My heart is full of gratitude as I write this. Artists from all over the world are taking steps to be a part of something bigger than themselves by contributing to the walls of The Ruins Project here in Southwestern Pennsylvania. I remember three winters ago, walking through the acres of concrete and brick covered in snow, thinking, what are you going to do with this, Rachel? After the initial panic subsided, I peeked out of the snowbanks of that first, rough winter and embraced my role as witness to miracles. I use the word miracle knowing that I am mis-using it in the official sense. The Vatican has created strict guidelines for what constitutes a miracle.
Nevertheless, I have the happy job of helping, watching, supporting, and facilitating art and the artists who make it. The artists have room tell their own stories and to help me tell mine. The story of America’s coal history is rich and layered and deserves to be remembered.
So when I say miracles I refer to the Argentinian traveling here from the southern hemisphere to dive into an archetypal composition inspired by Carl Jung’s Red Book.
And the local artist doing a passionate independent study informing us that she wants her ashes spread in The Ruins when the time comes. For real.
And the miracle of seeing a traveler from a faraway city hear my emotional story about the explosion that killed 239 miners, more than any other disaster in the history of Pennsylvania mining. It left 130 widows, 300 children without fathers, and 542 people without a source of income. Most leave with a whole new way of seeing this little forgotten slice of coal country that was such a crucial part of creating the infrastructure they enjoy as they ride the former railroad, now a bike trail.
And a Buddhist monk who talks philosophy and God and Faith while we work on her andamento.
You can’t make this stuff up.
The Ruins has become a magnet for miracles. In this third year, I am looking for ways to make it easier for those who cannot get here physically to make their mark on these storytelling walls. Read on for some tips to creating a mosaic that won’t fall apart after two winters and will complement the tone we are setting.
For students who work here in a boots on the ground kind of way, I have created Three Rules. These rules do not get in the way of personality or vision. They are put in place to preserve the sacred quality of this place. And you don’t have to work here in person to let these rules guide you.
Rule #1 Honor what was
In some ways, this simply means not dishonoring the memories of the thousands of miners who worked at Banning #2 Mine and their many descendants who still live nearby. We come from coal here and coal brings out a passion in people. That can be good and bad. Coal was not turned into steel and steel into buildings in a bubble. There are mothers and fathers and children everywhere whose lives were built on this four letter word.
Rule #2 Build Relationships with Raw Material
These walls are not interested in a piece of art for art’s sake. We are storytellers and our medium is the earth itself. Think carefully about why you choose a particular material. Where did it come from? What did it do or will it do to tell your story? We are partial to geology, of course, but love glass (especially smalti) and ceramic too if they are used with care (see Rule #3). If you have not jumped into Hammer and Hardie work yet, the time is NOW. Do it!
An artist with a mosaic hammer who knows how to use it is a powerful sight to behold. We love material that holds memories. We love material that comes from the rivers, the lakes, the fields and the mountains. Spending time finding it, cleaning it, cutting it, caring about it not just for the end result, but for how it feels in your hands and the sound it makes as you snap it open.
Rule #3 Walk the Line
This is my way of describing that very slippery but oh so important word; andamento.
The classical language of the Romans and Greeks is paramount to the artists here. We love to dive deep into improving our line-building, one tesserae at a time. In a way, the walls of The Ruins are giant learning substrates for students of The Line. Whether you are new to intuitive andamento or looking for a place to show off your already honed talents, we welcome all who are willing to stretch their practice and become better artists. I recommend looking into my intuitive andamento workshops at Mosaic Arts Online to get a deeper understanding of this generous and fascinating way of making a mosaic.
Tips for a successful Ruins Project contribution:
Thin-set as adhesive; no one-dimensional glues.
We prefer Laticrete 254 which is outdoor friendly. Many of the walls here are open to all of the elements Southwestern PA can throw at them. Create a bed of mortar and be sure to nestle each tesserae in so the mortar comes almost to the top edges. Think about water and what it will do to your masterpiece. Water is the most destructive force on earth and will find a way in. Do all you can to not let it in.
Work on alkalai resistant fiberglass mesh.
Lay two layers of mesh on plastic and work in the direct method with your mortar bed. This will create a lightweight, thin substrate that we can easily install. I use a company called Cross Country Supply to get my large rolls of mesh but you can get smaller ones at a big box store. Just be sure they are for cement board and not drywall.
A good tip that makes installs easier is to leave an inch or so of mesh naked around the outside edges. This helps the piece not slide down the wall once we get it up. If your piece is small (4” x 4” or 6” x 6”) this is not necessary.
Don’t think inside the box.
Take a look at The Ruins Project gallery of images. The best work looks like it is meant to be there. Like it has always been a part of the walls. Think ragged, uneven edges, and not straight clean borders.
Don’t think it needs to be finished.
Nothing is ever really done here. All the works are in a beautiful state of becoming. Expect that another artist, at a later date will eventually work nearby your piece or even interact with it in some way. Documentation is happening always, so watching your art evolve on social media is becoming part of the process.
Things we love and want more of:
Native animals of Pennsylvania.
We have deer, snake, porcupine, turtle, fish and bees and bugs. What animals will be coming next?
We have weeds and would love more. The deciduous forest has bounced back from the coal industry damage and is an incredible wildflower corridor. Look up the native plants here. We just put in a monarch habitat and are expecting lots of milkweed varieties.
Do you come from coal too? Or maybe a coal-related industry like steel? Tell me about it and think how you can tell that part of your story.
Are you thinking BIG? The Ruins accepts all sizes but has particular respect for ambitious artists with a plan. Send me a proposal and let’s do it!
Be a part of something BIG.
_Rachel Sager Pioneer of The Ruins Project_