Greensboro artist leads The Lilies Project for coal ash art
Greensboro artist and project leader of Residents for Coal Ash Clean-up, Caroline Rutledge Armijo, along with Artplace America and the Stokes County Arts Council, are gearing up for “The Gymnastics Show” on Saturday, Sept. 21 as part of The Lilies Project at Southeastern Stokes Middle School in Walnut Cove, North Carolina. This variety/talent show event is free, open to the public and will include film clips, gymnastics and skits. Armijo is seeking talent with those who have Stokes County connections.
“The Lilies Project – Addressing Coal Ash Through Arts & Parks” grant is a National Creative Placemaking Fund Project sponsored by ArtPlace America to make art out of the 20 million tons of coal ash from the Duke Energy Power Plant in the Belews Creek community. Armijo, the mixed-media artist who applied and won the grant, has taken on the task to create public art, lead programming, and manage the overall project through collaboration with others in the community. She has combined her creativity and environmental advocacy, along with her previous work as a liturgical artist in Washington D.C., to focus on environmental issues such as coal ash and fracking.
Armijo said she realized something wasn’t normal in 2010 when her friend was diagnosed with a brain tumor, along with an alarming number of other residents diagnosed with cancer, leukemia, lymphoma and respiratory/asthma issues.
“The Lilies of the Field” idea came out of a class she took at Servant Leadership at Holy Trinity School in Greensboro. Then while meditating in the spring of 2016, she had a vision of making towers out of the coal ash as art for a park in Germantown. The name of the project is a reference to the movie, Lilies of the Field, for which Jester Hairston (a Belews Creek native) composed the song “Amen.” She said being awarded the ArtPlace America Grant in October 2017 is what started the project. She met with representatives from North Carolina A&T State University about the health concerns and how they were seeking alternative ways to contain coal ash in her community. She said this process involved many community meetings utilizing vision boards and creating prototypes.
During a two-week study at Penland School of the Arts in July, Armijo said she had the idea to mimic beehives in nature to make hexagonal coal ash towers. She said it took them about a month to place the order with North Carolina A&T State University to create 30, 8-foot-tall posts while utilizing a patented coal ash encapsulation technology. The artists in the community plan to paint and arrange the posts at two musical stages in two parks, a nature trail, and a butterfly garden that will be launched at the Walnut Cove Library on Oct. 12.
The Dan River coal ash spill on Feb. 2, 2014, made global news; which helped gain recognition of Duke Energy’s unlined pit of coal ash.
“The ash remains a serious health problem until it can be fully excavated and contained properly,” she said. “It can’t just be covered up because there is nothing below it to contain it and protect the underground streams. Right now, it is sitting 60-feet deep in our groundwater, and they’ve got to get it out, and it has to be contained above the groundwater. It’s not safe to use it as filler dirt in new construction either.”
Armijo said last August former Vice President Al Gore, Karenna Gore and Rev. William Barber II made an appearance at a three-day celebration event. She said Gore told the organization that he felt “inspired for the first time in a long time,” and that he saw The Lilies Project as a group of people who represented fusion-politics.
According to the Lilies Project website, on April 1, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality announced the decision of the final closure plans for six remaining coal ash basins, including the one at Belews Creek. Armijo said the issue with what to do with the coal ash is still being litigated with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“The event on Sept. 21 is just one small part of The Lilies Project,” Armijo said. “It is geared to build community and take everyone back to the ‘80s before the coal ash health threats when life was not as stressful. Honestly, we’re just trying to get the community engaged. How do you really start to heal a place? I think it’s basic in coming together, singing together and dancing together. I’m hoping we can turn something that has been a burden to our community into something that is positive and uplifting.”
TERRY RADER is a freelance writer, poet, singer/songwriter, wellness herbalist, flower essences practitioner and owner of Paws n’ Peace o’ Mind cat/dog/house sitting.
The Gymnastics Show, 9/21, 2-4 p.m., Southeastern Middle School, 1044 N. Main St., Walnut Cove, 10/12 Butterfly Garden Launch, Public Library, Walnut Cove, theliliesproject.org, artplaceamerica.org, Caroline Rutledge Armijo, (919) 358.5057, email@example.com.