A bucket of coal sits next to a bucket of rock candy in sculptor Jason Sheridan Brown’s studio. Perhaps nowhere outside Santa’s workshop would you find this combination of work materials. But Brown’s sculptural collages use everything from utility flags to mirrors to comment on the landscape.
After about a decade as a sculpture professor at the University of Tennessee, Brown gravitated toward a pivotal issue in the Appalachian landscape: coal mining, especially mountaintop-removal mining.
“I’ve started looking at the way landscape is sacrificed for energy consumption,” Brown says. Many of his pieces use mountain silhouettes both above and below the surface, like a glacier, to illustrate how this mining process flips the landscape upside down. As a sculptor, Brown finds the shifting of so much material intriguing but disturbing—an impression dating to his childhood, when he saw open-pit iron-ore mines in Minnesota on family camping trips.
Brown says he was grappling with how to incorporate his interest in ecological issues into his work when the Kingston coal ash spill occurred in 2008. He used Google Earth to trace the ridges between Kingston and a Tennessee mountaintop-removal site at Zeb Mountain, building a silhouette from the track. (Brown has received a grant for a graduate student to help him refine this process, so he can make perfect copies of ridge lines using architectural software.)
Brown’s creative process since then has not been limited to experimenting with materials and visual effects. He has also taken videos and interviewed residents in Kentucky and West Virginia towns scarred by mountaintop removal, and these heavily inform his works.
“The most dramatic stories that struck me were families who economically couldn’t relocate and their water had been contaminated, or they lived under a ridge that was gone or where the noise of explosions and machinery were constant,” Brown says. “Even if they had been involved in mining, they had become disenchanted and conservation-minded.”
In the long term, Brown says he’d like to work collaboratively with one of these communities on reclaiming their land through creative landscape design, as the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club has done at former marble quarries in Knoxville.
Brown’s silhouettes of mountains or cities, often cut from materials like tar paper or reflective mylar, sometimes overlap with photos of coal slurry ponds and work zone signs. The mirrors invite viewers to see themselves in both the natural beauty and the destruction of the mountains.
Other sculptures are free-standing, large objects that recall industrial structures and mountains rolled into one. In one example, an upside-down plastic rock hangs like a giant basket filled with coal.
Brown’s focus on the removal of natural resources has increased his interest in getting closer to his materials—leading him to use more cast iron, for instance. One piece Brown made for a sculpture park in his home state of Minnesota resembles two rocks playing on a seesaw. But neither rock is a rock. The one on the ground is cast iron, and the one in the air is plastic made from petroleum. Both use natural resources to make facsimiles of nature (a commentary on all art, to an extent). The sand used for the casting molds—provided by the park—was basically recycled from natural-gas fracking operations, another natural-resource extraction process that alters the landscape and leaves pollution behind.
In Brown’s studio, trusses composed of welded triangles are stacked next to white picket fencing. A statue of a transmission tower dwarfs them. The walls, which reach just halfway to the ceiling of the warehouse-like space, prop up everything: 8-foot mountain ranges made of mirrors, as well as ladders, birch branches, and the longest levels I have ever seen. Brown peels a rubber mold away from a foam rock. Work tables are strewn with a pile of screws, ball jars, maps, and objects that haven’t found their artistic home yet. He welds and fabricates larger pieces at another studio on the UT campus. Brown says no single set of materials can capture his attention for long.
Last year Brown’s art was exhibited at several installations in Lexington, in a collaborative show related to the urban landscape at Striped Light in Knoxville, and in a show at the UT Downtown Gallery with the Land Report Collective, a group of far-flung artists whose work is related to landscape. Brown provided a statue for the Dogwood Arts Artitude auction on April 15 and is also working on a small show for the Central Collective in August made up of Instagram photos that act as a visual diary.
S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at email@example.com
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