Making Mosaics From the Marcellus and Other Rocks Under Our Feet

  • Rachel Sager Lynch chops western Pennsylvania sandstone in her studio in Murrysville, PA. Photo by Lauren Knapp

  • Sager Lynch chops native western Pennsylvania sandstone into several small cube-like pieces. Photo: Lauren Knapp

  • Marcellus shale and coal that Sager Lynch uses in her mosaics. Photo: Lauren Knapp

  • Sager Lynch's studio contains hundreds of jars holding pieces of rock and glass she uses for her mosaics. Photo: Lauren Knapp

The Marcellus shale is most notably tapped for its gas deposits. But one artist has found a very different use for the black gold underground: mosaics. Lynch blends shale with other rocks from our region and colorful glass to create work that is being purchased by gas companies and other aficionadoes of local geology. 

Artist Rachel Sager Lynch has been making mosaics for about ten years with material she finds right under her feet. Sager Lynch has created several artfully constructed diagrams illustrating both drilling and the geology beneath us with the help of her pieces of shale, limestone, coal, and sandstone.

“It’s very grey, tan, it has uh, little quartz elements to it so it has a bit of a shine to it,” Sager Lynch said. 

Sager Lynch works out of her home studio in Murrysville, just east of Pittsburgh. She cuts rocks found in the area into thousands of cube-like pieces.

One of Sager Lynch’s more recent bodies of work is a series inspired by the Marcellus Shale. The completed mosaics in what she calls the Mighty Marcellus Number 3 series include a work featuring what looks like a cross-section of drilled layers of earth revealing a well shaft.  Another work is made up of simple layers of black shale interspersed with gold leaf.

Having grown up on a farm in Fayette County, she says her dad was the first person she called when she first conceived of the project.

“And I said, ‘Dad, list me the layers of earth underneath the farm.’ And he did – just like that – he rattled them right off, it was amazing. So that’s how the Marcellus series was born," Sager Lynch explained. 

While she finds most of her materials on walks around the region, she did get her hands on some of the more deeply buried stuff.

“Range Resources gave me a couple buckets full of Marcellus shale that had come from a core sample drilling. So it had come from the 8,000 feet below. And I used up every speck of it. It was wonderful stuff," said Sager Lynch. 

Sager Lynch is decidedly apolitical about her work. She feels she can understand both sides of the heated debate over the gas industry. She’s the daughter of a coal mine owner and she’s an avid nature lover. Her family’s Fayette County property also benefits from natural gas drilling.

"Part of me, is very sad to see, you know, the wells dotting the farmland that I’ve been looking at my whole life. You know, I’ve had maybe a vista that I’ve appreciated since I was a little girl and it’s different now. So I’ll continue to be conflicted about it. I will. That’s my way of working out the conflict," Sager Lynch said. 

But that doesn’t mean she is a passive observer. Sager Lynch sees her work as a way to empower people who might feel overwhelmed by fracking in their region.

"Right now the drillers are the only ones who understand what’s going on below ground. And so this – these images that people can actually stand in front of and touch and really appreciate, you know, in tiny tiny little detail, gives them more of a power maybe over the whole idea of what’s happening," said Sager Lynch. 

Sager Lynch believes everyone in this area should know what’s happening underneath their feet.