The message was in the mural—and in the words of activist artists who have worked for three years to help alert the world to the dangers of mountaintop-removing coal mining.
Students and faculty gathered in Page Commons Oct. 4 to hear members of the Beehive Design Collective, a nonprofit art-activist organization, give an interactive lecture entitled “The True Cost of Coal,” about what activists say are the dangers of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.
Based in Machias, Maine, the collective is internationally recognized for its educational graphic campaigns, which use artistic images as educational and organizing tools. These images use figures of plants, animals, and landscapes to depict visually complex scenes and metaphors. Displayed on large banners, the art works are intended to make environmental and social issues accessible to a larger audience.
In 2008 the collective allied with grassroots organizers fighting mountaintop removal in Appalachia and began work on a three-year graphic campaign that explored themes of resource extraction and land-based struggle in the region.
In the center of Page Commons was the product of the Beehive Design Collective’s labors: a nearly 20-foot long black-and-white banner portraying what the activists say are the social, environmental, and cultural implications of mountaintop removal in southeastern Appalachia using local species of plants and animals as characters. Frogs, ants, and other fauna were a part of an intricate depiction of the effects of the coal removal, a practice that the collective members and other critics say is aimed at satisfying the demand for cheap electricity but also devastates environmental health, economies, politics, ecology, and community development.
At the lecture, collective members Emily Simons and Emma Hornback explained the significance of each animal within the larger context of the landscape. For example, a fox sewing a quilt which reads, “Whose side are you on?” helps to illustrate the concerns of working-class people affected by poor labor conditions, they said. Nearby, a monstrous-looking piece of heavy machinery scoops up homes and destroys community.
“It’s a struggle to figure out how to create a landscape that could hold the complexities of mountaintop removal,” Simons said. Each graphic requires hours of research and extensive interviews to ensure that the art is as informative as it is visually stimulating. “We don’t start doodling in a corner and meet in the middle,” she said, laughing.
In addition to leading a discussion of the banner, Simons and Hornback had audience members join in activities where participants would answer questions by physically moving around the room. By having audience members agree or disagree with different personal statements, Simons and Hornback were able to discuss how the dangers of mountaintop removal are not isolated to Appalachia.
“I think it sends a powerful message—that the Colby community recognizes that the impact of coal extraction and energy consumption is a compelling issue whose reach isn’t bound by the Appalachian mountain communities,” said Olivia Kefauver ’12, an environmental studies major who introduced the collective to audience. “The work of the Beehive Collective is tangible proof of what a committed, passionate group of people can accomplish by addressing problems in a unique way.”
An interdisciplinary event, the collective’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Environmental Studies Program, the Colby Museum of Art, the departments of Geology and biology, the Pugh Community Board (PCB), the Cultural Events Committee Guy P. Gannett Lecture Fund, and the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement.