Environment

When life gives you coal ash, make coal ash art

Caroline Armijo (All photos: Dayna Reggero, The Climate Listening Project, The Story We Want)

Caroline Armijo was feeling relaxed, her mind open, during a guided meditation class when she was visited by a creative muse: Why not take coal ash, the source of misery for so many people in her hometown of Walnut Cove, and fashion something beautiful from it?

Now Armijo, an environmental activist and a mixed-media artist, is creating sculpture out of crisis. She recently received a $350,000 grant for The Lilies Project, a joint art installation with the Center for Composite and Material Research at NC A&T. Together, Armijo, Kunigal Shivakumar and his colleagues at the Center will use the ash from Belews Creek to sculpt a flowered archway at Fowler Park in Walnut Cove.

Armijo’s project is one of 23 that received money through ArtPlace America’s National Creative Placemaking Fund.

“I’m going to make the mold,” Armijo said, and the scientists will procure the coal ash. “I’m scared of it.”

Center Director Kunigal Shivakumar and his fellow scientists explained in the grant proposal that they will use a polymer to encapsulate the ash. This will seal the material and prevent the leaching of heavy metals into the groundwater and air.

A block made from coal ash that is safe to touch. The Center for Composite and Material Research is creating safe reuses for the toxic material. 

Ash is already combined with other materials to strengthen concrete, but Armijo said, some of it is not the proper quality for that use. “My intent is to demonstrate a new technology to reuse the ash that concrete companies don’t buy.”

For nine generations, Armijo’s family has lived in Walnut Cove, population 1,383, in rural Stokes County. However, it wasn’t until 1974 that the small town got a new neighbor: Duke Energy’s Belews Creek power plant and its 20 million tons of coal ash stored in an unlined, leaking pit.

The project will include oral histories of residents who have been affected by coal ash, plus a walking tour and a performance. The name of the project was inspired from the movie Lilies of the Field, which includes a song, “Amen,” written by Belews Creek resident Jester Hairston. Hairston, known for writing gospel music, was born in Belews Creek in 1901. He died in Los Angeles at age 99.

Armijo has been an environmental justice activist since 2010, fighting against fracking and advocating for complete cleanup of the coal ash basins — especially as neighbors and a family member developed brain tumors.

ArtPlace’s National Creative Placemaking Fund has now supported 279 projects in 223 communities of all sizes, totaling $86.4 million worth of investments across 46 states, American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.

This year the fund received nearly 1,000 applications; the group invests in community development projects that intersect with the arts. More than half of this year’s recipients are from rural areas.

ArtPlace is funded by private donors, like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations; federal agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts; and financial institutions, such as MetLife and Chase Bank.

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