by Lisa Rubenson, WRITER, ART-LOVER AND CONTRIBUTOR TO HAPPENINGSCLT
Carolyn Jacobs is a long-time faculty member of the Visual Arts Department at Central Piedmont Community College, where she teaches painting and drawing. Her series Missing Mountains, on exhibit at Artspace 525 from October 15 to November 12, uses oil paint, coal and wax to explore the natural beauty of her home state of Kentucky and the environmental legacy of the coal industry. Artspace 525 is located at 525 North Tryon Street, Suite 104 (at 9th Street, enter from the outside of the building). All are invited to an artist reception on Thursday, October 15 at 6pm.
When artist Carolyn Jacobs was growing up in the community of Pippa Passes in Eastern Kentucky, she didn’t give much thought to the geological wonders around her. The tree-lush Appalachian mountains and verdant foothills were enduring comforts; the views from her parents’ home atop the highest peak were as familiar as a beloved family member. Home was home, beautiful and constant.
And yet, change was coming. Eastern Kentucky is coal country. As Carolyn was graduating from high school in the mid-1980s, the coal industry was intensifying its efforts to move from traditional, underground mining to surface mining. This technique clears trees and uses explosives to systematically remove layers of earth from mountaintops so exposed coal can be extracted.
Though Carolyn’s parents were educators, her uncle and most of her friends’ parents had some connection to the coal industry. The coal companies had been the primary source of economic development in the region for generations, and Carolyn says most didn’t think to question their influence. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, after Carolyn had moved out of state to pursue her MFA in drawing at the University of Tennessee, that she was able to appreciate the before and after effects of coal mining.
“I came home for Thanksgiving break,” says Carolyn, “and was amazed by the scarred landscape I saw. The mountain top across from my family’s house was all but gone.”
The practice of mountain top removal and strip mining continued to alter the landscape of Carolyn’s hometown, and she was haunted by what she saw each time she came home. It was a difficult topic to discuss with friends and relatives, because so few had options for work outside of the mining industry.
As Carolyn began to teach and work as a studio artist, the images found their way into her work. She would often paint flowers or other images found in nature, then use her hands to cover the canvas in thick, black acrylic paint. Once dry, she would use tools or even her fingernails to scrape away the black to reveal the colors below. This reductive technique was therapeutic: the more her home state was scarred by mining, the more Carolyn felt compelled to scrape away at her own art.
While Carolyn eventually pursued other subjects in her paintings, figure drawings, and portraits – in particular, the human form and its cellular composition – her love for the people and places in Eastern Kentucky never left her. Soon, technology allowed Carolyn to stay even more connected to her home town. Google Earth offered her aerial views of the entire region, past and present.
“It was terrible to see the devastation of these places over time,” she says. “Yet, there was still beauty in what was left behind. I knew I wanted to explore this in my work: to show the enduring beauty alongside its destruction.”
Her Missing Mountains series uses those Google Earth images as a foundation to create abstract and representational paintings that examine the effects of surface coal mining. Unable to find the right saturation and texture of black paint to simulate the color of coal, Carolyn now travels back to Eastern Kentucky to collect coal samples from each of the sites she wants to depict.
She uses a pestle to grind the coal into a fine powder which she then mixes with cool wax for application onto the board substrate. Unlike the hot wax used in the encaustic painting process, the cool wax has a spreadable consistency not unlike lard used for cooking. Carolyn says the act of grinding the coal and adding it into the wax is reminiscent of time spent in the kitchen with her grandmother, yet another point of nostalgia found in the art-making process.
Carolyn says she was looking to bring a kind of “lyrical, seductive” quality to this series, and she succeeds. Painterly, soft pastel colors create fluid lines and contours that are strong enough to share space with the thickly textured coal mixture. The coal, while dominant, does not encroach or threaten the balance of the composition. The effect is ironic, because the softer colors depict the ravaged landscapes, and the coal itself – while manipulated – does not seem at all sinister in its natural state.
“My intention is to draw the viewer into the image,” says Carolyn, “so that they may experience the beauty before they ever understand what it is they are looking at.”
To engage with this series of paintings is to experience the economic and environmental conundrum faced by the people of Eastern Kentucky, the rest of Appalachia, and other places where surface mining is a fact of life. As an artist, Carolyn Jacobs is not political or prescriptive about where our sentiments should lie. She asks only that we see stand in her backyard with her, overlooking the land she loves, and see with fresh eyes the beauty in front of us, scars and all.