Artists Respond to Dunkard Fish Kill

Charleston Gazette
9 December 2011
By Lori Kersey

The Ghost Shiner, shown here in a portrait by Amy Lindenberger, has little or no pigment. -  Courtesy photo

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two years ago when a friend insisted that Ann Payne go to Dunkard Creek and survey the damage there, she was shocked by what she saw.

The stream that runs along the border of Pennsylvania and West Virginia was experiencing one of the worst fish kills in either state's history. Once a habitat for all sorts of fish, mussels, amphibians and other creatures, 18,000 to 22,000 animals in a 43-mile stream were dead or dying.

"It was the worst thing you can imagine, just death everywhere," Payne recalls. "Every type of fish ... Some had tried to get out of the water. It was horrible. I was just traumatized."

Scientists attributed the fish and animal kill to a toxic algae bloom.

Payne lived 12 miles from the creek and said she previously didn't feel a connection with it. But after seeing the destruction, she couldn't help but be moved.

"You can't see something like that and not do something," she said.

So Payne, an art instructor and member of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, came up with an idea to illustrate each of the species that perished in the kill. It was a way for her to respond to what she had seen that day, she said.

What ultimately resulted was an art exhibit in which 90 artists illustrated each of the 90 species that lived and were killed in Dunkard Creek.

The work of Payne and her fellow artists, "Reflections: Homage to Dunkard Creek," will be on display at the Frankenberger Gallery at the University of Charleston from Dec. 15 through Jan. 25.

Payne initially planned to illustrate the creatures by herself.

"That was 2009, and by 2010, I had done seven portraits," she recalled. "I thought, 'the math isn't working.' So I decided to ask for help."

She enlisted the help of 89 other artists, each with a tie to the Monongahela Watershed, where Dunkard Creek flows.

Knowing just a handful of artists from the Pittsburgh area where she teaches, Payne placed cold calls to many of the artists that worked on the project. She said she had an "enormously good response" from the artists she asked. One artist, she recalls, told her he felt like he had been waiting for her to ask him.

"Amazingly, I think I only had one artist that didn't produce [by] the deadline," she said.

The answer to what caused the algae bloom and fish kill is still unfolding. Mining company Consol Energy ultimately paid $5.5 million in civil penalties for pollution violations relating to the fish kill. More recently, one of the lead scientists investigating the incident has indicated that the discharge from a fracking well may have caused the algae.

Brent Bailey, director of the Mountain Institute Appalachia Program, which sponsors the exhibit, said the show is not about placing blame.

"I don't see the exhibit as having one message, but a series of questions," Bailey said. "It doesn't bash anyone."

Bailey said what happened at Dunkard Creek raises questions about who owns the water and what responsibilities people have to conserve it.

Bailey provided the catalogue for the art exhibit. The booklet includes each artist's rendering as a description of the animals.

"[I wanted to] add some educational piece to the show," Bailey said, adding that the show stands alone on its merit. The idea is that people can take it home and learn more about each of the creatures that died in the fish kill, he said.

Some of the portraits are whimsical, others are beautiful or political, Bailey said.

"It was a huge range," he said. "When you have 90 artists doing 90 portraits and most of the artists didn't know the species before [the project], you're going to get a variety."

The show debuted in Morgantown Sept. 9. Local artists told Bailey and Payne that it was the most-attended art opening in Morgantown they had ever seen.

From elected officials to voters and fishermen, Bailey said a variety of people came to the opening. The show is now booked in places from Charleston to Pittsburgh for the next two years, Bailey said.

"There's something in the show for everyone," he said. "It's a show that has real broad appeal ... I hope that people will take advantage of [seeing] it."

A reception and gallery talk is planned from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Dec. 15 at the Frankenberger Art Gallery at the University of Charleston. For more information, contact curator Ray Yeager at (304) 357-4387.

Reach Lori Kersey at or 304-348-1240.