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Artist sounds mining alarm

Monday, August 12, 2002

By Ellen Wilson

From across the gallery, the image of the beaver pond, a manipulated photograph printed on a blueprint machine, has an inviting serenity. This, explains Connie Merriman, is actually a lure. "People respond to beauty," she says, "and this is a tool to get their attention."

Constance Merriman stands in front of her photograph of a serene beaver pond, juxtaposed with three handmade books packed with evidence of environmental devastation. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

However artfully Merriman draws viewers to her work, the subject of her installation, part of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Resident Artists show, is not a very pretty one.

"Red Book Series" serves as an introductory seminar on the subject of mountaintop removal, a practice in increasingly widespread use in Appalachia, in which coal companies in search of low-sulfur coal blow the top off of a mountain, dump the resulting rubble into a valley, extract the coal, blow up more of the mountain, fill the valley up some more, and so on. The resulting slurry, or waste water from washing the coal, is contained behind large earthen dams.

It is easy to imagine how this practice, if unchecked, might eventually flatten the state of West Virginia, the area where Merriman and her husband, Tom Merriman, have focused their attention.

The statistics Merriman provides are alarming: In West Virginia alone, 300,000 acres of temperate hardwood forest, a diverse ecosystem, have been destroyed and 1,000 miles of streams have been buried by valley fills.

"You have to see it from the air to get a sense of the scope of it," says Tom. "As far as you can see in every direction, every mountaintop is flattened."

Connie and Tom learned of the devastation caused by mountaintop removal in a Sierra Club publication in the spring of 2001, and contacted the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (www.ohvec.org), who put them in touch with grass-roots organizations such as Coal River Mountain Watch (www.appvoices.org).

Connie's paintings and installations have focused on political subjects for years. Now 54, she teaches studio art at Carnegie Museum of Art, and drawing at CMU's School of Architecture. Tom, 55, who teaches industrial design at CMU, helps with the research, and with the realization of the projects. "Connie is the one that develops the concepts," he says. "I'm involved in the research because I'm concerned about these issues, too."

Connie says that "Red Book Series" is named for government documents that acknowledge "a problem -- a situation in danger -- as in the red book which lists endangered species." The installation consists of the seductive photograph of the beaver pond, which serves as a backdrop for three handmade red books (made by daughter Jennifer Merriman of Persephone Press). The first holds taped interviews with various environmental activists, while the second lists the species that are affected by the devastation to their habitat, as well as photographs.

"This area had been the best place in North America to see warblers," Connie says. "They're declining now." The third book contains documentation on water quality tests in the Whitesville, W.Va., area, site photographs, government reports and news articles.

"I chose the book form because a viewer experiences a book one person at a time," Connie explains. "I'm trying to show the truths of the different groups and hopefully the public will come to an awareness and create pressure to cause change," she says. "I do believe the public can make things happen."

"Coal mining won't stop, but it doesn't have to be exploitative," she adds. "Let's do something else, because this isn't working."

"Red Book Series" is part of "PCA Resident Artists" at 6300 Fifth Ave. in Shadyside through Aug. 18. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Information: 412-361-0873.

Ellen Wilson is a free-lance critic for the Post-Gazette.

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