September 15, 2018
On our way toward Connellsville from West Newton, Allen found a treasure along our route. In a wonderful example of serendipity, we rolled up to milepost ~104 and met Rachel Sager, mosaic artist. There is quite a lot of info to relate about this day’s ride along the GAP trail, so I yanked out this story because I found it both compelling and wondrous. I hope you agree that it deserves stand-alone coverage.
Rachel, a native of Southwestern Pennsylvania, had always admired a particular brick building on 10 acres near the Youck River, backed by a significant mountain, and laced with a small creek. Once upon a time, the brick building was used as the office for the Banning #2 mine. When she returned to the area as an adult, the structure was being consumed by the mountain and overgrowth. She bought the property in 2015 to become her home and mosaic studio, but had no idea that an actual coal mine and the accompanying above-ground structures came along with the purchase. “Who knew I owned a coal mine?” She remembers asking herself.
Banning #2 was mined for the high quality bituminous coal for which Southwestern Pennsylvania was so famous at the turn of the 20th century. Among the facts she’s since discovered are: coal was mined, sorted, cleaned, and moved in an organized fashion in her Ruins. There was a forge, a rail track, a tipple, and an office. At the time she took possession, most of the structures were camouflaged by the landscape.
She also discovered several of the names of folks who had died both in the mine and among the working structures of her Ruin. She feels it is important to assure the continuance of the of the structures, so those people can be memorialized in the recovering natural setting in which they died. But she’s not thinking of renovating anything. Simply preserving and enhancing.
Once she and her partner saved the brick building (which has become her home) from oblivion, and as she built her art studio, she delved into the thickets of time and found The Ruins. Read about it in her words here.
Each room of the above-ground remains had a distinct use and purpose in service of the coal mining industry. Rachel has done quite a lot of research and knows that one of the rooms held a giant, belt-driven exhaust fan used to ventilate the mine nearby, or possibly, to assist in the “cleaning” of the coal brought up from the mine. In this, the confusion is mine, not hers. I have a different memory of her explanation than Jack does.
In any case, the major discovery she made, from an artist’s point of view, was that The Ruins offer a unique substrate for the work of mosaicists. Each wall, lintel, step, ceiling, door frame, and windowsill has its unique character remaining or growing (mosses, lime deposits, water damage, flaking-away surface) which offer “launching points” for creativity, for statements, for memorials.
It’s the sitting in time that has made them a work of beauty. Time has had its way with the stone and brick. Moss covers great swaths of the walls, creating a beautiful decay . . . 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.
In a “eureka” moment, Rachel decided to make it a project, learning space, installation, and event venue. Many experienced and learning artists have come to be inspired, taught, and expanded by The Ruins Project; to be instructed in the art and freedom of mosaicking by Rachel (and by each other); to understand how the past can inform and direct creativity and memory today; and to admire the visions of those participating in the project-in-progress.
Visitors like us get a visual banquet and an oral history during the tour, as well as experiencing being neither indoors nor outdoors, but a bit of both as we wander around and listen to Rachel’s impassioned talk of community, the past, creativity, preservation, and expression. (Tours are by appointment only — see www.rachelsager.com)
Among the first things Rachel pointed out to us, at our very feet, was what is called “Red Dog.” It is a byproduct of the mining process in the region, and lies everywhere. Whereas many might simply see detritus, the artist sees foraged material for creation. We witnessed many uses of Red Dog on the walls of The Ruins.
Next, she pointed out to us a beautiful instance of art serving as a bridge between history and present, between industry and nature. A visiting local artist spent a day foraging materials, considering her vision, and another day studying the “canvas” of The Ruins. The two artists brainstormed and came up with creating a beehive coke oven, which is still in progress, awaiting more bees when the artist returns.
Rachel’s August 29, 2018 blog post offers much more detail about this specific installation and its inception, and is incredibly worth the read.
My next (GAP 5 Part 2) travelogue, with more about our ride through this section of the GAP trail, has more about the coke ovens that you can still see (if you look very hard)—and the process by which coal must be transformed to coke if it is to be consumed at temperatures hot enough for use in the steel industry.
We were impressed by the variety and interesting materials chosen by the various artists and students who have come to learn from The Ruins Project. One room began with a snake slithering along a windowsill (see above) and wound up being their animal room. Another has an unearthed mirror sitting on a ledge. Several had the elements of tools and equipment left as a reminder that the work is ongoing, progressive, and informed by the atmosphere, even though there were no working artists when we were there. Many span inside corners, and one even covers a “z-shaped” interior structure. Here is a collage of inspiration.
I have a particular fondness for chickens, and there were two represented in the artistry we saw:
I commend all the students and artists who shared their creativity and inspiration in this project, and I look forward to all the artistry that is yet to be secured to the remains of the past. I am truly inspired by what Rachel Sager is accomplishing and envisioning here and I hope you will be also. Sign up and take a class (https://www.rachelsagermosaics.com/the-ruins-project/about/) or go by and see Rachel and her passion. Tell any friends you have that are mosaicists or are interested in the art of mosaic. You and they will be inspired, I guarantee it.
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.
One final note: Because we will be visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Falling Water on Sept. 16, I was impressed with this artwork by Rachel, which I unfortunately, was not able to see in person, but only in postcard form. This 2014 piece measures 36 in. x 24 in., and is composed of Marcellus shale, sandstone, limestone, smalti (sometimes referred to as Byzantine glass mosaic tile), 24K gold smalti, concretions, and ceramic. F.L. Wright, who was so passionately devoted to creations that reflect, resemble, and fit into their native landscapes, would definitely approve, I’d say.
“Why? Because this place will feed your soul.” —Rachel Sager