This is the year, 2015, that I find myself the surprised owner of an abandoned coal mine. And not just a coal mine, but the architectural ruins of coal history. My very own folly. Except that a folly, by definition, is a new construction built to look old. To be exact, a folly is a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose. The aristocracy of the 18th century loved to add them to their gardens. Frivolity in all of its excess.
My folly, on the contrary, was built for work. Each room was created for a particular job. I know some basic facts about the structure and the property on which it sits. Banning #2 was mined for the high quality bituminous coal that Southwestern Pennsylvania was so famous for back around the turn of the century. That’s the turn from the 19th to the 20th century for those young’uns out there. I know that coal was mined, sorted, cleaned, and moved around in an organized fashion here in my Ruins. There was a forge, a rail track, a tipple, and an office. Most of the structures are camouflaged into the landscape now.
When I made the decision to buy my house, which was built as the office for the coal company, I knew there was something interesting on the other side of the creek, but because everything was covered in blankets of snow, I really didn’t grasp the enormity of what I was buying with my ten acres.
Rusty metal i-beams run deep into concrete piers. Trees have grown up inside of rooms and on top of rail tracks. Some of it reminds me of the High Line Park in Manhattan.
The craftsmanship of the brickwork astounds me daily as I walk through its labyrinth with my morning coffee. I ask myself why the masons would build such flourishes into a structure on the inside of a wall that only a few men working a forge would ever see. The word that keeps bouncing back at me is Pride. Not the kind of pride that makes one cocky or the one listed in the seven sins. But the other one; the one that pushes a man to do his best work. And not for the recognition, but for the simple joy of the doing of it. As I walk through my ruins, I find myself compelled to make connections. Am I up to the task of doing my best work here? 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?
As I get to know my Ruins, they are revealing a distinct personality; strength, pride, and a gravity that both excites and soothes everyone who visits them. The mosaicking hasn’t started in earnest yet. This getting to know the place is a part of the process for me and the longer it goes on, the more I realize this getting to know time spent with The Ruins before it becomes The Ruins Project is crucial and shouldn’t be rushed.
As an artist who works in mosaic, I am seeing the walls as a canvas. In my first glances, I was thinking of them as blank slates waiting for my brand of mosaic. I could see immediately that as a forager mosaicist who uses native stone, I can respect the history of the place and make use of my sandstone, limestone, slate, and coal as material. There will be very little flashy bling on these walls. But as I look more closely at them, I am seeing them as not blank at all. They are full of personality; cracks, fissures, cubby holes, angles, burns, imperfections…wabi sabi in all of its glory.
I believe in approaching a piece of art from many fronts. It’s not just the substrate, but how the substrate is built. It’s not just using the material, but actually making the material or foraging for it and transforming it. It’s the same with The Ruins. It won’t be simply working on the walls. We will be listening to the birds, feeling the rich dirt, observing the woods that have grown up around everything, acting as archaeologists when we find the leavings of industry beneath our feet.
It will be an experience. When I bring the students in for the The Ruins Project School, they will be encouraged to see all of this personality and work with it and around and through it. In this precious time of getting to know my Ruins, I am crafting what will be a singular mosaic experience. As a student coming here to study in the future, you will not be taking your work home, you will be leaving your mark behind. Stay tuned for coming details and dates on the first Ruins Project School.