Idaho Arts Quarterly » Further

Can You Dig It?

Sun Valley Center for the Arts takes on mining


From the Tibetan Plateau to the Amazon Basin, mining continues to play an important role in fueling the economies of the world, often at great environmental and human cost. The Sun Valley Center for the Arts examines the effects of mining with a multi-disciplinary exhibition titled "Stripped: An Exploration of Mining," running Oct. 9 to Dec. 11. The show features work by photographers Victoria Sambunaris, Sebastio Salgado and Alfredo Jaar, painters Andre Yi and Jennilie Brewster, and multimedia artists Lucy Raven and Valerie Sullivan Fuchs.

"We tried to present a balanced perspective on mining with this exhibition," says SVCA curator Courtney Gilbert, who researched mining disasters in Utah and Pennsylvania, mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia and civil wars over diamond mines in Africa before coordinating the exhibition with other SVCA staff members. The result is a dramatic survey of the impacts of mining around the world.

"Nobody can deny that mining has a huge environmental impact on the planet, but there is also the flip side that it creates jobs," says Gilbert. Both these effects, as well as artistic interpretations of the withdrawal of materials from the earth, will be displayed at the show.

It is the representations of humans toiling the mines that present some of the most compelling work in the exhibition. Internationally acclaimed photographers Salgado and Jaar have captured compelling images of workers in the mines with a very different focus.

Salgado's photographs of mud-covered workers carrying sacks of ore from the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil are all the more powerful because they are made by a photographer trained in a very different discipline. Salgado was born in Aimores, Brazil, in 1944 and trained as an economist in Sao Paulo and Paris. During the '70s, while working in the field for the International Coffee Organization and the World Bank in Africa, he started taking pictures of what he saw around him. Since abandoning economics, Salgado has spent much time teaching the world about the true human cost of getting precious materials out of the ground using large-scale industrial manual labor.

The SVCA show features images from his book Workers, which was published after Salgado traveled to 23 countries from 1986 to 1992 documenting the plight of the laborers who he encountered.

An artist, architect and filmmaker born in Santiago, Chile, in 1956, Jaar exposes the human beings that mine. His remarkable 1986 portrait of Brazilian gold miners on break is featured in the SVCA show. While Salgado's images portray anonymous workers toiling like insects, Jaar shows us the faces of the workers themselves­—proud and defiant despite their working conditions.

In addition to the images of the human experience, the impact of mining on the land is a significant topic being explored by these artists. American artist Andre Yi uses 19th century mining towns—now ghost towns—as the subject for his paintings. Yi is from Texas, but the inspiration for his art begins in Asia. Rather than provoke social commentary, as the photographers' images seem destined to do, Yi's beguiling paintings present the mining landscape as flowing images of minimal marks hanging in space. They are, in fact, quite beautiful.

Multimedia artist Lucy Raven will debut a video called Chinatown, which follows copper ore from its extraction in Ruth, Nevada, to its processing in China. The film title references both the destination of the ore and the role of Chinese workers in early mining in the American West, while invoking the catchy tune of the same name.

For the past few years, painter Jennilie Brewster has been traveling around the United States creating paintings and installations that evoke Romantic landscapes while exploring contemporary issues around land use. Last summer, she toured Black Thunder open pitcoal mine in Wyoming. Brewster was moved by the bleak landscape there, both for the land and for the people.

"The scene felt post-apocalyptic," Brewster says. "Miles of train cars coming and going overloaded with black matter, and the non-stop noise and motion of trucks the size of small buildings moving equally oversized piles of earth around." When asked how long the mine would be in operation, "Our tour guide said that they're telling workers there will be jobs there for their children and grandchildren," she says.

"The only town nearby is Wright, a community of small prefab homes, a trailer park and a strip mall. In Wright, the guide told us that either you work at the mine or you work in the oil and methane fields."

While Brewster is in residency for two weeks at SVCA, she will explore the valley's abandoned mines and create a large-scale, multimedia painting in response. The painting will be shown alongside The World Became a Slow Mirror, a painting inspired by the Black Thunder mine.

Valerie Sullivan Fuchs' light box installations will be placed on electrical poles around Ketchum, presenting aerial photographs of open pit coal mines that were once Appalachian mountain tops in her native land of eastern Kentucky.

The effects of modern large- scale mining on the landscapes of Coaldale, Pennsylvania; Gillette, Wyoming, and Fairbanks, Alaska, are documented by Victoria Sambunaris. In these locations, enormously efficient machines operated by a few people can devour entire hillsides, making a crater where there once was a mountain. These un-peopled moonscapes bordering on lush forest provide a haunting reminder of what has come to pass and what the future may hold.

Closer to home, a person need look only to the hills above Ketchum for evidence of the 1880s mining boom in the Wood River Valley. Although people came from around the world to work the mines, today their legacies are marked only by mine shafts, tailings piles and ghosts towns. Like so many mining towns in the West, the wealth was extracted and sent elsewhere. In a telling reversal, the SVCA show has gathered a wealth of artistic talent and brought it to town to reflect on the effects and images of just such undertakings.

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*Editor's Note: After this article appeared in Idaho Arts Quarterly, the title of the show was changed to "Prospects: An Exploration in Mining."