Art instructor finds inspiration from childhood

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By: Linda Griffith

Carol Whitman, CPCC art instructor, has a piece of work on display in the Pease Gallery as part of the Recycling Exhibition through 7 December. It struck me as rather dark work, not merely because of the colors and materials used, but more specifically by the disturbing image of a simplified human form suspended from a wooden frame by thin strands of red wool.

Most disturbing is the cut-out cavity where the heart is and the heart itself, a lump of what I later found out was coal, dangling there seemingly without connection to the rest of the body.

Intrigued to know more and spurred on by a murmur that the painting had a story behind it I went in search of Whitman and found her in her cheerful Overcash office, filled with paintings and color and sculptures a far cry from the bleak piece hanging half a mile away.

Whitman bubbles about her youth in East Kentucky where her childhood revolved around life in a mining town. Although her parents are both teachers, the majority of their friends and neighbors were connected in some way to the mines. In fact her grandfather across the hollow had his own little mine and mined coal to heat his home.

Her parents still live on the highest peak in the area, gorgeous property Whitman grew up on. When she returned home after having moved away, she said she became increasingly conscious of the damage strip-mining was wreaking on the environment she called ‘home’. She was struck by how the tops of mountains were being knocked off and the mining companies didn’t bother to reestablish the landscape because 20 years ago it was cheaper for them to pay the fines than restore the landscape.

Aggravated by the destruction, she was inspired to create art reflecting her disapproval of coal mining.

Given that the country gets 50 percent of its energy resources from coal, coal mining is a large and forceful industry. Whitman feels that through her art she can have at the very least a voice of concern and protest.

The figure in her piece is a mother-earth figure and is made up of photographs of strip mines. The piece of coal hanging as the heart was actually found by her father on their land.

“You could take the piece several ways. It could be about the condition the earth is in, or it could be a personal reaction to the state the earth is in. I would hope it exists on both levels, personal and physical,” said Whitman.

The figure was meant to be grasping the sides of the frame but Whitman accidentally burnt one of the arms off. Once she had burnt one she said she had to burn off the other and thus suspend the figure from the frame with thread. “I grew up very conscious of using coal so it seemed very natural to burn the figure,” she said.

Was the burning a huge setback? “You have to adjust your plan. If everything goes perfectly you’re not learning,” said Whitman laughing. She has a wonderful easy going personal style, far from the depth of her topic.

Whitman is working on a series entitled “Missing Mountains,” after a book of the same name. She sees her work as the visual representation of the words. “If this series can heighten awareness of what’s going on it would be very rewarding,” she said.

In the meantime she has been highly impressed by the entries amidst which her piece is displayed. “I was blown away by the quality of the work and the way the students in particular embraced the idea.”

Whitman’s piece, entitled “Mother” is a personal expression. It speaks to us on many levels and to her most personally because her backyard and childhood memories are being ravaged by strip mining.

strip miningHer parents still cling to their property which has a seam of coal running right through it. “They refuse to give it us,” said Whitman, and as she hands me a photo I can see why.

Two children smiling into the camera against a background so thick with beautiful, lush, billowing trees that it is hard not to think it is a National Geographic shot. “There. In the distance you can see a strip mine. On that mountain,” Whitman pointed out.

I hadn’t noticed the strip-mine initially because of the beauty of the foreground, but sure enough, there it was, a nasty scar reminding us that natural beauty is a fragile thing, easily destroyed and painfully slow to restore. Whitman’s work shows us all of that, and leaves us looking for more.