The "Homage to Dunkard Creek" exhibit currently showing at the Parkersburg Art Center consists of paintings by 90 artists, all of whom are connected in one way or another to Dunkard Creek located along the Pennsylvania, West Virginia border, where 65,000 species of wild life died September 1,2009 due to a chemical spill of some kind that came from somewhere yet to be determined. I hope you're paying attention because the chemicals that killed Dunkard Creek eventually flowed into the Ohio right past Marietta and Parkersburg.
At the opening of the exhibit we were asked by one of its sponsors to "contemplate and reflect" on the meaning of such an environmental disaster. I did just that and found myself reflecting on an incident sixty years ago when my two best friends and I decided to test the patience of our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Saunders, by throwing paper airplanes whenever her back was turned. For four days the planes flew, Mrs. Saunders would turn slowly, too slowly we thought, only to find 25 students looking quite innocent. On the fifth day, with no warning, she called the three of us by name to the front of the class and then proceeded to administer nine whacks, three each, using a paddle the size of a canoe oar, or at least that's how I remember it. That was the end of paper airplanes.
Why did that incident come to mind as I reflected on the meaning of the Dunkard Creek chemical spill? Because when we start looking for those responsible, all the usual suspects smile and claim innocence. Tests are run but the chemicals are "proprietary secrets" so the testing takes years and are predictably inconclusive. The public gives little support to the regulators trying to find the culprit and, at the encouragement of the culprits themselves, will even lobby legislators to take away their regulatory power. After all, when jobs are at stake, what's a few wells, a little bit of groundwater contamination, a few farms ruined, 65,000 species of dead animals, and 43 miles of God's creation at its best, gone?
Ann Payne organized the exhibit. Finding 90 artists who had once lived in that area and assigning each to paint one of the species exterminated, was no small task. But she was highly motivated in part because she was an eye witness to the disaster. A friend who lives on Dunkard Creek called her that September day with a plea, "Please come! There's something wrong with my river!" When Ann arrived she saw thousands of dead fish lying on the bank with the few remaining desperately trying to jump from the acid laced water. She knew she had to do something and she also knew instinctively that whoever did this would never willingly claim responsibility. When truth is hard to find, turn to artists. You can witness the result of their work at the Parkersburg Art Center. It will be on display through October 5. It's well worth a visit.