Artists Remember the Dunkard Creek Disaster

July 14, 2012

In September 2009, a 43-mile-long creek that meanders across the West Virginia/Pennsylvania border suffered one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters in local history. Two years later, artists have collaborated to pay homage to the animals that died by the thousands in Dunkard Creek. 

The two creators of the exhibit, Ann Payne and Wendy Henry exchange anxious glances as they walk down a path to the bank of Dunkard Creek in Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania. The two haven't been to this spot since Henry asked her friend Payne, a Morgantown artist, to look at an unfolding disaster on the creek near her home.

"Remember we walked down this way toward the creek and off to the left there was a bunch of birds and I thought good grief- there's a bunch of green herons. We got closer and they were eating bodies of dead fish."

"Yeah, they died by the 100s. All different species Most of the animals that were here that existed for 40, 45 years of my life were now gone. And they suffered. They tried to climb over each other to get into the fresh stream," said Henry.

Ann and Wendy recall the scene as the "perfect storm" for a massive kill of aquatic life. It was September and the creek was low. 

Scientists later surmised that discharge from a coal mine created the conditions for a toxic algae bloom. As many as 65,000 aquatic animals suffocated in the salty water along the length of the stream. 

"The smell was unbelievable. It was death. And I'm a country girl and I've smelled many dead things along the woods. But this was a death I never smelt before," said Henry.

"I just thought this is something people need to see. We can't come up with solutions unless we look at the problems. And this is a problem," said Payne.

Payne said she walked away from the creek determined to do something. First, she questioned scientists about the animals that disappeared from the creek. She got an official list of fish, but had to sleuth for the kinds of reptiles, mussels, amphibians and insects that had lived in Dunkard, one of the most diversely populated creeks in the region.  When she finished her research, she began painting portraits of individual species.

"A year later, I think by 2010, I think I had ten paintings," she said.

At age 70, Payne realized she'd never be done with this project in her lifetime. So she recruited 89 other artists with close ties to the Monongahela watershed to portray 90 lost species.  After months of coordination, Reflections: An Homage to Dunkard Creek hit the road in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.


About 100 people crowd into a college art gallery in Fairmont, West Virginia, one of the communities where the Dunkard exhibition will be hung. Ann Payne walks around the space. Small images of fish, mussels, water snakes, frogs, insects hang on the white walls.  She says no two artists have used the same materials or styles to produce their portraits.

"This is a digital inkjet print. This one is needle work. Is that fun? Uhm, this one cut wood that he has put together in layers. I have no idea how he did that. That's a mudpuppy," said Payne.

Morgantown artist Steve Pavlovic is also on hand. His piece memorializes the rainbow mussel, one of the 17 mussel species wiped out in the disaster.

"I worked out near Blacksville as a teacher for five years so I went by Dunkard Creek every day," said Pavlovic. "I knew where all the tipples were and I was familiar with the creek. So I thought I would put the two images together to show the interaction between them."

Pavlovic also incorporated Egyptian imagery in his piece. Stylized sun rays pulse from the mussel.

"The sun gods rays coming down is like resurrection. And so I'm hoping the creek will return," he explained. "I hope that nature will win in the end."

So far hundreds of people have seen Pavlovic's piece and the other portraits. The show has been paired with panel discussions, a legislative reception. Even preserved aquatic specimens. 

Across the gallery, Brandy Fluharty and her boyfriend stare at a portrait of mimic shiners, small fish often used as bait by people who once fished the creek.

"It's really sad. I was raised where there's a lot of farmland and we have creeks and I couldnít imagine if something happened there because that's what you center yourself around when you're a kid," she said. "You go fishing and you skip rocks by the creek and it would just be sad if it was totally polluted where you couldn't do anything."

Brent Bailey, director of the Appalachian program of The Mountain Institute, says this kind of discourse is exactly what his nonprofit had in mind when they agreed to sponsor the art show.

"People have been coming into this art exhibit who have never been to an art exhibit before," said Bailey. "And they might be people who have never been to a public hearing about water quality. It's giving folks an opportunity to look at something and have a conversation about what's happening in their own back yards."

When the show reaches Pittsburgh in May, it will have toured for two years. Marian Hollinger, the art curator at the Brooks Gallery, thinks the exhibition has worked in community after community because the artists generally chose to celebrate the life, not the death of the creek's inhabitants.

"If you hit people with a pile of dead fish or endless images of disaster people become inured to it fairly quickly. They say oh how awful and either it's all the same level of awful or they stop looking," said Hollinger.

Both Ann Payne and Wendy Henry hope that people don't stop looking or talking about the fate of the creek.

"It just warms my heart knowing we have a chance now," said Henry. "The awareness will keep it in the forefront and not shove it under the rug."

Officials believe it could take a decade or more for mussels to come back if they do at all. Agencies have no baseline for the creek's amphibians, reptiles or insects. Consol Energy, blamed for the mine discharge that contributed to the disaster, has paid WV $500,000 for creek restoration and is building a $200 million mine water treatment plant that must be finished by 2013. Pennsylvania agencies are currently suing Consol.