Saturday, February 3, 2024

“Edifice for the Unwanted" Sculpture at Tucson’s Los Reales Sustainability Campus Is an Artful Invitation to Learn About Our Landfill

 I live on the west side of Tucson near the section of Shannon Road that dead ends not far from a steep hill. Hiking websites say that the Jack and George Mountain Trail begins there, though I don't know who Jack and George are and the elevation makes this area more hilly than mountainous. But because of the listings, people from outside the neighborhood come to park in a very small dirt lot near the dead end and then hike that trail. These hikers have to be sure to go up the hill rather than along the flat trail that leads due west because the owner of some of that property has posted no trespassing signs which he intends to enforce. But the view from the hilltop is impressive, and there's beautiful desert here, so the hike is worthwhile. Unfortunately, when that small parking space isn't filled with cars, people sometimes come and dump yard waste and construction rubble there. It's an eyesore until someone complains and a city truck comes to haul the mess away. Greg and I, along with our neighbor, once caught a couple in a pickup truck trying to leave a box springs and mattress there. When the couple realized that we had seen them, they apologized and took their shabby mattress set away. More recently, someone dumped a ruined sofa and chair to molder in the rain because no one was there to reproach them. You would think that people don't have any alternative, but they do. Once they had it in a truck, these scofflaws could easily have taken their refuse to the Los Reales Landfill on the southeast side and ditched it there for free.

Edifice for the Unwanted by Troy Neiman
Edifice for the Unwanted by Troy Neiman
at Los Reales Sustainability Campus; photo by Greg Evans

To be accurate, it's no longer the Los Reales Landfill. In 2021, Tucson City Council voted to change the name of our only municipal landfill to the Los Reales Sustainability Campus, with the ambitious goals of moving toward carbon neutrality by 2030 and becoming a zero-waste city by 2050.  Local environmental activists at Sustainable Tucson soon critiqued the plans that went with that name change. They liked the idea of the proposed tree nursery, the composting facility, and the site for "boutique" reuse/recycling businesses, but  they didn’t care for the notion that one or more “waste-to-energy” facilities might be part of the campus (more about that later). However, as reported last summer, not a lot has changed at Los Reales since 2021. It's still mainly a landfill dump, where huge amounts of garbage and the dirt used to cover it are augmented each day by 2,300 more tons of solid waste, resulting in landforms that seem to rival in size the hill at the end of Shannon Road. The City is still not entirely clear about what will happen there next.

Greg and I stopped at Los Reales on the last Saturday of 2023, and we stood for a while near the administration building, watching an orderly procession of vehicles -- pickup trucks with loaded trailers, more pickups with tarps over their debris-filled beds, and larger trucks from waste disposal companies – all headed toward the place where they could deposit their unwanted burdens. But unlike the people in the procession of trucks, we weren’t there to drop off some yard waste or an old sofa. Instead, we wanted to look at a sculpture that is a commentary on what Los Reales is and may someday be. The sculpture is "Edifice for the Unwanted" by Troy Neiman, and it adds an artfully whimsical aspect to an otherwise very practical and businesslike place.

Looking through the "window" from the back of
the sculpture, we could see the trucks go by on the road

Neiman, who has been working in Tucson since 2003, calls himself a public artist and fabricator, and in an interview with Eva Romero at KXCI, he said he has had a lifelong attraction to old bicycles, scrap metal, and found objects. He was trained as a welder, and when he came to Tucson, his welding skill and interest in reusing discarded items led him to working with BICAS, a local group whose art program salvages bike parts from the waste stream and encourages people to make them into sculptures and jewelry. But Neiman’s “Edifice for the Unwanted” takes this kind of repurposing to a new level. The sculpture is made from an array of discarded materials and invites the viewer to think about the vast number of unwanted objects in the nearby landfill. The sculpture is surprisingly dynamic and lively, considering that it's made of unwanted items. Metal birds soar above it, just as ravens and pigeons do over Los Reales. 

Metal birds are part of Edifice for the Unwanted:
photo by Greg Evans

The pillars holding up the structure are made of bricks and found materials from historic buildings in Tucson, and there’s a central panel with a curved upper edge that connects the pillars. The panel is embellished with an off-center window and is pierced by an arrangement of glass bottles that glow in warm colors in the desert sun. The curve is repeated in the main body of the sculpture, which has a coherent and flowing shape. According to Neiman: “The items used on the left represent more raw versions of materials and as they cycle over to the right side your eye can begin to pick out more and more items from our daily lives and they again get ‘buried’ to the far right.” 

“Recycling is almost a cop-out,” Neiman once told the Tucson Citizen,  implying that we should have the imagination to repurpose old and interesting things that others might discard, and we should take objects that were destined to go to the landfill and give them another life. All parts of the sculpture are made of items that won’t degrade – especially bricks, glass, and metal -- and they have varied shapes and colors. But though most of them are recycled, they aren’t from Los Reales, according to Neiman. [1] They include a battered golf club, a small children’s wagon filled with scuffed golf balls, a flattened colander, gazing balls, fan blades, springs, a dish rack, and a few items that aren’t metal like a wooden table leg and a large piece of curved, clear plastic. 

Some of the repurposed items that make up
Edifice for the Unwanted

Though it was commissioned and installed in 2018 before Los Reales became a Sustainability Campus, the sculpture functions as an introduction to the landfill. In the future, it will contribute a cheerful and welcoming note as more Tucsonans will hopefully be drawn to Los Reales for options like the composting facility and boutique businesses. But Edifice for the Unwanted, because of its composition, also has something to say about the nature of recycling and waste management.

While looking at Neiman’s sculpture and the trucks heading toward the landfill at Los Reales, I started to think about the processes of waste disposal and recycling more clearly than I ever had before. I had often seen the waste hierarchy diagram (see one version below), but it seemed so much more obvious to me while I was standing in a place that exemplified the notion of disposal and looking at a sculpture that was all about reuse. In the first place, much of what was coming to the landfill could actually have been reused, keeping these items out of the landfill. In the beds of pickup trucks we could see branches and pieces of wood that could of course have been made into mulch, and there were loads of construction debris, pieces of brick and lumps of cement. The bricks could easily be reused, since there are many creative and attractive ways to use old brick. They could even be part of the base of a sculpture such as Neiman’s. 

A version of the Waste Hierarchy diagram; New Zealand Trade
and Enterprise,  CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Though we could clearly see yard and construction debris and garbage bags filled with trash headed to the landfill (and I'm sure there was lots of food waste that could have been composted), we couldn’t see much else that was in the trucks. But I imagine that many more of those abandoned items could have had a useful second life, particularly if they were made of metal. And as I noted earlier, most of the items in the main body of Neiman’s sculpture are metal and can be recycled if not reused. Steel and aluminum cans, for example, are 100% recyclable, and though other metal items are not accepted in our blue recycling bins, they are much sought after by recyclers. For example, the Daily Star recently reported that W. Silver Recycling will soon open a yard in Tucson where it will collect scraps of brass and copper, in addition to steel and aluminum, and later ship them to mills where they will be melted down and reused. Unfortunately, recycling  many of the other items in the waste stream isn’t quite so straightforward, and cities in the United States have recently been forced to look at new ways to recycle paper, glass, and plastic. This has caused a crisis for waste management systems, including Tucson's.

Glass bottles and other glass items, including a couple of gazing balls, are reused in Neiman’s sculpture, and because of the way they reflect and refract the light, they add color and sparkle to its appearance. Glass can be recycled,[2] and until 2021, Tucsonans were able to put glass jars and bottles into our blue bins, too, but that is no longer the case.  According to Council member Steve Kozachik, the glass that was collected was often shipped to Phoenix where it might end up in a landfill anyway. Now, there are drop-off sites around the city where people can take their clean glass bottles and jars, which are crushed and used for construction locally. Some of the glass is also used by small businesses like Bottle Rocket Design, but many residents are not motivated to take their used glass items to another location now that it is no longer picked up at the curb. 

glass bottles in Edifice for the Unwanted
Glass bottles seen from the other
side of Edifice for the Unwanted

Paper, because it’s fragile and doesn’t stand up well to the elements, isn’t part of Edifice for the Unwanted, though it is 100% recyclable. Unfortunately, it’s not being recycled in Arizona as it once was, a problem with causes that are global as well as local. The People's Republic of China is the largest consumer of recyclables in the world, but beginning in 2017, China changed its standards regarding the waste materials they were willing to accept. In addition to banning 24 kinds of waste products, including some kinds of paper, they also required that the items being sent to them should be less contaminated with food and other substances.  In 2019, Tony Davis at the Arizona Daily Star reported on changes in local paper recycling, noting that China's policies over time have had a major effect in Arizona. He said that the U.S. used to have many paper-recycling mills, including one in Snowflake in Navajo County, Arizona. In 2012, that mill, along with others in the country, was closed due to foreign competition, notably from China. But because of later changes in China’s standards, we now have neither an option for local recycling of paper nor an assured way to send our paper waste overseas. Paper is still accepted in our recycling bins here in Tucson, but there is some question about where it ends up, especially since it is so often contaminated with food. 

Finally, there’s plastic, which represents only a small amount of the Edifice for the Unwanted. It's the most difficult of items in the waste stream to recycle, though you wouldn’t know that based on all the hype we hear about advanced recycling, also called chemical recycling. Whatever you choose to call it, the focus on these attempts to recycle plastic contributes to the notion that plastic can just be produced and recycled endlessly, thereby reducing its impact on the planet. But the idea of recycling plastic comes with many caveats, and in regard to plastic, prevention and reduction are the most eco-friendly options. Unfortunately, many corporations refuse to cut back on plastic production and instead extol the virtues and the benefits of chemical recycling.

During their June meeting last year, Sustainable Tucson hosted a presentation by Veena Singla from Natural Resources Defense Council on this issue. She spoke at length on the reasons the processes known as chemical recycling, which include pyrolysis and gasification, are not real solutions to the problem of plastic waste.
 Plastic is a complex substance, made of many different additives and molecules, and heating it to produce gas for fuel or to recover valuable compounds it is a risky business. Though the process is inefficient and unlikely to produce much energy or usable substances, it is likely to have the unwanted side effect of releasing toxins into the environment.

Of course, I already knew something about the problematic nature of pyrolysis because of my visit to Youngstown, Ohio, last year. There, many people oppose the proposed SOBE plant, which would superheat tire chips and plastic to produce synthetic gas and other byproducts. (Tires, it turns out, also contain a significant amount of plastic.) It would also be likely to spew many toxic chemicals into the air in an already vulnerable neighborhood. The fight against the proposed facility in Youngstown has continued to proceed apace, and few locals express support for it, other than the people who stand to benefit from it financially. Most recently, the Youngstown City Council voted to put a one-year moratorium on the establishment of the plant so that the city can examine the environmental risks more carefully. 

Stop Sobe signs in Youngstown, Ohio, not far
from the proposed plant; picture taken in July of 2023

As with the future of the SOBE plant in Youngstown, the future of chemical recycling in Tucson is also unknown.  The city says it will no longer consider this option, and Councilmember Kevin Dahl says, “We don’t need a tech hub where we’re experimenting with our garbage. Burning garbage is last century’s technology.”  Sustainable Tucson and other environmental activists must stay vigilant, however, because there is a newer draft of the city's proposal to the federal Economic Development Administration, which seems to hold open the possibility of using so-called "waste-to-energy" options at some point.

The landscape at Los Reales

As I think back to the time I spent standing at the Los Reales Sustainability Campus, I remember being impressed by the idea that it's sometimes necessary to throw things away. The beaten-up old furniture that was abandoned at the dead end on Shannon had to go somewhere, and it was too decrepit to be reused or recycled. So eventually, it went to the landfill. On the other hand, there's a pile of branches at the Shannon dead end right now that could have been chipped and made into mulch, and unless I do that soon (and rent a machine to help me do it, which I admit is pretty unlikely), it will probably end up at Los Reales, too. But Edifice for the Unwanted celebrates other options on the waste hierarchy -- reuse and recycling -- and I look forward to being greeted by Neiman's sculpture when we go to Los Reales again to see the boutique reuse/recycling businesses someday. Ultimately, however, I understand -- as I'm sure everyone does -- that the reason prevention and reduction are the broadest and topmost levels on the waste hierarchy is because they are the most beneficial and most hopeful things we can do. We won't have to worry about problems inherent in chemical recycling of plastic if we reduce our use of plastic items and produce it in increasingly smaller amounts. And if we do that, the City of Tucson's admirable goal of being a zero-waste city by 2050 will be accomplished without ever having to consider dicey propositions with names like "waste-to-energy."

[1] In his KXCI interview, Troy Neiman said, “In the case of the public art that I did at the Los Reales landfill here in Tucson, one of the stipulations for it was that they wanted to use as many recycled materials as possible, which really made a lot of sense for it being at the landfill to go in that direction. But it's actually illegal to pull things out of the landfill, so I had to source all the recycled materials from other places. And it's almost entirely made of recycled materials, but they had to come from different sources besides the landfill where the piece was going to be.” [minutes 15-16]

[2] Glass can also be reused on a larger scale. When soda and beer came in glass containers, people paid a small deposit that they would get back when the bottle was returned to the store. These bottles were sterilized and reused by beverage manufacturers.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

“We Refuse to Die” Is Another Way of Saying “We Intend to Fight” -- Environmental Activism in NE Ohio and SW Pennsylvania

Still from We Refuse to Die video

It’s a chilling statement: “We Refuse to Die.” And it makes an even deeper impression when it’s associated with 6-8 foot wooden sculptures called Externality monuments, which have been carved from a tree killed in a climate-change-fueled Pacific Northwest wildfire. The Externality monument installed in Clairton, Pennsylvania, on November 11 has a haunting face and a resolute expression. (See photos by Mark Dixon.) Melanie Meade, who is a fellow for the Black Appalachian Coalition, now hosts the carving on her land where it can bear witness to the toxic emissions pouring from U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works, which is considered to be the worst air polluter in Allegheny County. The Externality monument in Clairton was the first such sculpture to be installed, though there will soon be more of them in the yards of residents in other cities. "We Refuse to Die" is an ongoing campaign to connect communities in Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley to the Gulf South, calling attention to the fossil fuel and petrochemical companies that are polluting the air, land, and water. 

Last year I read about a power outage at the Clairton Coke Works that "required" the plant to flare coke oven gases from its stacks. At the time Matthew Mehalik, Executive Director of the Breathe Project, described the scene as so unpleasant it could stand in for "Sunrise Over Mordor" in a Hollywood film. A Clairton resident said the smell gave her a migraine, but she added, “You have to put up with it or move. There’s nothing you can do. We can’t shut the mill down. We shut the mill down, we’re gonna be a ghost town. We’re already half ghost town." But Melanie Meade, who has since 2011 lost many members of her family to heart conditions and cancer, has a different perspective. She says, "When I first saw the ‘We Refuse to Die’ carvings, I was elated... because this is exactly what the people need. They are unhealed and hurt, and they aren’t even aware that there’s a possibility for hope."  And she adds, “If I’m going to die, it best be for something. So I’m not going down without a fight. We Refuse to Die means you're taking action. You're not going down. We refuse to die when we stand up and say something, when we identify with our pain and speak to what we need to heal.”

The “We Refuse to Die” campaign shows how art and activism can reinforce each other and is currently a part of an exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art called "Unsettling Matter, Gaining Ground.” In a pamphlet produced for the exhibit, community activism is referenced on almost every page, and this is certainly true in the discussion between conservation ecologist Nicole Heller and two cofounders of the art collective Not An Alternative, which created the “We Refuse to Die” campaign. They discuss, among other things, the fact that residents often feel that they have to choose between a clean environment and a functioning economy, and they discuss how “art practices” can heal some of the divides in the region. Heller asks, "What kind of resources do we have, specifically to help the community here in Western Pennsylvania talk about climate change and talk about an alternative future? Particularly in Western Pennsylvania because of the long history of being part of the fossil fuel economy. People feel really uncomfortable talking about getting off fossil fuels because it feels like a threat to their own family, their own community, to their neighbor."

Beka Economopoulos, cofounder of Not An Alternative, says, "What we need to be doing is redefining and renegotiating our political alliances so that it is not in terms of left and right, but rather us and them, as in the few who are exploiting the many. Within that frame, I think the proud history of the steel workers and the farmers and the multigenerational communities in Southwest Pennsylvania is something that can be not just recuperated but celebrated, because it casts these communities in the role of hero. Their ancestors participated, perhaps, in one wave of extraction, but even more recently, fought for workers’ rights and brought unions, four-day work weeks, safer working conditions, and OSHA regulations to protect our families and communities’ health. That is what we have to build upon and fortify...”

The “We Refuse to Die” project also offers Toxic Tours, which depart from the Carnegie Museum and take visitors to places like fracking drill pads and petrochemical plants. These tours are led by people in the affected communities and health professionals, and they draw attention to “sacrifice zones,” where people are directly in harm’s way. I'm sorry I missed a chance to go on one of these tours, but during our time in Youngstown last summer, I decided that I wanted to go on a toxic tour of my own. So after we’d been there for a week, Greg drove my friend Kathy and me to some of the places where the environment is being disrupted by fossil fuels and toxic chemicals. We drove past the Shell cracker plant and saw its gleaming metallic pipework--though we didn’t see the nerve-wracking sight of the flaring that goes on there regularly as waste gases burn bright against the sky. We also stopped in East Palestine (I described that visit in my previous post), where we were reminded of the silent and invisible menace that has been haunting that community since the train carrying vinyl chloride derailed on February 3.  And I haven’t forgotten about it since I’ve been back in Arizona.

The Shell cracker plant in Beaver County, PA;
photo by Kathy Wozniak

On November 14, I attended a virtual screening of "Small Town Explosion," hosted by Beyond Plastics and other groups. This short film about the train derailment that took place in East Palestine and the activism it has inspired shows people from the East Palestine Unity Council and other groups fighting the lack of appropriate response from Norfolk Southern and government agencies. Jami Wallace of Unity Council and Daniel Winston of River Valley Organizing are shown speaking eloquently about the "controlled burn" of vinyl chloride and the health problems they have suffered since then, but even more significantly, the film shows them at the Ohio State Capitol disrupting a legislative session as protestors carry signs that say "State of Emergency Now," "Clean Water Now," and "DeWine Declare Disaster." The people chant and hold up their signs, then are evicted from the legislative chamber. They also march to meet with the governor, but he will not see them. Judith Enck of Beyond Plastics says, "I'm really impressed with the activists in East Palestine and also Pennsylvania. They're doing exactly what they need to do, and they need to be really persistent. It shouldn't have to be that way, but that's how things work in the United States of America today on environmental issues." 

It's appropriate that, because these activists continue to stand up for themselves in a way that is commemorated by the sculptures that are part of “We Refuse to Die," an Externality monument is also planned for East Palestine. It will face the tracks on which the Norfolk Southern train passed through town and derailed, causing misery for the town’s residents.

Still from the film Small Town Explosion

Like Judith Enck, I'm impressed with the growth of awareness and engagement in East Palestine, but other places in Northeastern Ohio are experiencing an upsurge of citizen activism, too. Earlier, I described the toxic tour we took during our visit to Youngstown last summer. We ended the tour at the Youngstown Thermal plant, which isn't yet a source of toxic emissions, but threatens to be. It used to be a coal-fired steam heat generating operation that provided heating and cooling for buildings in the nearby downtown. The owner of SOBE Energy Solutions has bought the property and wants to upgrade it in order to turn scrap tires and plastic waste into synthetic gas and to reclaim valuable materials like carbon black, using a process known as pyrolysis. SOBE would then use the synthetic gas to create steam heat for downtown buildings, just as Youngstown Thermal once did. But according to SOBE Concerned Citizens, a group formed to educate people on the dangers of SOBE and to fight against it, pyrolysis can release many toxins into the air, including dioxins, mercury, lead, and benzene. And because the plant is located near student housing, a jail, and other densely populated places, this kind of air pollution would be disastrous.

The Youngstown Thermal plant in July of 2023;
 photo by Greg Evans

SOBE Concerned Citizens has worked hard to inform Youngstown residents, both online and through the use of billboards, about the dangers of pyrolysis. They have appealed to the Youngstown City Council to oppose the SOBE plant and have encouraged residents to send comments to the Ohio EPA. And in a positive move, the City Council has passed a resolution, which though it is nonbinding, opposes the SOBE plant. In addition, the U.S. EPA Region 5 has sent a letter to the Ohio EPA noting that the draft permitting of the SOBE Energy plant raises "potential environmental justice concerns." This is because issuing the permit could violate the civil rights of low income people and people of color who are already living in an area that is heavily polluted. SOBE Concerned Citizens has worked hard, and the City Council and EPA Region 5 have strengthened their position, but it's too soon to tell whether or not the SOBE plant will be allowed to operate. Whatever happens, activists have made their chants of "SOBE, no way!" a memorable part of the ongoing struggle. I sincerely hope that they succeed and that the SOBE plant won't be another stop on a toxic tour in the near future.

Sign opposing SOBE plant at the Dorothy Day House
in Youngstown in July of 2023; photo by Kathy Wozniak

[More about SOBE:  In February Carolyn Harding talked with activists Sil Caggiano and Lynn Anderson about the SOBE plant on GrassRoot Ohio. Caggiano is a retired Youngstown Fire Department Battalion Chief, and Anderson is an organizer for SOBE Concerned Citizens. Note that Anderson is also a retired graphic designer, and behind her you can see some of her music-inspired paintings.]

Friday, October 6, 2023

Anxious Overtones: Charles Burchfield’s “Church Bells Ringing” and Differing Attitudes Toward the East Palestine Train Derailment


Image at Left: "Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night" by Charles Burchfield is shown as part of the Burchfield Mural in downtown Salem, Ohio.

In July, during our visit to Youngstown, we spent an afternoon in nearby Salem so we could visit the Burchfield Homestead, a place that memorializes the life and art of the well-known water colorist Charles Burchfield. On the walls of Burchfield’s well-preserved childhood home hang prints of many of his works, especially those from his time in Ohio and from what’s known as his Golden Year of 1917 when he developed his mature style. Burchfield learned to depict the natural world in an intense and celebratory way and to show, both creatively and effectively, the harms human beings inflict on the land. But the image that held my attention that day was “Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night” because it was in the very house in which we stood that Burchfield had the experiences that led him to paint what is really more a portrait of a mood than of an actual place.

As I looked at “Church Bells Ringing” I couldn’t help but wonder: What is that shape hovering in the space between those two dark houses, slippery in the oily black rain? Does it have eyes and a beak? Does it have wings? And yet I already knew the answers to those questions, that the central image was in fact the spire of Salem's Baptist Church, since destroyed by fire, which when Burchfield was a boy tormented him with its tolling bell. It sounded to him like "a dull roar... dying slowly and with a growl.” He would listen to it on stormy winter nights, and it filled young Burchfield with a sense of dread. (1) The artist added another layer of personal meaning to this work that involved a visual language of Burchfield's own making, in which certain shapes and lines are part of what he called "Conventions for Abstract Thoughts." There were also "audio-cryptograms," which were meant to make visible certain sounds, like the ringing of a church bell.  And so, unlike works such as “Coke Ovens at Nightin which Burchfield depicts harms done to the natural world, "Church Bells Ringing" contains no flames or clouds of smoke, no seared landscapes that would understandably create a sense of alarm. Just two houses, a church and a darkened sky, with the rain falling down. And yet how ominous.

If Burchfield were still alive, had he been around this year when the Norfolk Southern train derailed in nearby East Palestine and sent flames and toxic smoke into the air, he might very well have painted that scene, giving it the sense of urgency and anxiety depicted in his other images of environmental devastation. After all, he worked in Wellsville  and East Liverpool, among other small Ohio towns, so why not East Palestine? But if he had gone back there six months later, his response might have been different. He might have painted something like “Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night” to show that though the flames and clouds of smoke are long gone, there is still a lot of anxiety and dread in that town, at least for some of its citizens. Only in this case, the sound he might have depicted with an audio-cryptogram would have been the long drawn-out wail of a train whistle.

The Burchfield Mural in downtown Salem

Earlier on the day on which we visited the Burchfield Homestead, we had seen a different image of “Church Bells Ringing." It’s incorporated into the Charles Burchfield Mural in downtown Salem, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Golden Year. Right across the street from that mural is LiBs Market, a café space and shop whose owner, Ben Ratner, was an extra in the film version of White Noise, the Don DeLillo novel in which an airborne toxic event ensues after a truck collides with a train carrying toxic chemicals. When we ordered our beverages, I asked at the counter if Ratner was around because I wanted to talk with him about the film and the derailment, but I was told he wasn’t there that day. Nonetheless, I knew, based on an interview he did with CNN, that he's very concerned about the derailment. His house is a mile from the crash site, he and his family were forced to evacuate, and he and his wife are worried about their family's health, the future value of their home and their overall financial security as a result of the derailment.

Knowing this increased the sense of dissonance I felt when, during our visit to the Burchfield Homestead, we spoke with a local woman who told us she didn’t really think there was anything to worry about in East Palestine. She implied that the response to the derailment was overblown, that the creeks (i.e., Leslie Run and Sulphur Run) “had been polluted for a long time,” and that people needed to return to normal. I thought about the things Ratner had said, and I wondered how two people who lived so near to the site of the derailment could feel could so differently about it. But the area near the derailment is in fact a divided community in which some people feel that they aren’t getting the assistance they deserve and continue to experience serious and worrying physical symptoms while others just want to get back to normal. 

Near the site of the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio
July 14, 2023; photo by G.S. Evans

I had wanted to see for myself what East Palestine was like, and so we had made a short trip to the town a few days previously. We stopped the car on  Taggart Street near the railroad tracks, and there was still a crew working on cleanup. We saw signs that said "Road Closed" and called for an identification badge check, but there were few other outward indications of what had happened there. We got out to take a few pictures, and in the one above you can see a dark van. On one side it said, "What's in your air?" and on the back was the notice: "Monitoring in progress." The unfamiliar sight of air monitoring trucks made me feel uneasy, and the fact that there were houses standing so near the place where flames had shot into the sky and a huge roiling cloud of black smoke had erupted gave me a feeling of deep empathy for anyone who had to stay there and still felt sick. I'm always the one who notices the chemicals, who gets a headache or a rash, and in fact after we had been there for a short time I felt nauseated and wanted to move on. Which of course the people who lived in those houses couldn't easily do...

On August 3, a few days after I returned to Arizona, I attended the Virtual Symposium: East Palestine 6 Months After and got to hear four community activists from the affected area talk about the derailment and its aftermath. Each of them described her experiences of the event, as well as the ongoing symptoms she and her family members continue to endure. They also described feeling diminished by the EPA and other government agencies when told there’s nothing wrong with the air and water in their communities.  All four women have worked hard to advocate for testing of air and water and have asked for monitoring of people’s homes, but they all reported that not everyone in the community thinks there are unresolved problems.

Hilary Flint, Vice President of East Palestine Unity Council, said, "We're told that it's safe, and our pushback on that is that safe is very subjective. It's not safe for everyone.” She said standards being used to determine safety are based on OSHA data which usually involves 8-12 hour exposures on men and a single chemical, not multiple chemicals. She added, “So when we're being told that it's safe -- a lot of people, especially initially, believed that, and they said, ‘Oh, OK, it's safe. We'll go home.’ But what they didn't realize was that it wasn't safe for their elderly family member. It wasn't safe for their child with asthma. It wasn't safe for someone like me, a young adult cancer survivor with autoimmune issues. We're told that it's safe, but they can't guarantee that for every single person." 

Asked to give advice to other communities faced with similar disasters, Amanda Kemmer, also of East Palestine Unity Council, said, "Right now the community is so divided between the people who say 'Everything is in your head,' versus those of us who are experiencing symptoms, and... they're really pushing hard with this PR narrative that everything is fine, everything is OK, and they're throwing a ton of money at this. Norfolk Southern is putting millions of dollars... to show that they're trying to 'make it right' but they're doing nothing to help the actual community." 

Halloween decorations in East Palestine, Ohio;
photo by Kathy Wozniak

Nearly two months later, on September 26, in a NewsNation Town Hall in East Palestine, Chris Cuomo focused extensively on the fact that many people continued to feel unwell. When he asked the roomful of attendees how many were still having symptoms, “experiencing things in a way that don't make sense to you physically and that they weren't like that before,” all but a very few raise their hands. Because Halloween is coming up, people in East Palestine were beginning to put up decorations, and Cuomo described the items that resident Shelby Walker had put up on her front lawn. The first is a scarecrow with the sign "Waiting for testing and the truth from Norfolk Southern... and the EPA," followed by a scarecrow with "Still waiting 5 months later," then a skeleton with "Still waiting 8 months later," and finally, tombstones with a sign that says "Too late..." "It's a macabre joke," Cuomo said, "but that's the mentality they have to learn to live with." 

At the town hall they showed a short video of Cuomo's visit to Walker's home, where she talked about the "sweet chemical odor" that permeates her living space and said that one of the derailed train cars was "right in my back yard." When Cuomo asked her how she felt when officials and Norfolk Southern made the decision to do the controlled burn, she said, "I just cried, because I thought... 'I may never have a home to go home to.' Now today I wish that would have been the case. I wish my house would have caught fire that day and I wish I would have lost everything." She said she still has a mortgage to pay and asked who would buy her house now. She said she is now on an inhaler, gasping for breath, and when Cuomo asked her if she and other disaffected residents are just looking for "a paycheck," she said, "Maybe some people are. Maybe they're not. Me, I'm not. I just want to be safe. I want a home that's safe for my kids and my grandkids to be at, and I want health insurance for them for the rest of their lives because we don't know what's going to happen to us in five or ten years." 

Of course, East Palestine isn't the only community where members have had divergent responses to an environmental disaster. According to sociology professor Becky Clausen, community response can vary, depending on the cause of the disaster. When it's an event that could be called a natural disaster, like a hurricane or flood, people tend to support one another and communities pull together. People consider the event to be an "act of God," with no one to blame, and in those cases support and resources often come quickly from outside sources. But in what she calls technological disasters, or "manmade" disasters, like toxic spills, communities become divided. Sociologists call this response the "corrosive community" because of the level of anger, stress, and loss of trust in institutions people experience, especially when support is slow in coming. These findings are based on sociological research on disasters like the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989. 

Clausen advises people who live in a community where a technological disaster has taken place to "... understand that the reactions you may be experiencing (and those of your friends, family and neighbors) follow similar patterns of social/psychological stress... The confusion and uncertainty about the extent of health-related and economic impacts from environmental contamination create the psychological effect of 'invisible trauma.' Support is often needed to help people move through these reactions and to avoid further social and personal disruption." And yet, as the people quoted above indicate, support has not always been forthcoming in East Palestine, and the sense of corrosive community continues to deepen. 

Clausen recommends setting up events at which people can help each other by listening to each other's stories, and the East Palestine Unity Council and other organizations have facilitated such events. She also recommends learning about similarly affected communities, and the people near the site of the derailment have benefitted from the wisdom of activists like Erin Brockovich and Marilyn Leistner, the last mayor of Times Beach. But when the EPA says the air and water contamination are "below action levels," people who don't have health symptoms may disregard the stories of those who do. And this is where things stand right now in East Palestine.

Adding to the confusion, the differences of opinion about East Palestine aren’t limited to the residents of Columbiana County and nearby Pennsylvania. There have been incidents of victim blaming in the national media, which contribute to the sense of corrosive community. (2) There have been white supremacist accusations that the government is purposefully trying to harm white conservatives in East Palestine. There have even been conspiracy theories making the rounds on TikTok

Taken together, all of these things help to explain how people living in the same place at the same time can experience an event and its consequences so differently. But having heard so many residents of East Palestine say they don't feel safe in their own homes and knowing that, as Hilary Flint said, "safe is very subjective," I feel great empathy for those who want continued testing and monitoring. And having been in Charles Burchfield’s childhood home and seen his “Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night,” I think he might also have had great sympathy for those who don't feel safe in their own homes near the site of the derailment. Perhaps he would have found a way to depict the fear and anxiety that is provoked in the residents of a house standing near the tracks as they hear the insistent hooting of the horn of a train, barreling into town and bringing unknown dangers.

(1) According to Nancy Weekly in her description of "Church Bells Ringing" for the exhibition, "A Dream World of Imagination: Charles E. Burchfield's Golden Year,” Burchfield himself noted the “[h]awk-like aspect” of the Baptist Church,” and he "animated the steeple to look like a ferocious bird.” 

(2) Soon after the derailment, Briahna Joy Gray devoted a segment of her show, Rising, to what she described as victim blaming. She began by calling out Joy Behar, who in a February episode of The View "seemed to imply that East Palestine residents brought the disaster on themselves because they voted for Trump." She then showed a clip of Behar, who said, "[Trump] placed someone with deep ties to the chemical industry in charge of the EPA's chemical safety office," then pointed toward the viewers and added, "That's who you voted for in that district: Donald Trump, who reduces all safety…"

As a response to Joy Behar’s comment, Gray played another clip, this time of former Ohio state senator Nina Turner making a more humane assessment on CNN: “For the neoliberals who say that the residents of that area deserve what they are getting, because they voted for President Donald J. Trump, it is abhorrent. This is about poverty. It is about poor, working-class white people who are enduring some of the same things that poor, working-class black people endure whether it's in Flint, Cleveland or Jackson, Mississippi. And so I want to lay it out. That the cultish behavior in politics right now that it is a sin and a shame that when people are suffering to this magnitude that you have people who will fix their mouths, to quote my grandmother, and say that they are getting what they deserve. What they deserve is clean air, clean food, and clean water, they deserve relief both in the short term and also in the long term.”

Not only is Behar’s response not very humane, there’s also more than a hint of schadenfreude about it. Such joy in the suffering of others, especially if they are on the other side in our intensely polarized political climate, seems to be on the rise in our country. A recent article in Scientific American cited a survey experiment in which over 35 percent of liberals agreed with "the idea that those who do not believe in climate change 'get what they deserve' when natural disasters strike them" and 36 percent of conservative respondents expressed satisfaction "when those who support restrictions on how businesses operate during the pandemic lose their job because of government regulations." The authors of the article say, “Such 'joy in the suffering' of partisan others threatens to dramatically alter the U.S. political landscape,” and it also threatens to make it difficult for people to get the help they need when they are afflicted by an event, like the East Palestine derailment, over which they had no control. 

Thursday, August 31, 2023

The Many Meanings of a Water Lily Pond by Claude Monet and an Untitled Abstract Vista by Al Bright


Water Lily Pond, 1917/19, by Claude Monet, Art Institute of Chicago, 
CCO Public Domain Designation

In a room full of paintings by Claude Monet at the Art Institute of Chicago in July, I was spoiled for choice. I turned and gazed, focusing at first on the Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross Bridge paintings in which these two structures are obscured by the fog and haze Monet loved to paint (see earlier post). In Waterloo Bridge, Gray Weather, for example, smoke can be seen pouring into the air in the background, and the whole urban riverscape lies beneath a hazy, blurry sky. These London paintings give credence to the thesis of the two climate scientists who argued in a recent study that air pollution "provided a creative impulse" for Monet.

After a while, because there were more than thirty people in the room and most of them seemed to want to take a picture of whichever canvas I was standing in front of, I turned away from the London paintings to look at something more serene, three water lily paintings. In 1893 Monet bought property in Giverny in France where he turned previously marshy ground into a pond, built a Japanese-style bridge over it, and brought in some water lilies. This garden became the subject of most of his later paintings, with a particular focus on the water lilies. 

Water Lily Pond 1900 depicts lush vegetation and is enlivened by the curve of a dark bridge. Swirling masses of water lilies fill the pond, and in the foreground, we can see reflections of trees and other greenery on the banks. Water Lilies 1906 is more abstract and simply shows a few graceful islands of vegetation floating in water that reflects the sky and nearby trees. According to the Art Institute website, as time went on, Monet became less concerned with "conventional pictorial space," and so there is no horizon line. The same can be said of Water Lily Pond 1917/19 in which a somewhat muddy palette of green, pink, purple, white, gray and orange gives depth to the water and allows grassy shapes and shadows to build around a central mass of reflections. Monet’s water lily paintings, according to the Art Institute’s signage, was a “significant part of the inspiration for the abstract artists who flourished later in the twentieth century.” I stood there a long time, taking in this third painting, emerging myself in its somewhat mysterious depths.

Later, at the home of our friends Kathy and Richard in Youngstown, I had a chance to see real water lilies growing in the pond that graces one edge of their garden. The garden is full of herbs, grasses and flowers and is also decorated with small outdoor sculptures, including a few by Akron-based artist Don Drumm. In addition, gazing balls and kinetic wind sculptures give the whole yard a playful and dynamic quality, and when we sat near the pond, we could see frogs hopping onto and among the water lilies. Often there were pink flowers within the masses of the large, round, glossy leaves. But one thing about the water lilies themselves was that their charm and beauty didn’t really call to mind Monet’s canvases. One difference, of course, is that they may have been of different species, but more importantly, Monet's later works were too abstract, too focused on irregular masses of vegetation and reflections in the water to give any real sense of what water lilies are like. Well and good. The master painter shows us the world as he chooses. But there may have been more to it than that. 

Water lilies in the pond in Kathy and Richard's garden

According to Dr. Michael F. Marmor, during the years in which Monet was painting in his garden at Giverny, his vision was progressively affected by cataracts. By the mid-1910s, Monet said that "…colors no longer had the same intensity for me," and he began to trust the labels on tubes of paint rather than his own vision. By the early 1920s, Monet thought he might have to stop painting altogether, and he was aware that he couldn't really discriminate color. His work at that time appeared increasingly abstract, though there was nothing in his correspondence to suggest that he was being influenced by the abstract painters of the early 20th century.

Because there is good historical documentation of Monet's progressive vision loss due to cataracts, we can assume that the changes in his painting style may have been affected by his eye problems. Speaking as an ophthalmologist and not an art critic, Dr. Marmor is careful to add that we can’t make these kinds of judgements about every work of art we see. "It would be presumptuous,” he says, “to assume that nonrepresentational painting implies poor visual acuity or that painting with strong colors (or a lack of color) implies that the artist has cataract or color vision abnormalities." Yes, of course! But it’s a documented fact that Monet's work darkened and became more abstract as his cataracts worsened, which makes it all the more intriguing that, though these late paintings were not particularly influential during Monet’s lifetime, they had a tremendous impact on future directions in the visual arts, especially here in the United States.

Writing in The Brooklyn Rail, art historian and critic Norman Kleeblatt reviewed a 2018 exhibit at l'Orangerie in Paris that purported to show the affects Monet's later work had on the American art scene in the mid-twentieth century. He says that the advocacy of the American Abstract Expressionists helped to bring attention to Monet's later painting, which is why the Paris exhibit displayed Monet's late works next to paintings by American artists who were influenced by it. Kleeblatt says that, at one and the same time, "... late Monet could be explained and exploited as foreshadowing the origins of the large-scale gestural canvases, close chromatic range, and all-over compositions of the American painters." These late Monet's were often dismissed for just these reasons -- "their narrow range of dark color, and seemingly direct depiction of the natural world" seemed "either too romantic or too Symbolist." Or worse, they were disparaged as the work of an artist who had cataracts and very blurred vision. But, Kleeblatt tells us, Monet’s influence was strong enough in the mid-twentieth century that two painter/critics began to call the work of their peers Abstract Impressionism.

The exhibit also strengthened the connection by showing a film of Jackson Pollock dripping paint on canvas “alongside a film of a white-suited Monet painting on an easel in his celebrated garden.” This was likely to be the short film available online today, which shows Monet in 1915 as an assured and masterful painter, looking relaxed in his white suit. He can be seen holding his palette, making thoughtful strokes with his brush and referring frequently to the nearby pond where there are, recognizably, water lilies growing. We can't really follow his progress on the canvas, but when the camera pulls back, we can see how lush and filled with foliage his garden was.

My untitled Al Bright painting

Now back to Ohio where we not only spent time in our friends’ garden, but also stayed again in their Mid-century Modern house, with its eclectic mix of vintage furniture and other well-chosen items. Framed posters, photos and works of art abound, but new this year was an untitled work by Youngstown artist Al Bright. I was especially excited to get to know it, because it was mine, a gift from Kathy because I really enjoy Bright’s work. During our stay, I went from time to time to gaze at it, pleased by its palette of pale honeyed beige tones, with a bit of brown, gray and white in the lower half of the canvas, and more yellow tones in the upper half. There are strong horizontal brush strokes, and nearly in the middle of that upper lighter space, there's a semi-circle that looks like a setting sun cut off by a bank of clouds. 

In a description on the website of the Butler Institute of American Art about a recent show featuring eight of Bright's works, he is described as "an artist who truly understood the handling of paint" and as a "remarkable colorist." Bright died in 2019, but there are a number of videos online in which you can watch him painting to live jazz. In each we see the work of a strongly gestural painter, an action painter. Watch him painting while Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers are playing, and you can see the spontaneity of his work and its energy. His improvised art accompanies improvised music, and Bright can be seen to respond in a heartfelt way to the music that he hears. 

Writing in the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2013, Robert Raczka says that Bright deserves to be celebrated for the forty years he spent "translating the sound and energy of jazz into visual expression," while maintaining a consistency of style, color choices, and techniques. Raczka even mentions Bright's frequent use of circles in his compositions, which is at least partially the case in my untitled painting. He also refers to Bright as a "third-generation Abstract Expressionist," saying that his work is closest to the “mellow imagery” of Sam Gilliam and Helen Frankenthaler.

About her own work, Frankenthaler once said, "My pictures are full of climates, abstract climates, and not nature per se. But a feeling. And the feeling of an order that is associated more with nature." And this year, writing in The New Yorker about an exhibit of Frankenthaler’s work at Gagosian, Johanna Fateman has said that the artist’s canvases present “sweeping abstract vistas that recall the roar of waterfalls and crashing waves, as well as silent deserts.” Both Frankenthaler’s and Fateman’s notions help me to express the feeling my untitled Al Bright canvas elicits from me, with its predominance of sandy tones, reliance on horizontal lines and its hemicircle central shape that calls to mind a sun. The abstract vista it implies for me is a desert heatscape, the sun's energy pouring down on some monumentally barren place, calling to mind the planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert's
Dune, calling to mind a future earth scorched by climate change. Not that, I think, Bright was ever a pessimistic artist, but this is something I find in this nearly monochrome work, and it gives me, as Frankenthaler says, a feeling of an order associated with nature. And that order is what happens when hot and dry are imposed by an intense and unforgiving sun as climate change proceeds apace.

Smoky skies above the Youngstown area on July 17, 2023,
caused by Canadian wildfires.

Because this has been a summer of Canadian wildfires, it wasn’t a surprise that we experienced a day of smoky skies and dangerous levels of particulates when we were in Ohio. I’m no stranger to smoky haze over the Youngstown landscape because when I was growing up there the mills were still going strong. In fact, I remember that we accepted that smog and soot because the mills brought a certain kind of prosperity, just as Monet had a positive response to the smog and smoke he saw, which gave him a sense that the world was changing in dynamic and exciting ways. But on July 17, the smoky sky implied nothing but climate devastation and rather than being a harbinger of prosperity, it was a warning that humans need to change our ways soon or something that looks a lot like Al Bright's abstract vista may come to pass.

“Edifice for the Unwanted" Sculpture at Tucson’s Los Reales Sustainability Campus Is an Artful Invitation to Learn About Our Landfill

  I live on the west side of Tucson near the section of Shannon Road that dead ends not far from a steep hill. Hiking websites say that the ...