A publication of Appalachian Voices


A publication of Appalachian Voices


One Artist’s Experience with Coal Ash

By Caroline Armijo

Editor’s Note: Caroline Armijo began an environmental justice art project after seeing many friends and family die from cancer in her North Carolina community, near one of the state’s largest coal ash impoundments. The Belews Creek coal ash ponds near her community are not among those designated for full cleanup by the recent state coal ash bill. In this excerpt from Armijo’s website, she describes the circumstances that shaped her paper sculpture creation, titled “Gray Matter.” Read the full post at carolinearmijo.com.

In my five years in Washington D.C., I have only known three people with cancer, and only one of those have died. In the last six months alone, I have known five people who have died from my hometown in Stokes County, North Carolina.

[In 2007 the EPA reported that] coal ash gives you a one in fifty chance of getting cancer. Unfortunately, the statistics seem to be much worse at home than estimated in the published reports. When I discussed this with a friend from home, she said that her prayer group included two people with cancer out of four.

Photo by Caroline Armijo

Rolls of collected grave rubbings bound by red stitching give structure to this hollowed-out book. The rubbings were created from the headstones of mixed-media artist Caroline Armijo’s friends and family members, whom she suspects were poisoned by coal ash. Photo by Caroline Armijo.

Maybe I feel so strongly about this after watching my dad’s twin sister, Cheryl, fight a courageous battle against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She passed away in April 2006, after I moved to D.C. the previous year. I was six hours away from my family. It was one of the hardest things I have ever dealt with.

A couple of years later, her neighbor Jackie, from directly across the street, died of the exact same kind of cancer. They could see each other’s houses from their front windows. Cancer is not contagious. What are the chances of that happening?

I did what I do when I don’t know what else to do. I began working on an art project that ultimately became Gray Matter. I had partially excavated/destroyed the book, Your God Is Too Small, a couple of years ago; it was in two pieces and looked like a couple of capital D’s. I went to the studio, picked up the book, gathered my scalpel (a real surgeon’s knife) and blades, and headed home with all of these lost loved ones in my mind.