GAP 5 Part 1: The Ruins Project

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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)

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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.

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Beneath these Pennsylvania Mountains.

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.

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This is a permanent and growing list of artists who have taken part in The Ruins Project to date.

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.

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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.

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“Why? Because this place will feed your soul.”          —Rachel Sager

 

GAP 2, Cumberland, Maryland

Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018

Before jumping into the shuttle service van that was scheduled to drive us, our bikes, and all our gear (in Minnie-Van) to a ‘burb of Pittsburgh (West Homestead, PA), we had time to take a quick walking tour of Cumberland, mostly along the waterfront GAP trail, and up Washington St. to the famous Episcopal Church on the hill, in which Tiffany windows glow even with the dull, cloudy day on which we started our adventure. But more of that in a bit.

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There’s a lot of history in Cumberland, where a very young George Washington surveyed the area, and where Wills Creek (channeled with concrete in the photo to mitigate flooding in the downtown historic district) meets the Potomac River. Historically, Cumberland was first a Fort, then a transportation hub; today, it is a hub for recreation, where the C&O Canal towpath trail meets the Great Allegheny Passage rail-to-trail conversion: Mile 0 of the GAP trail. The terminus of the C&O Canal, in the ebb of its heyday, became the beginning of the first US National Road.

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As a National Historic Place registrant, Cumberland has a lovely pedestrian area where old building facades have been preserved and are in use as boutiques, restaurants, businesses, and shops, accessible from the GAP trail. Much artwork adorns the Wills Creek area.

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This is just a small section of an enormous mural adorning two complete building walls framing the corner of the pedestrian mall area.

As we walked across Wills Creek and up Washington Street toward two amazing tours Allen had arranged for our group (one was a Historic Society preserved Victorian home with most of the period furnishings and structure intact), we saw many homes and churches in the oldest, highest-above-the-river part of town. Among the prettiest is the one at the top of this blog post. 

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Some of the homes need a bit of TLC.

The original Fort Cumberland, a colonial-era stronghold, was built atop the high ridge, with a protective (and controlling) view of the mighty Potomac River.

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Artist’s interpretation of what Fort Cumberland might have looked like when it was used in the 1700s. This image shows the Potomac River in the foreground, with Wills Creek joining it near the lower right—that is not a turn in the Potomac, but rather the two flowing together, then meandering off to the right, out of the picture and toward the Atlantic.
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View of Cumberland today from the old fort site.

At the time, much more of the municipality was on high ground. The earth has been removed for building and roadways over the long years since it was just a fort. Now Cumberland occasionally floods. This knowledge and seeing where our cars would be parked for the trip left the three couples who had vehicles in the Canal St. long-term parking area slightly concerned about local flooding with Florence’s potential trajectory. What we hadn’t counted on was the pigeons—more on that in the final installment of the cycling part of this trip.

Upon the site of the old fort was built, in the 1800s, the Episcopal Church with the Tiffany windows.

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The neatest aspect of this building, in my opinion, is the way in which they preserved some of the abandoned fort infrastructure, and used the old fort’s tunnels upon which the church sat as a stop along the Underground Railroad. For many, many years the pastors of the church hid, nurtured, and transferred escaping slaves to the next stage of safety along their road to freedom. 

Our guide began our tour with a digital “playing” of the old organ (complete with a heraldic horn section). The congregation’s organist is also an organ tuner and builder, and he’s adjusted the equipment so it can be played digitally or manually; from the back of the room or from the front (during special musical events). It was pretty awesome.

Louis Comfort Tiffany was the talented son of Charles Tiffany, the jewelry store owner. L.C. Tiffany was an interior designer in the mid-1800s, when his interest turned toward the creation of stained glass. He opened his own studio and glass foundry because he was unable to find the types of glass that he desired in interior decoration. He wanted the glass itself to transmit texture and rich colors, and he developed a type of glass he called “Favrile,” which he patented in 1892. Favrile glass has a superficial iridescence, which causes the surface to appear to shimmer, and “collects” light from that which surrounds it. “It is distinguished by brilliant or deeply toned colors . . . iridescent like the wings of certain American butterflies, the neck [feathers] of pigeons and peacocks, and the wing covers of various beetles” — according to Tiffany himself.

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While this image appears blurry (and it was, in fact, taken from a long distance, but with the camera solidly on a firm surface) I think it is a technique used by Tiffany to affect a “painting” or brush stroke with the glass. I may be wrong, but I think it’s made of streamer glass. The phrase “streamer glass” refers to a pattern of glass strings affixed to the glass surface, to represent twigs, branches, and structures like feathers. Streamers are made from molten glass that is vigorously swung back and forth to stretch into long, thin strings which rapidly cool and harden. These are pressed onto the molten surface of sheet glass during the rolling process and become permanently fused.
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This Tiffany triptych is not backlit. Instead, it’s made using many, many layers of glass, to “shadow” areas, and to leave other areas able to capture the ambient light and direct it—as with using lighter-colored paints—to illuminate the areas in the scene that either show light or reflect it. Here the light comes off the actual torch raised above the saint’s head, and the glass gathers light where the torchlight hits the martyrs bodies in the scene.
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Another Tiffany window one might think is backlit, but it is not. There are many layers of glass in the darker portions to create the many, many shades of blue throughout. It is an incredibly heavy window.

One of the stories told by our guide involved the integration of the church, just after the American Civil War. Some of the former slaves had been “raised” to be Catholic, but when they got to the north (Maryland was actually a slave state prior to the ACW) they were not welcomed to attend the Catholic Church’s services. One of the white friends of the Catholic congregation asked the Episcopal priest if the former slaves could attend his church (same fellow who ran the underground railroad stop) and he said, of course. There was an upper concourse set aside for the black folks—but even then, some of the Catholic blacks would not attend a non-Catholic service.

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Along this wall above the main floor was once the “blacks only” balcony. In the mid-twentieth century, it was reserved for the choir. And finally, it was removed and renovated as it appears today.

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Later in the tour, we saw the original drawings for a cross and candelabra, also designed and made by Tiffany for the church. None of the pix I took of the golden items nor the drawings turned out, I’m afraid.

As we entered and exited, I was interested in the patterns of the limestone slabs in the walkways, after years and years of erosion. They looked a bit like those relief maps of the ocean floor.

After admiring the “above ground” amenities of the structure, our guide took us downstairs, into the tunnels. There were rooms, narrow stairs, thin “runways” and low-hanging structural elements everywhere. It was frightening to think of a live person with black skin coming here for refuge and respite after a long, dangerous trip from Georgia or Virginia. Afraid every second that he or she would be betrayed. Near starvation or looking over the edge toward starvation at every moment. Too tired to sleep—too afraid or hungry or sick or injured to rest.

The fort’s ammo magazine and all the protective below-ground structures were made by erecting wooden forms and filling behind them with clay and rocks from the river. Those hardened and, with the exception of a few river rocks that have come loose over the centuries, the walls have held up to this day.

Our guide told us that, while the fort used long, underground tunnels to access water for the fort’s uses from Wills Creek and the Potomac, by the time of the underground railroad, the same tunnels were used to get human cargo from the “bad part of town” (the red light district, near the waterfronts) up to safety, nourishment, and rest under the church, and then off to the north and across the Mason-Dixon Line, a mere 10-ish miles by crow flight from Cumberland; Milepost 20.5 along the actual rail line that is now the GAP trail; and freedom for the escaped slaves.

There was much more to Cumberland that we did not see, including the structure out of which George Washington worked, and the Visitor Center. But we had a shuttle to catch at 2PM.

And we were off to West Homestead, a suburb of Pittsburgh. 

It was every bit of a 2-hour drive up interstates and toll roads, but we made it without too much problem, except for missing a turn during Pittsburgh rush hour.

But the hotel we occupied, Hampton Inn, was right on the trail and the Monongahela River (the GAP trail heading east follows the Monongahela until McKeesport, where it turns to follow the Youghiogheny River (pronounced Yawk-a-gain-ee, or the Yawk for short). Milepost 150 of the GAP trail is at what the city calls “The Point” where the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers come together to create the Ohio River. 

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Homestead was once known as the Steel Capital of the World, symbolizing Pittsburgh’s dominance in the industry. Our city guide (tomorrow) reminded us that, at its peak of production, Pittsburgh was commonly known as “Hell with the lid off.”

Homestead’s flagship complex of US Steel was shut down in 1986. At that time, it had 450 buildings on 430 acres, and employed 200,000 workers throughout its years of making unprecedented amounts of steel.

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West Homestead is a mere 10 miles from Pittsburgh’s Point, and along with other suburbs of the city, is re-making itself as a shopping and recreation/tourism draw. Bravo to Pittsburgh and environs for making progress cleaning up and re-focusing the city.

We took a quick shake-down ride to assure our bikes made the trip in good shape (about five miles) and then got cleaned up to walk across the road to an enormous shopping area, with beautiful plantings and flowers everywhere, and more shops and restaurants than you can imagine, including Rockbottom Brewery.

Our group dinner was at Bravo Cucina Italiana, and it was excellent and fun.

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As we walked back to the hotel, we noticed a poster, but couldn’t quite get the idea of Indoor Axe Throwing into our heads.

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Tomorrow, Pittsburgh and a grand bicycle tour of the city!