Every artist I know who has an email list is always like “hey I need to get better at using this” or “sorry you haven’t heard from me in a while I’ve been busy”. I’m really no different, and in the last couple years I’ve noticed that emails are perhaps one of the most hated forms of communication available to us. And yet, every time I send one of these updates out – and it’s been like a year since I’ve sent one – I get a lot of sweet notes back from you all about how it’s nice to hear what I’m working on. Which, if nothing else, at least proves that these updates have (slightly) more staying power than the endless waterfall of crap on social media (which I am also guilty of contributing to).
So, here’s the last year of my work, in a nutshell, as well as an honest promise to send shorter updates out a bit more often...
We’ve been working on Fauna in some form or another for over a decade: sometimes fervently, as when Stuart was a resident artist at Autodesk, and sometimes barely, as though it were our old "project" car on cinder blocks in the backyard. The exhibit with CMNH was in the works for nearly a year before we launched, perhaps the most email-and-meeting-heavy thing I’ve done, such is the work of collaborating with an institution with dozens of departments! Part of the We Are Nature: A New Natural History initiative, spearheaded by curator Nicole Heller, the installation included two exhibit cases which I co-curated with Nicole and the museum’s collections managers, showcasing specimens and cultural artifacts which built on the stories of the animals depicted on the pennies that Fauna creates.
The exhibit was a hit with visitors! It also brought a few unforeseen challenges: we built the Fauna machine to be “bulletproof”, but apparently it needed to be “bombproof”, as we’d underestimated the lack of floor staff combined with the public’s tenacity to turn wheels in any direction they’ll go, as hard as they can be turned! We learned a lot as we iterated fixes throughout the exhibit, and the CMNH staff, across the board, were deeply patient, supportive, and gracious with us. Museum visitors smashed about 3,000 pennies during the three-month run of the show!
The other huge project from this year: an amazing opportunity to work with Monument Lab, one of the most interesting hybrid arts/memory/justice organizations operating in the US right now. The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum was selected to be a part of their 2022 Re:Generation cohort, a group of ten fantastic organizations across North America working in public art and history that “elevates people shaping the next generation of monuments reckoning with and reimagining public memory.” This was an incredible opportunity to bring the work of the museum in southern West Virginia outside of our walls and into a national context, and to learn from others in the deeply inspirational Re:Generation cohort!
For decades, there’s only been one permanent public marker about the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain within the mountains and valleys where the events unfolded: a state-sanctioned historical marker on the side of a small highway, that periodically disappears and is replaced. At the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, we’d been hearing for years from people who wanted to see a more comprehensive public memory developed within the landscape itself. Courage in the Hollers, our project with Monument Lab, was our bold move to make this happen.
We built monuments in two locations, Marmet and Clothier, West Virginia, which kind of bookend the route on which unionist coal miners gathered and marched to what would become the Battle of Blair Mountain a hundred years ago. These larger-than-life steel monuments incorporate silhouettes of people from those communities, as well as multiple interpretive panels that we installed nearby which tell the stories of “this happened here”, and why. This narrative I made gives a pretty clear overview of how we did what we did, and how we made some history happen in the process of it all.
I worked as lead designer for this project, with a small dream team and a charming group of folks from both communities: really, some of the most incredible Appalachian firebrands I know. This was deeply community-driven work, and I’m still trying to come to terms with the scale of what we did in under a year’s time! We’re proud as hell, and I hope you’ll visit these sites when you're in the region. I also hope you’ll check out the other projects in Monument Lab’s Re:Generation cohort, because they’re some of the most inspiring people I’ve had the honor of working with, and they’re well worth watching.
And as far as Courage goes, this is just the beginning. We aim to work in many more communities in the area to expand this project in the coming years, and I’m here for it. Stay tuned.
People's History: Online Exhibits
I’ve been leading the process of photographing and cataloging our entire collection over at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum since late 2020, and I enjoy the hell out of it: shepherding a system into shape where none existed before, and sharing these objects with the world for the first time. We have over 700 artifacts in our trust, plus a massive store of documents and manuscripts we haven’t even been able to touch yet!
I’ve been curating online exhibits to bring this work to the public. 16 Tons showcases our entire collection of coal company scrip (privatized coal company wage payment systems). Dark As A Dungeon will give you an overview of the odd flaming devices that miners strapped to their heads before descending into a coal mine in the last century. Ethan Karnes set the bar particularly high last September when we collaborated on The Land Will Tell the Story, which he designed an independent website for. That project makes archaeological evidence of the Battle of Blair Mountain available to view publicly for the first time, discoveries that were a critical development in the historical understanding of the battlefield, and crucial in helping get Blair Mountain on the National Registry of Historic Places, to save what remains from being strip mined into oblivion.
And hey, So Much To Be Angry About is still good too, and you can get a copy from Justseeds here or straight from WVU Press here. AND! Ask your local library if they carry it – if they don’t, ask them to order it! This helps get the book into more people's hands all over the country.
Visiting Artist Soon: Bisbee, Arizona
Laurie McKenna invited me to the Central School Project in Bisbee, Arizona this winter as a visiting artist! I don't really do artist residencies that often, so this will be an interesting adventure. Bisbee is an old copper mining town near the US/Mexico border, site of the violent events in 1917 known as the Bisbee Deportation and investigated in the remarkable film Bisbee 17. Plans are loose for what I’ll get up to while I’m there... more Redacted Rubbings made in a new landscape, some presentations and discussion salons with Bisbee residents and artists... It’ll be a nice break from Pittsburgh Winter, and Laurie is the only other artist I know who has worked with both smashed pennies AND labor history, so I’ll be in good company!
After 11 years managing and co-managing Justseeds Global Distribution Headquarters in Pittsburgh, I retired this past January and passed the torch to longtime friend and founding coop member Mary Tremonte: along with Cat Best, who was my right hand for five years, and printmaker/friend Devon Cohen, the economic engine of our cooperative continues to steam on! It has been an indescribable relief to finally step back from the responsibility of making sure the ship didn’t sink, and to reframe my relationship to the cooperative moving forward.
We’ve been doing Justseeds for 15 YEARS together! Even more if you track the root networks that brought us here. Justseeds is very much a political and creative family for me, a center I feel honored and humbled to have in my life. Is it easy working collectively long distance with a bunch of artists playing way over in the outfield of “the left”? You know the answer, but nothing is simple when you’re cooperating with other humans and damn it that’s what we need to be doing a LOT more of right now: building cooperatively.
And why not do your holiday shopping at justseeds.org? Completely independent and built by us from the ground up back when running an online shop was still sketchy as hell.We’ve even got gift certificates too, which are great because you don’t wanna get caught buying someone some art they don’t want.
On the way out, I'm happy to mention that I was very proud and excited to marry my partner of 11 years, Becca, this past August! Just gonna bury that lede, shovel in hand, all the way down here for those of you who bothered to read this far. Oh also today is my 43rd birthday.
Thanks as always for all of your support. I don't do this work alone.