by Antrim Caskey
WHITESVILLE, WV — Several years ago, Sarah Haltom painted a mural on the side of the Coal River Mountain Watch office in Whitesville, WV. The mural of the Coal River Valley has stood now for years as a surprising (for first time viewers) and beloved site in a town that seems to be hanging on by its fingernails.
About a month ago, in February, in the midst of a recent sustained campaign of peaceful non-violent civil disobedience in the Coal River Valley targeting the plethora of mountaintop removal operations that have engulfed this Appalachian valley, someone amended Ms. Haltom’s mural by adding six bulldozers/excavators; artfully stenciled them on in fact, with “big machine” yellow paint.
Coal River Mountain Watch let the local and state police know what happened; they promised to keep an eye out. But some wonder if it was guerilla artists who are responsible for the big yellow machinery. Sgt. Michael Smith of the West Virginia State Police (Whitesville detachment) commented to me when I was in his custody recently that “no one is talking…we don’t know who did it.”
I stopped by the CRMW office today to document the latest response in this visual conversation between strangers. Sarah Haltom has responded. Yesterday Ms. Haltom painted six “protesters,” locked down to the yellow bulldozers with long long chains, while holding amongst them four different banners reading in part, “Windmills Not Toxic Spills,” a reference to Coal River Wind project and the Dec.22, 2008, TVA coal ash disaster in Harriman, TN.
A man from Sylvester pulled up as I was shooting the mural. His son was driving – he hopped out to go run an errand. His father hollered to me, “You’re not from around here are ya?” I turned around and smiled and told him that I was from around here, I live in Rock Creek. His head kind of snapped back in surprise and we began to discuss the issues.
“My Daddy worked underground at Blue Pennett for 35 years,” he told me. “Underground. Why can’t they do that today?” He went on to lament with much anguish the losses West Virginia has suffered at the hands of coal. “What they’ve done is terrible. They’re things I’ve seen that he’ll never see,” he said, gesturing to his son who had now returned to the car. “But you can’t do anything about it.”
We turned to the mural and discussed it a bit more. “It’s like a conversation,” he said.
As the son revved the engine to start, the silver haired man, clad in deciduous hardwood camo–the standard in West Virginia– stuck his arm out the passenger window and shook my hand, “It was very good to meet you.”