Bees Share the True Cost of Coal

By Brian Sewell

Outside of Appalachia, artists who acknowledge their connection to coal have adopted the issue of mountaintop removal and taken to the road. The Beehive Collective’s True Cost of Coal illustration transforms ways of thinking as it travels by inviting all who see it into a web of stories.

The panoramic poster depicts the complex relationships between industry, commerce, society and the natural world that are inseparable from the fight to end mountaintop removal. The large form pen and ink image transitions from scenes of undisturbed wilderness to industrialized madness. Gradually, the characters, the diverse creatures of Appalachia, actively resist and, finally, take back and restore the land.

A closer look at a portion of The True Cost of Coal reveals the visual metaphors Beehive Collective found in coalfield communities. Photos courtesy of Beehive Collective.

Beehive Collective, a Manchias, Maine-based collaborative artists’ group, is known for their expansive graphics. Depicting globalization, free trade and militarism, their works deconstruct some of the most debated issues of the time. But they also understand the power of using their graphics as educational tools and touring to accomplish their mission of “cross-pollinating the grassroots.”

“We do a lot of traveling and touring with the work we do and generating conversations and actions,” says Zeph Fishlyn, an illustrator and educator who has worked with the collective since 2007. “We’re also carrying ideas and stories that people tell us from one place to the next.”

After interviewing residents of Appalachian coalfield communities, the “Bees” collected stories and perspectives of the effects of mountaintop removal and how people are taking action. The challenge arises when they must craft a drawing to convey all the information in a creative and compelling way.

“That’s where we are crafting metaphors,” Fishlyn explains. One portion of the poster depicts the story of land grab perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry. It’s shown by a railroad unrolling itself across the landscape, intruding on homes and farmsteads and causing animals to scurry away seeking protection.

There are hundreds of distilled but profound visual metaphors hiding in The True Cost of Coal – a testament to its power as an education tool.

With the True Cost of Coal, the collective’s outreach and education efforts have taken off. The poster and presentation are the most in-demand of any of the collective’s projects. Since the poster was printed in June 2010, the group has distributed more than 15,000 copies and given almost 600 presentations.

“The story of mountaintop removal coal mining is resonating with people,” says Emma Hornback, a founding member and full-time “Bee.” “Our allies have told us: ‘We know this story. It’s useful for us to have this but you need to get this message out to other people.’”

The Beehive Collective tour the Americas with their narrative graphics to educate and inspire.

Fishlyn and Hornback have worked on every phase of the True Cost of Coal project since the project began in 2008, from planning research trips and speaking with residents in Appalachia to illustrating and touring throughout the Americas with the poster.

The main theme in the work, resource extraction, resonates with people everywhere. Touring the gulf coast, the collective used the graphic to engage those dealing with the aftermath of the BP oil spill.

“If you were to change the characters from Appalachian songbirds to crawdads and alligators this could be their story,” Hornback says. “If you change the bad guy from coal to oil, the story is almost the same.”

Sharing their work is as much a priority as creating the graphic itself, and the “Bees” have been busy. In the past year, 25 people have toured with the poster, counting stops in Montana and the Dakotas among other stops. Invitations pour in requesting presentations in Northern Arizona, where locals struggle against Peabody Coal Company on the Navajo reservation. Other presenters recently returned from Alberta, Canada, the epicenter of the heated tar sands debate. They’ve even taken the poster to Bogota, Colombia where a “Bee” and Colombia native used the graphic to discuss coal mining in South America.

“People have learned about mountaintop removal through the graphic,” Hornback says. “A lot of folks associate the two things and point to it as a pivotal moment in their understanding of climate issues and coal issues in particular.”


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