Environmental Issues, Anyone?

On one of several Facebook pages I follow, the other day someone asked if anyone had ever designed quilts “based on environmental issues”. But this is not new, and I was able to answer with two favourite artists whose work had strong environmentalist themes in the early 2000s – Linda MacDonald and Merril Mason and there are many more in the catalogues from that and more recent times. My own art is closely linked to landscape and environment, featuring colours, shapes and textures resulting from process, without focusing on whether the pattern resulted from natural or man made processes, but I don’t think I’ve been expressing environmental concerns as such.

When I and my sisters were very young, Mum sometimes packed a picnic and took us in the car to park for a couple of hours uphill from the Trevallyn Power Station construction site. There was a wonderful view of all the cranes, machinery, concrete-pouring and other construction activity going on below us. While we leaned in fascination on the chainlink fence, or sat in the front seats of the car if it rained, Mum was free to read her book, dispense snacks and drinks, and sip her tea, occasionally commenting or explaining something. We loved those afternoons. I was born in late 1946, and the power station was commissioned in 1955, so we were very young indeed.

Since marrying half a century ago, I’ve moved in and out of many environments, most of them directly mining related. Our first home was on the Great Boulder Gold Mining Company’s leases at the southern end of Kalgoorlie’s Golden Mile. Four hours’ drive from the nearest coast, Kalgoorlie’s an outback mining town in the vast, flat Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia, where gold has been continuously mined since its discovery there in 1893.

The mining industry leaves many marks on the Earth’s surface – shallow workings or diggings, head frames, railways, roads, disused equipment and plant, power houses, crushing plants, machinery sheds, slime dumps, disused mine shafts, plus towns and cities of course. In the late 60’s this historic industrial environment was in the grip of the nickel exploration and mining boom. The excitement of that countered the culture shock of moving there from the leafy green, cool temperate mountainous Tasmania where I we both grew up.

From our arrival until we left in 1975, I sketched and took photos, though I have no idea where those are now. But by the time we returned in 1981, I was stitching creatively, and, inspired by mining activity around me, stitched several framed wall panels, such as this one:

On The Golden Mile” c.1986 approx. 30cm x 25cm. The mine leases on which we once lived included office and plant buildings, head frames, the powerhouse, crushing plants, slime dumps and senior staff housing. By this time, construction of The Superpit was underway, and where we used to live was already being swallowed up in the open pit mining process.
Looking north from the edge of the Superpit, Kalgoorlie, 1993.

I am not blind to the unacceptable damage mining has inflicted on some/many environments around the world, through greed, ignorance, or blatant disregard of mining laws. There have been many unforeseen consequences of actions taken or not taken through inadequate planning. The mining industry has much to answer for in many places: underground collapses, slime dump avalanches, flooding from broken dams being just some. Though mining in developed countries like Australia, USA, Canada and many parts of Europe is probably as safe as such a dangerous industry can be, in other parts of the world where mining is less well- or even not regulated, workers often include children, conditions can be very dangerous, and wages are extrememly low compared to the value of minerals produced.

“Hannan’s Reward” 1993. 100cm x 140cm. In the centenary year of discovery of gold at what became Kalgoorlie, I stood awestruck at the edge of the Kalgoorlie Superpit which had by then absorbed the location of Paddy Hannan’s 1893 reward claim.

Modern living demands mined raw materials to produce essentials such as computer keyboards, wind turbines, solar panels, mobile phones, cars, trucks, trains, planes, steel bridges and house frames. Anti-mining activists tend to cluster in cities where they more easily attract media attention. I am a realist – as even with better rates of recycling, the world’s population cannot do without the products of mining. Companies need to mine responsibly and carefully rehabilitate land once mineral wealth has been extracted.

But to return to the original question that prompted this post, I believe many textile artists are environmentally conscious, even those whose designs don’t spell all this out. Repurposing fabric has historically informed traditional quilt making. Many contemporary artists recycle fabrics in their art, and more use biodegradable fabric-like materials, including builders’ or industrial waste. I believe these are as much an environmental statement as is the actual design content of a piece of art.

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