The work I am submitting for the summer 2023 issue of the Maine Arts Journal is from the Maine-Greenland Collaborations project, which explores connections between social and ecological systems in Maine and Greenland (MEGL). The project looks outward at changing environments as I look inward to locate myself in relation to these changes. When my attention turns inward, there is equilibrium to be found regardless of external chaos and confusion. While the subject matter of my work addresses uneasy topics such as the extraction of natural resources, military presence, surveillance, and power imbalances, I strive to express a balanced perspective through the arrangement of formal elements on the picture plane and in space. The tension between balance and imbalance in the content and form of my work is meant to dismantle simplistic storylines in favor of complex narratives.
I grew up in a coal mining town in Southern Illinois, where mining was the primary livelihood of residents. My grandfather immigrated to the US from Eastern Europe and made his way through Pennsylvania to Illinois to work in the coal mining industry. My father and uncle followed his lead and worked for most of their adult lives in one of the largest coal mines in the country. My father “cleaned” coal, meaning that he ran a machine that removed impurities such as ash and rock from the coal. This was in the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, which was prior to when “clean coal” technologies were developed to reduce the carbon emissions of coal combustion. My father and uncle both developed black lung, and my uncle barely escaped being crushed by a ceiling of coal that collapsed in front of an extraction rig he was driving. They earned living wages and saved enough to send me to college, where I studied art. It occurs to me now that my work with environmental concerns as an artist and educator is tied to my family history. I owe my education to my family, for which I am deeply grateful, but I also owe the planet and feel a responsibility as an activist for ecological health and well-being. This is a daunting task that is fraught with contradictions. There is no doubt that the coal mines brought a “boom” to Southern Illinois. Families lived well on the salaries of unionized miners, but the “doom” factor was there for those who suffered and, in some cases, perished from catastrophic events such as explosions and exploitation. On a larger scale, the negative impacts of burning coal have deeply scarred the natural environment.
My father and uncle were also World War II veterans who were in the infantry and saw combat on the ground. They were survivors of the war and prior to that the Great Depression, which influenced their ways of thinking about government, the military, and economics. They were skeptics who didn’t resort to cynicism. Throughout their lives, they struck a balance between hardship and resilience and passed on this attitude to me.
In 2019, I had the opportunity to travel with colleagues from the University of Maine system to Greenland, where we visited the small town of Narsaq, which is near one of the largest reserves of rare earth elements in the world. We met with a resident who expressed concern over a mining project being proposed next to the town. Rare earth elements are thought to be an antidote to the climate crisis in that they are key to moving away from fossil fuels toward electrification. They are used to make batteries for solar energy, electric cars, and our computers and cell phones. The balancing act between creating sustainable economies through the extraction of natural resources and sustaining the natural environment is complicated, and the geopolitical discourse around this is playing out in Greenland.
Dichotomies such as Boom Doom and Savior Destroyer were described in an article that appeared in the Extractive Industries and Society Journal in 2015. The article drew attention to the ways in which contradictory storylines are developed to influence people and garner support for initiatives that are controversial and have long-lasting impacts.
I applied contradicting storylines in my current Maine-Greenland work to address mining and also military presence. US military presence is prominent along the Maine coast and in Greenland. Long Island, ME, which is a focal point of the MEGL project, was the site of a Naval refueling station during World War II. Narsarsuaq, Greenland, another focal point, was the site of a US Army Air Base built during World War II.
The kayaker pictured in the Savior Destroyer photograph is a sheep farmer from Qassiarsuk, Greenland who paddled out to meet a US convoy of destroyers and cargo vessels that was making its way through the fjord by his home. Local communities did not know if the ships were there to help or harm them. The kayaker’s hands extend upward in what appears to be a gesture of inquiry or even a plea for mercy. It is more likely that the kayaker was reaching up to catch cigarettes and chocolate tossed down by US soldiers who could buy a copy of this photo to take home as a souvenir.
The aerial view to the left is of the US Navy docks on Long Island, and the image to the right is a view of the US Army Air Base built in Narsarsuaq, which is located across the fjord from where the sheep farmer lived. The colors and textures of the side images have been manipulated; the blue symbolizes the military, and the textures are meant to create an ambiguous effect. The image of the kayaker is a detail of a photograph provided by the Narsarsuaq Museum, which holds a collection of military artifacts.
The tower image and the panoramic view from the top were taken on Long Island at the location of a 65-foot Fire Tower built as a lookout point for marine invaders during World War II. The panoptic structure stands as a reminder of the power of surveillance and the vulnerabilities and aggressions of war.
When I first became interested in Greenland, it was because my work as an artist was focused on the climate crisis and the impacts of sea level rise on Maine. I wanted to understand the effects of the melting ice sheet in Greenland on the waters in the Gulf of Maine and Casco Bay. Through working on the MEGL project it has become clear that understanding the climate crisis requires the study of social systems and an exploration of the conflicting themes and storylines this entails.
Image at top: Jan Piribeck, Boom Doom, digital image, 30 x 38 in., 2023.