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Holding What Can't Be Held: Art Exhibition Explores Legacy of Nuclear Waste in Idaho

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A group of artists recently stepped out of their comfort zones—literally—when they donned safety vests and radiation sensors for a tour of the Idaho National Laboratory.

The second-of-its-kind tour, sponsored by the Snake River Alliance, helped inform artists of Idaho's pivotal role in the Nuclear Age and served as the foundation of a new exhibition, Holding What Can’t be Held, which opens this week at MING Studios in Boise.

“After several years of doing tours with no pictures, we thought ‘Why not start taking artists?’” said SRA Executive Director Wendy Wilson. “They can communicate their experience at the facility to people even better than we can through photographs.”

While INL remains an important nuclear research and development laboratory, it is also a designated superfund cleanup site. Much of the artists' tour focused on observing the unearthing of plutonium-contaminated waste buried between 1949 and 1970. The waste was buried in trenches and pits that lacked adequate protective liners, which SRA said allowed dangerous pollutants to seep into the Snake River Aquifer. To this day, INL is trying to repair the damage and create new best practices for handling the waste.

Sculpture from Holding What Can't Be Held. - ERIC MULLIS
  • Eric Mullis
  • Sculpture from Holding What Can't Be Held.
“We want people to understand that nuclear proliferation has impacts here in Idaho that no one is really talking about,” said Wilson. “There are almost 1,000 tons of nuclear waste already here, and about 100,000 tons still looking for a place to go in this country. Idaho is becoming the de facto nuclear depository, without any public involvement in the issue.”

Holding What Can’t be Held intends to bring that story to light, with exhibitions across a wide range of media, including live dance, photography and artistic interpretations, with the goal of showing the public what it looks like inside the world of nuclear waste.

Local artists in the show include: Boise musician Tim Andreae; photographer John Shinn; Chad Erpelding, an assistant professor of painting in Boise State University MFA program; and husband-and-wife team Kelly Cox and Eric Mullis, who teach in the city of Boise Parks and Recreation Art program.

Daniel Peltz and Sissi Westerberg, installation artists and co-directors of the Rejmyre Art LAB, hail from the Rhode Island School of Design; and Amy O’Brien, a former Broadway dancer and Boise resident since 2002, round out the creative group.

During open studio hours, the artists will be on site to answer questions about their process and experience, and to speak about the potential impacts of nuclear waste on the Gem State.

“This exhibition is better than taking a picture of the desert and saying ‘Oh, there’s nuclear waste out there’, because that waste is invisible,” said Wilson. “But just because it’s invisible doesn’t mean that it can’t hurt you.”