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Artist Transforms Abandoned Coal Plant Through Mosaic


Rachel Sager is the accidental owner of a coal mine. She purchased property near her hometown in Perryopolis, Pa., three years ago.

Credit Courtesy of Rachel Sager
Rachel Sager is a "forager mosaicist" in Perryopolis, Pennsylvania.

"I would say every time I passed by that I loved it", says Sager, who comes from a coal mining family. Sager thought she had bought a house and some land through a foreclosure sale.

But that house turned out to be a former office building for a coal mine, just a stone's throw away, called Banning Number 2 that operated for roughly four decades.

"It was all about the coal. There wasn't any grass here," Sager says. "It was all black, like literally black from the coal and the shale."

Sager had no idea until closing on the property that the mine existed behind a creek and a tangled brush of the woods. 

The challenge of your life

The mine is abandoned and boarded up. When Sager bought it, the vast processing plant surrounding the mine entrance sat roofless and empty.

Credit Adelina Lancianese / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
The ruins of the Banning Number 2 processing facility are adorned with dozens of mosaics.

She calls it The Ruins. High concrete walls covered in vines and moss form a grand, architectural skeleton. It's an eerie sight, and Sager is still piecing together the purpose behind each room, each of which is connected through a labyrinth of arched entryways, concrete ramps and stone pedestals. 

The expansive, blank walls of the Ruins are fortuitous for Sager. She's a mosaic artist, or in her words, a "forager mosaicist."

Sager has practiced her art for two decades and was classicly trained in Florence, Italy, where she learned the ancient art of andamento, or the visual flow of a string of mosaic pieces. Her unique foraging technique-- by which she uses found materials like bone, rock and glass shards in her mosaics -- is world renowned. 

"My dad, who operated coal mines, taught me to be conscious of what's beneath our feet," she says. "All his life, he's crushed rock. And now I chop up much smaller rock to make my art."

Credit Adelina Lancianese / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Sager's studio contains all of the materials necessary for her foraged mosaics.

Sager says that Banning Number 2 is her artistic calling. 

"I remember ... having a bit of a panic, actually," she recalls of discovering the mine. "As a mosaic artist, I felt like a gauntlet was being thrown down at my feet, like 'What are you going to do with this, Rachel? This is the challenge of your life right here.'"

So Sager created the Ruins Project, a collaborative, longterm art installation. She invites mosaicists from all over the world to leave their marks on the walls of Banning Number 2's sprawling processing facility. They participate in workshops, held a few times each year, where students learn the foraging technique and apply it somewhere in the Ruins. 

"All of these empty walls have been just sitting there for almost 100 years, waiting," Sager says.

Now, the Ruins are scattered with mosaics, like modern, distinctly Appalachian reincarnations of prehistoric cave paintings.

Credit Adelina Lancianese / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
The Ruins' entryway is bordered with smashed gold tiles salvaged from a Pittsburgh church.

Nothing into something

The entranceway is embellished with 24-karat gold tile salvaged from a Pittsburgh church's apse that was smashed to bits by a vandal. Walking through the Ruins, Sager can recall the story behind each of the dozens of mosaic installations created in the last three years.   

"This is the symbol for alchemy, which is turning base metals into precious metals," she says, describing a hollow stone triangle, encased in a circle. "Turning nothing into something, that's one of the philosophies of the Ruins Project itself. I created this with artists from Canada and Scotland. "

She turns to another piece on an adjacent wall.

"This much more bombastic, in-your-face red by an artist from Philadelphia ... represents molten steel, and it's just like a tongue of red coming out of the wall."

Credit Adelina Lancianese / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Henrietta the porcupine is one of the newest installations at the Ruins. Porcupines are native to the region.

There are abstract pieces, like long chains of Marcellus Shale. And then there are clear images: a leaping white-tailed deer, a clay-and-metal compass rose, a Native American arrow that will someday stretch to a length of 10 feet. 

"Oh! There's Henrietta!" Sager says, turning a corner. "She's the second-newest installation. She's a very large porcupine."

Before an outside wall, facing Sager's office-turned-home, a woman in a baseball cap with mortar-smeared slacks stands on a tarp. Jenny Case is an amateur mosaicist from White Haven, Pa., and she is completing the Ruins Project's biggest installation to date.

Credit Adelina Lancianese / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Jenny Case constructs bumble bees out of glass for her coke oven mosaic (above), and installs her coke oven mosaic out of shale, rock and glass on an outer wall of the Ruins (below).

"There's a letting go," Case says on the last day of her installation before heading home. "You're leaving it here, and other people are going to add to it because it's a public space."

Her shale and rock mosaic portrays a massive coke oven, a type of chamber used to heat western Pennsylvania coal into coke, which was then used to make steel. Thousands of the brick, domed structures dotted the landscape here a century ago, and like Banning Number 2, some still exist as moss covered remains.
But Case's coke oven mosaic is something more. Bright flames of yellow and red glass flicker inside the oven's belly. And instead of embers shooting out of the dome's top, there are delicate glass bumble bees looping and swarming. The coke oven is also a beehive. 
That's because Sager encourages mosaicists to marry nature with history.

"Rule No. 1 is to honor what was," she says. "And in some ways, that just means to honor the memory of these miners and their families, a lot of whom still live here."

A quiet mausoleum

The Banning Number 2 Mine opened in 1902 when the coal carved from its belly was some of the purest in the nation, situated on the densely rich Pittsburgh coal seam that runs through the mountains of four states.

Credit Photo courtesy of Rachel Sager
Banning Number 2 operated for more than 4 decades.

The mine was also known for its radical stance on labor equity. The Pittsburgh Coal Company, which owned Banning Number 2, instituted an "open shop policy" in 1925, according to thelocal historical society.

That meant African-American miners could climb the occupational ladder, from unskilled to skilled labor with relative ease, an anomaly at the time. By 1927, nearly 40 percent of the Banning Number 2 workforce was black. 

In 1946, Banning Number 2 closed for good, following a rock fall that killed three men. 

"I feel like those walls have been ... a quiet memorial to them," Sager says. "Even before I started the art, they seemed like they were, in some ways, this big, quiet mausoleum."

Credit Adelina Lancianese / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
This compass rose, made from clay and stone, adorns a wall in the "great room" of the Ruins.

Seeing history on the run

Sager wants to honor this area, which fell into poverty after the mines tapped out. The former coal company-owned town of Whitsett is nearby, where some of the Banning coal miners' children and grandchilden still live in old company houses. Sager is one of several community members trying to turn the Perryopolis region into a tourism hub.

Credit Adelina Lancianese / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
The Ruins are open for tours by appointment.

There are murmurs of a bed and breakfast coming to life soon, and the Ruins abut the Great Allegheny Passage, the northern section of a bike trail that spans the more than 330 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.

On a recent afternoon, Dutch cyclists stopped for a cold soda, and a couple from California inquired about a paid tour and a handmade magnet from the small gift shop Sager runs from her studio with her sister, Molly. Visitors are enamored with the eclectic site, she says.

"I have struggled many, many times over the years with coal being used as a four-letter word, just the people surrounding coal being less-than somehow," Sager says. "And by doing this, I'm bringing people from all over the world, and I help them to see it in a different way." 

Sager says it's her chance to showcase coal country as a work of art.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Great Allegheny Passage links Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. The 150-mile trail connects to the C&O Canal Towpath in Cumberland, Md., which continues on for an additional 184 miles to the Capitol.

Adelina Lancianese is the assistant producer for the NPR Story Lab, a creative studio that fosters newsroom experimentation and incubates new podcasts. At the Story Lab, Lancianese works primarily on investigative, long-form projects, and also helps organize the annual Story Lab Workshop for the development of new independent and Member station podcasts.