Artists Present Their Take on 2009 Dunkard Creek Disaster

An art exhibit by 90 regional artists exhibits 90 species that died in the fish kill.

The State Journal
28 September 2011
By Pam Kasey

Wading into Dunkard Creek two years ago this month, Morgantown artist Ann Payne saw dead fish everywhere — floating around the bends, bumping into logs.

“I walked up to this little seep and fish were trying to get up into this tiny, tiny rivulet of water that wasn’t contaminated. It was like a living sardine can,” Payne recalled.

“What really got to me, there was the body of this little mudpuppy,” she said. “You never see them. But they were trying to climb out of the water.”

Unlike many who read about the September 2009 Dunkard Creek fish kill, Payne drove out to see for herself what happened when salts released into the creek caused a bloom of golden algae which killed creatures on more than 30 miles of the fishery.

Payne wanted to do something.

“Reflections: Homage to Dunkard Creek,” an art exhibit that opened Sept. 9 in Morgantown, came of Payne’s experience: 90 regional artists depicting 90 of the species that died.

Payne started painting the species one by one. But as estimates of affected species topped 100, she soon became overwhelmed. She called on artists to help and got such a powerful response that she realized she had to define the project.

“I didn’t want people who had an environmental theory,” she said. “I wanted people who had a personal, physical connection to this watershed. So I defined it as the Monongahela River watershed, which Dunkard flows into, and working artists who have a physical connection to it.”

She had two parallel tasks: to come up with a list of species and to organize the artists toward an exhibit.

“This took a took a lot of time and delayed the project,” Payne said.

She drew fish, crayfish and mussel species from a West Virginia Division of Natural Resources list. DNR did not sample insects killed, she said, but did have inventories from before and after; she included species whose populations dropped significantly.

“That left amphibians and reptiles,” she said. “As far as I could figure out, nobody has done a thorough, ongoing inventory of that kind of critter on those waters.”

After numerous calls and consultation with various lists, Payne settled on a set of Dunkard species that are either gill-breathing or had water-living young at the time of the kill.

“I stopped at 90,” she said. “I think the list is pretty close to the way things were.”

Based on influences from exhibits she’d seen, an art class she’d taken recently and her own sensibilities, Payne was inspired with a unique design for the exhibit.

She wanted a uniform appearance among the many artists, so she created art boards of the same size — about 10 inches by 7 inches.

That also fit her goal of making the exhibit portable.

“The whole thing fits in five boxes in my back seat,” she said.

Assigning species to artists posed another challenge.

“The rules were that it was random,” Payne said, because she knew if she tried to meet individual requests, it would get out of hand. “I put all the names in a mayonnaise jar and what they got, they got.”

When the artist assigned the flathead catfish, Christina Neumann of Pittsburgh, wanted to switch, Payne said no.

“A couple weeks later she was addicted to this fish,” Payne laughed. “She’d gone out to fishermen and had them cut catfish open. They found a Batman figurine, a beer bottle top, babies of their own kind.”

Payne’s friend Brent Bailey, who directs the Appalachian Program at The Mountain Institute, got his organization involved on the natural history and education side.

“A group of artists could have gotten together and maybe done this themselves, but as a nonprofit organization serving a mission for the public good and broader awareness for conservation, it was a hand-in-glove fit for us,” Bailey said.

TMI funded a glossy catalog of the exhibit with brief species biographies that speak to diversity and interdependence.

“Call is a snore sound,” reads the description of the northern leopard frog. “Jumps in zig-zag leaps of five to six feet.” The red-spotted newt “eats insects, young amphibians, frog eggs and worms.” Bailey also spent several days interviewing residents along Dunkard Creek for a seven-minute video that accompanies the exhibit.

“Everybody has a story to tell about Dunkard Creek — the biggest fish they caught, favorite places to swim, what they do with their families there,” he said.

One of the video’s three sections is about lessons learned.

“Everybody said, ‘Pay attention — report something that doesn’t seem right. Take responsibility,’” Bailey said.

“Many of the people that we spoke with are retired from the coal industry, and they’re ardent fishermen, and they see the need for balance between protecting our resources and producing energy. They also see the need for strong enforcement of the rules.”

But, he added, “This is not a finger-pointing art exhibit. It gives people the opportunity to ask the question, What do we do to resolve conflicts?”