By This River: Greg Lindquist Paints Against Coal-Ash Pollution
Dispatch from North Carolina
Smoke and Water: A Living Painting at Southeastern Alliance for Community Change
November 2014 to February 2015
317 Castle Street
Wilmington, North Carolina
On a cold December morning, I met Working Films Initiative co-director Anna Lee to discuss the documentary Coal Ash Stories and to view Greg Lindquist’s installation Smoke and Water: A Living Painting at Southeastern Alliance for Community Change (SEACC) in Wilmington, North Carolina. Smoke and Water is part of a collaborative project that aligns community organizations and residents by using art to highlight and draw on local expertise. A native of Wilmington, Lindquist’s work reflects his connection to the area. The immersive installation spans across three walls of paintings, photographs, and statements, which provide an intimate glimpse into a community struck by one of the largest coal ash spills in the nation’s history: in early February 2014, officials estimate up to 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash spilled into the Dan River in Eden, North Carolina. It lined the banks of the river for 80 miles downstream from the spill site.
Upon entering, I am impressed with the command the installation has over the small community center. Paint pervades the open space normally reserved for community gatherings, yoga, and meditation groups, setting a reflective tone on the way the environment concerned is simultaneously experienced and imagined. Presenting a multilayered narrative of wide-ranging voices and imagery, Lindquist juxtaposes abstracted impressions of an empty and disconnected landscape with interwoven memories and stories presented as text on canvas.
As if looking at multiple screens open on a laptop, Smoke and Water simulates a space of interconnected thoughts, urgency, and action. The painted walls invite and sensitize its inhabitants to the viewing space — a platform for discussion and contemplation. Warm analogous tones envelope the room. On the wall, painted forms play with perceived edges. Swirls of gray and brown — reflections of the coal ash residue unyoked and spreading across the wall — intersect and overlap large paintings that evoke a still winter along the Dan River. The effect is attention to the organic forms and beauty of the paint’s application on the wall and, at the same time, one is charged by its symbolism.
On the floor, taped and gridded texts, drawings, and photographs direct the viewer to navigate the space in a curious and conscious path. I turn to read the texts painted in muted tones on stretched canvases. The narratives speak to the damage inflicted upon the community, and they pose cultural questions on corporate culpability. Local residents’ expressions of how the spill affected their personal health, relationships, and the community spirit, surface as distinct whispers yet layered voices speaking to an urgent and collective cause.
As a native North Carolinian, I’ve always been drawn to the still and powerful character of our state’s rivers and lakes. I feel an immediate connection to the voices of local residents whose nostalgia and experiences have been displaced by the ruin and waste of industrial carelessness. The spill happened over a year ago. Although time has passed, the impact on our sense of place and purpose remain.
As I turn to leave, the late morning light casts a glow on the walls of the art installation, one that suggests the aftermath of a heavy rainstorm or perhaps something ominous. With this illusion, Lindquist subtly advances the cause. These stories travel beyond the walls from a small visual impression to a much larger and more serious discussion involving social engagement around environmental pollution. Lindquist’s work radiates, igniting both tranquil rumination and a charged call to action. He presents the facts while simultaneously distilling sincere experiences and memories. Smoke and Water lingers, encouraging not only reflection, but also reaction… the storm after the calm.
 This is the estimate provided by Duke Energy officials.