Putting the Human Perspective into Mountaintop Removal

By Brian Sewell

For every movement, there is a message. This message can take many forms, but often the most moving is the creation of art to inform. Art helps people see problems anew, even those who see them everyday. The campaign to end mountaintop removal is no different.

At the annual meeting of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth in 2004, a life-sized sculpture by Kentucky artist Jeff Chapman-Crane,16 years in the making, debuted. For many, seeing The Agony of Gaia for the first time had an effect similar to witnessing mountaintop removal in person. Some stared in disbelief, others could not contain their emotions.

“People have always been really moved by it,” Chapman-Crane says. “They understand the issue much better by looking at the sculpture. It’s made some aware of the issue for the first time and inspired them to get involved.”

Looking at Gaia, the human form of a mountain in agony feels familiar while the damage inflicted on the natural world is put into perspective.
“I wanted to express that the earth is not just this source of raw material we can exploit for coal with no cost to the earth or ourselves,”

Chapman-Crane says about the piece. “The earth is actually a living thing. It feels what we’re doing to it and there is a real price to pay for the kind of abuse and exploitation that we’ve been subjecting the earth to for so long now.”

Adding to the realistic look, natural materials like rock dust and moss cover the surfaces of the sculpture. Even the machinery is to scale. The most detailed section, the figure’s head and the hands, are fired clay. The rest is simple Styrofoam.

Chapman-Crane designed the provacative sculpture with quick and frequent travel in mind, mounting it on a table with folding legs and wheels. Attached to the table are panels that fold up and lock together to protect the piece while its being transported.

“I feel good about the engineering of it,” Chapman-Crane says. “I wanted to make it lightweight and portable. It’s very quick to setup and very easy to move. That’s part of the design because I knew I wanted to take it to a lot of places.”

The Agony of Gaia has been exhibited at more than 50 venues around Appalachia. It has traveled to New York City and Washington, D.C., and was featured in a billboard campaign by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, displaying the work to thousands of daily commuters in Frankfort, Ky.

“We’ve taken it to college campuses, churches and exhibited it in conjunction with a United Nations special hearing,” says Chapman-Crane. “We try to focus on venues where there are people who have never been made aware of the issue. It’s a great opportunity to teach people about it.”

For a piece so powerful, simply stumbling upon the image on the Internet can inspire action and create drastic personal change. Chapman-Crane was once contacted by a Catholic sister living in India who had seen an image of Gaia online.

“It inspired her to come back here and get involved,” he says. “It’s really out there.” I have no idea just how far reaching it is.”


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  1. Sue Cottrell on July 22, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    HELLO, I saw The Agony of Gaia on the cover of the book Strange as this weather has Been. What a powerful image! Do you have prints available? I would like to give one to our Milwaukee Poet Laureate, Jeff Pontcwicz who wrote a piece on mountaintop removal. I look forward to hearing from you and do hope you have prints available.
    Blessings on the earth.

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