast; mushroom-colored limestone; chunks of ‘red dog’ — the residue of burned coal dumps — and yes, flaky black shale. These are not sexy stones, and the locals know of no one but Rachel who has ever made them into something beautiful.
Yet these same people who support her artistic goals may also have an interest in the business of plunging pipes some 8,000 feet into the vast Marcellus shale formation beneath their feet. Which activity may, or may not — depending on whom you talk to — contaminate the groundwater, release methane into the air, expose residents and workers to toxic chemicals, subject the region to the danger of gas blowouts, and potentially cause earthquakes. But how do you weigh that [threat] against a lucrative job or the unimaginable windfall of a signing a lease for a gas well on your property, which allows you to leave a legacy to your grandchildren when a lifetime of work has not?
“I will say that I don’t necessarily agree with all the criticism of fracking,” she allows. “But I try not to discuss politics.”
In an aesthetic sense, lines are also intrinsic to Rachel Sager’s art. As a mosaic artist, she makes her statement one small stone at a time, forming visual landscapes out of diverse strands of tesserae.
“I believe, [that] in my medium, it matters more than color, texture, or composition. The line is supreme,” she has written in a brilliant blog titled, “Can the Line Make You a Better Person?’ Yes, she contends; yes, it can.
“When I look for that next square of stone… I am sure of my choice. And then I am sure of my next choice. I put the best of myself into my lines every day. My glaring imperfections in life contrast to the little bits of perfection that I can build onto the substrate.”
Sager’s muted compositions of local stone, selectively enhanced with bits of colored glass, animal bone, or scrap metal, have a disciplined and recognizable signature, even as she continues to innovate. Her imaginary maps draw delight at mosaic exhibitions. Her work is collected by private clients and corporations; the actress Ashley Judd owns a stunning Sager piece called “Allegory of Free Will,” in which a deer’s antlers set the trajectory of her lines.
But her mosaic explorations of the Marcellus shale formation are the pieces that most clearly reflect the tensions informing her work. In this series, we see a conscious cutting and layering of the varieties of local stone. Vertical lines of copper tubing represent the pipelines that travel down through many layers of geological formations before turning horizontally to reach the shale. In the fracking process, high-powered streams of chemically-infused water are blasted through these pipes to force the shale to release its pockets of gas. In these mosaic representations, however, what we see is her fascination, deep respect, and possibly reverence for, the aspects of the land that most of us never see.
“These pieces have become my way of understanding and expressing the drama that is unfolding. By creating these cut-away images of the layers of earth out of the earth itself, I invite the viewer to glean a more accessible image of What Lies Beneath Our Feet,” her portfolio states.
A few Marcellus pieces have been purchased, she tells us, by people in the fossil fuel industry; one can imagine how pleased a gas company executive would be to find beautiful art that relates to the world he or she knows without seeming to judge it. And judge she does not. But these mosaic works will stand as a physical document of what we are doing here in our time and place, as surely as any hieroglyphic record of the building of the pyramids. They may well become known as her magnum opus. But what drew me to Pennsylvania were really “The Ruins.”
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As the snow melted in the first spring after she bought the property, Sager discovered in her acreage the built remains of Banning №2. The coal mine and processing plant had employed 659 miners at its height in 1910 and produced 535,484 tons of coal — more than any of the other 18 coal mines located in the Youghiogheny River Valley. The Pennsylvania Mining Company ceased operations in 1946 after a slate fall killed three of its miners. There, a few hundred feet from her house, green and yellow lichens had claimed a maze of roofless concrete walls. Wild vines draped the rusted beams; foliage softened the crumbling brick facades. A sizable tree had already grown and died in the center of what might have been the forge. It was history hidden in the forest.
Exploring the traces of past activity that she came to call “my ruins,” Sager felt the stirrings of a direction for her future work. “Have I been presented with a place that will challenge me as an artist and possibly ask more of me than I have yet to be asked?” she blogged.
She began to see these evocative walls as a gift, better than a blank canvas (or ‘substrate, in the parlance of mosaics). These walls had character: cracks, angles, niches, discolorations, with embedded relics of industry, like steampunk caverns. “Wabi-sabi in all of its glory,” she described it, referencing the Japanese aesthetic of transience and imperfection. In her vision, these walls begged for lines, lines that would crawl intimately across the body of time. Would other artists join her, she wondered, in her quest to know these walls, to connect the past to the present, to leave new traces? This was the genesis of The Ruins Project. The mosaics made on these crumbling walls would stay here, subject to the continued flow of time. It was like a fast forward to antiquity.
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“When you work on a line, you are making decisions with each piece you lay…whether to set a square, a keystone shape, a sliver, a rectangle, a circle, or a triangle,” Sager explained to the four of us who traveled from different states for a five-day workshop at the Ruins Project in late September. “You make a choice, and then another. At every moment you are making decisions.”
We would be among the first 20 to have contributed our time and artistry. She would teach us how to make a line that came from some intrinsic direction within each of us in response to anything we found amid the ruins. Lines, she had written in her blog, are “pathways of expression.”
“You need to think about what you want to leave behind,” she said.
I found myself thinking about “pathways of expression” every time I drove the three miles to and from my roadside motel in Perryopolis, the closest town to Sager’s studio. For if a line of stones could so define an individual artist, what did the decisions that determined the look of a two-lane highway express about the culture that allowed it? Was it not anthropological evidence of a culture’s choice?
Perryopolis is a borough in Fayette County where George Washington once owned a large estate and mill; it was an agricultural area until coal mining took over as the primary economic activity from the mid-1800s through the 1950s. Perryopolis was inhabited mainly by mining foremen and white collar workers. According to the 2015 census, it has a shrinking population of 133,628 that is 92.9% white, and the median income for a household is $38,879, with about 20% living in poverty.
What struck me, as I drove Route 51 between Perryopolis and the studio every morning and evening, was the absolute dominance of the automobile and its corollary businesses. Car dealers, used car lots, car repair shops, tire shops, body shops, car dealer auction lots, auto glass shops, truck stops and gas stations doubling as grocery stores, lined the highway like teeth on a crocodile. For an area with such a low-density population, it seemed disproportionate: an uncontested surrender to what our fossil fuel-dependent culture has wrought. We know most Americans consider the car a necessity. (There were people living poor in my motel who had cars.) But this rural highway to Pittsburgh offered nothing beautiful at all, unless you counted the welcome remainder of forests and fields. It was the human imprint that was lacking. Choices were made, back when few questioned how fossil fuel-based industrialization would shape our world. And this was what it looked like, at century marker 2016. As I drove along, I looked for any of the 279 gas fracking wells operating in Fayette County, but I did not see them. They were off-road, deep in the folds of hilly Pennsylvania.
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In Sager’s experience “your lines become an extension of your soul.” By Day Two, each of us had identified our place in the ruins and been visited by an idea. Mine was a distant echo of the Lascaux Caves, where our Paleolithic ancestors had sprayed pigment around their outstretched hands and painted the outlines of wild animals with expressive fidelity. It came to me not only because of the cavelike quality of the ruins but for what the cave-paintings of Lascaux tell us about the human instinct to say we were here, to leave a stamp on our time on earth.
“What are some of the native animals around here?” I asked Sager. White-tailed deer were a favorite, she replied. On a walk down to the river, I found a flat, variegated stone with pinto-pony patches of black, red, and cream — perfect for the hide of a deer. By an overhang near the entrance to the mine, I began to butter the wall with thinset and lay in the stones. Sager showed me how to smooth the thinset where the wall met the tesserae so that the rain would run over and off the mosaic instead of digging underneath it. Water, she explained, was the most powerful force on earth.
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As it happened, the week of our workshop coincided with a big fossil fuels conference in Pittsburgh called Shale Insights 2016. More than a thousand attendees from the coal, oil, and gas industries; state and federal government; and a sprinkling of academics, spent a day and a half listening to speeches on “Creating Market Demand”, “Pipelines to Prosperity”, “Mergers and Acquisitions” and — how’s this one — “Permitting Interstate Pipelines in the Face of Significant, Organized Public Interest.”
Donald Trump flew in to give the closing address; Hillary Clinton had declined an invitation. Trump knew he was in friendly company and went after even more love by promising that as US president he would streamline the permitting process for drilling and welcome the construction of more pipelines.
“All of the workers that are being put to work, they are going to love Donald Trump,” he said, as reported by Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Tom Fontaine.
According to Fontaine, Trump said that as president he would “dramatically reduce regulations that he described as burdensome on the industry.” He asserted that this would happen quickly — “You’ll be amazed how quickly” — a standard Trump campaign promise.
“They tell me a Republican can’t carry the state of Pennsylvania,” Trump said, according to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Chris Potter. “Wait until you see what happens here. We’re going to bring back our steel jobs, and we’re going to rebuild this nation.”
In advance of Trump’s speech, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report documenting the impact the expansion of the oil and gas industry has had on Pennsylvania’s economy, pumping $4.5 billion into into the state’s GNP last year, generating $2.3 billion in additional wages, and 27,500 jobs tied directly to the industry.
“The energy renaissance in this country would not have happened without Marcellus and Utica shale, and Pennsylvania sits atop the lion’s share of those resources,” said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, according to Fontaine.
Outside the conference center, hundreds of state Democrats, union members, and Pennsylvanians opposed to fracking, protested Trump’s message. They were outnumbered five to one.
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We worked obsessively from 9 to 5, bent over our log-stump cutting tables, the ‘chink’ of steel hammers against rock providing percussion to the birdsong and trill of late summer cicadas. While the others worked in the studio, I labored alone in the ruins, with plenty of time to think. Bathed in the green shadows of deciduous forest, The Last of the Mohicans came to mind, with its haunting prophecy of Native American extinction. A few years ago, I had spent Thanksgiving on Alcatraz Island as the guest of a friend and learned about the Seventh Generation principle at the heart of Native American beliefs. It holds that every decision, be it personal, governmental or corporate, should be made with consideration for how it will affect our descendants seven generations into the future. To live that wisdom requires us to project some 175 years forward the consequences of any action. In accordance with this principle, Native Americans have taken the lead in opposing oil and gas pipelines and the practice of fracking. The goals of American industry, however, are set in a much shorter time frame. And as the great Delaware sage, Tamenund, acknowledges in The Last of the Mohicans, “The pale-faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red-men has not yet come again.”
Understanding the time crunch and physical demands of our work, Sager made sure we were well fed. One day she cooked; the next day her mother brought lunch. On another, her aunt and uncle delivered a linen-covered basket. A friend dropped off his famous roast chicken with potatoes and “chicken mushrooms” that he’d foraged in the woods. He was a Vietnam veteran; after the army, he’d worked for over a decade laying residential gas lines. He was always stopping by with something that helped Rachel: fresh compost for her garden or an interesting rock he’d found. His chicken mushrooms had an indifferent taste that he compared correctly to tofu, but they were still a gift of the forest, and he was happy to make the dish for us. We felt incredibly supported.
On the last night, our stay is capped off with a campfire dinner under the stars, featuring trout from the river, courtesy of a local fisherman. Rachel says she will make something for him — a small mosaic — in payment. Sager’s mother makes a hen-of-the-woods mushroom stuffing for the fish, and we bring wine. I chat with Sager’s uncle, who tells me he’s never lived more than eight miles from his birthplace in this corner of the state. Later, I sit by the fire with her father, who today makes a living as an “earth mover,” utilizing the family farm’s deposits of premium clay. Clay has new value in the building of holding pits for the runoff water from fracking operations. No one mentions the elections. The conversation turns instead to the new memorial and visitor center for Flight 93, the airline that went down on 9–11 in a field near Shanksville, not far away. Apparently, the people who owned the field were not compensated for the takeover by the National Parks Service, but they are too patriotic, or too decent, to make a fuss. Or so we hear. I’ve not been able to verify.
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As Sager told us the day we arrived, the beauty of The Ruins Project is that it connects us to history while allowing us to bring something of ourselves to the place: a response, a new use. It was a site of labor, where humanity interacted with nature in a particular way. Now you can make a different contribution, she said: “One man’s junk is another woman’s masterpiece!”
Is it the ‘job’ of the 21st-century artist to make beauty out of the ugly remains of corporate industry, I wondered. What about ‘meaning’? Certainly, her artistry makes us see elements around us that we’d otherwise ignore: the ingenuity of our manufactured metals, and the earth itself — the rock of our existence.
But there are people for whom employment is all the meaning they’re going to seek in industry, and who find their paychecks ‘beautiful.’ They accept the artifacts of mining and extraction, manufacture and construction. They buy their cars and tolerate the earth-scarring impact of these short-term human decisions. One life is short.
In every time and place, artists ‘walk the line’: between concurrent needs for solitude and for relationship; between originality and currency; between political engagement and independence. Despite this tension, Sager has found a way to be true to her self in the daily formation of her mosaic lines. One stone in front of another.
“The images that I construct spring from the deep well of human experience,” she writes. “I believe we are all on a path, searching for enlightenment, comfort, love…and I feel incredibly fortunate to have found a tool to tap into my journey towards being a better human every day.”
With these reflections on the past and future, I stood in the woods for five days and asked myself what I needed to leave on the wall. What emerged under my hands were the outlines of a white-tailed deer escaping from a spear. I left knowing that its image would bound through the eastern forest for as long as we may know of forever.
NOTE: A year after I published this story, Zen Buddhist Ikusei Settimi also visited The Ruins Project, and wrote this sensitive and thoughtful piece. Recommended reading!