From the first day I walked through my giant cement canvas, my cathedral to coal, my beast across the creek (The Ruins has acquired many nicknames), I knew it was bigger than me. What I failed to grasp was the scale of the bigness. This place has become big enough to hold the whole world.
Five years in and we can say with confidence that thousands of people from all over the world (including almost every state in the US) have taken the formal Ruins tour and been enlightened to the stories of Banning No. 2 coal mine. Partly because we are located on one of the country’s most travelled bike trails. But also because The Ruins and it’s stories have taken on a life of their own.
The Ruins has never been just about the past. It reaches out to contemporary artists with a big, enveloping bear hug and invites their talents onto its substrate. In a divided time, it is a connector. In our world of uneasiness, it invites reflection. The Ruins seems to be providing something important for everyone. My job is to just keep writing and sharing its magic. I let each person find their niche here.
Now that we can look back at the birth of this project and watch how the years are unfolding, we can see that it is becoming layered. Artists are literally layering newer art over and around older art, creating patterns and complex compositions.
But also the stories are becoming layered.
This week I had the pleasure of listening to a Whitsett native tell her family story with such talent that an hour had passed before I had even thought of the time. Work will begin on her grandfather-in law’s portrait, in mosaic, by a Scottish artist this winter. As she spoke, I realized that her grandfather most assuredly worked alongside another man who has already been memorialized in mosaic here. The threads of memory in real live people are a treasure that will only last so long. These things keep me up at night. I feel an urgency to get things documented.
A silver lining to this tumultuous 2020 has been the momentum of sub-projects within the larger Ruins Project. I could not have dreamed up these supporting role collaborations that first year. They took their good time in revealing their importance to the larger fabric. First came The Hot Metal Project in the form of dozens of rusty metal gears. A year later and I am counting no less than fifty unique circle mosaics with many more in the works. Their small size and ease of shipping made The Ruins accessible to a whole new demographic of artists. The people who may never get here.
The international response was so strong that I began thinking in countries. That was the birth of The Map Room. Australia and Scotland are the first to arrive, created by their representative artists. There is that layering again.
This coal mine was a quintessential American melting pot of immigrants right off the boat, looking for a better life. Now, we wait as artists from all over the world are creating the outlines of their countries in unique interpretations. Poland, Belgium, Canada, Mexico, Venezuala, Slovenia, Ireland, Chile, Brazil, England, Israel, Turkey…all will be arriving by mail in 2021 to become a a giant mixed up puzzle of the world.
I see The Map Room as being a moment capturing a time. We now live in a strange new world where borders are meaningful again in unexpected ways. We can’t cross them. But Hungary, the mosaic, will still be arriving in the little town of Whitsett in Southwestern Pennsylvania regardless. The Hungarian miners were particularly important for Banning No. 2 coal mine.
Another moment in time has been The Tiny Ring Project. Started on a whim during an Instagram call, it is now 400 strong and growing. Tiny rings of vintage ceramic became a micro-mosaic color study and gave creative therapy to struggling artists from Australia to Oregon. From Tasmania to Puerto Rico. We are working towards our goal of 700 installed rings!
The Threshold Project, The Landmark Project, The Stable Project, The Portrait Project, and The Outlier Project are just getting started. Keep an ear to the ground for more details as they take shape.
Possibly the most exciting development to close out 2020 though is The Feather Project. Any artist who has worked in The Ruins recalls the magic of the birdsong. From the woodpeckers hammering, and the mourning dove nest. The constant chatter of a hundred different species, this place hums with bird life.
One of the metaphors of The Ruins is the battle of nature and industry. In the 100 years since the coal mine closed, nature has been taking it back and the result is a beautiful mix of post industry enveloped by the chaos of green regrowth. With the help of a talented local painter, we are creating trees and a whole ecosystem of murals to house native Pennsylvania birds in realistic, high detail mosaic. This carefully planned out, ongoing installation will be an ornithology lesson wrapped up in the guise of an art gallery. I am becoming an amateur birdwatcher in the process.
The Ruins has never followed the rules. Unless you count the rules of andamento, in which case it gives its best. The Rules I mean are the ones that make sense. It never made sense to turn a coal mine from a sad little corner of The Rust Belt into an international art project. It was ridiculous. Until it wasn’t. What we are doing here is tapping into the impossible and declaring it real. From the biggest mosaic train in the world to tesserae as tiny as the head of a pin, the art of The Ruins doesn’t just break the rules. It changes them.