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Arts & Culture    

Picher, Oklahoma: Catastrophe, Memory and Trauma

An Oklahoma boomtown, once responsible for billions of dollars of zinc and ore during both World Wars, now sits vacant and uninhabitable after a series of environmental catastrophes.

Picher, Oklahoma: Catastrophe, Memory and Trauma gives insight into the devastation caused by depleting natural resources in the nation’s heartland. The summer exhibition of photography and found objects opens Tuesday, June 13, at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art on the University of Oklahoma Norman campus.

The exhibition explores the dissolution of Picher after its designation as part of the 1983 Tar Creek Superfund Site and tornado disaster in 2008.

What began as an initial visit to Picher, shortly after an F4 tornado forced residents to abandon the damaged remains of their town, turned into a nine-year project for photographer Todd Stewart.

“For many years, my concerns as a photographer have been centered on the idea that landscapes are embedded with memory and history – that personal, cultural and historical narrative is what defines a place,” he said. “I’m drawn to landscapes where evidence of this fact is evident, and where, as a photographer, I believe I can represent these ideas in my work.”

Stewart, who is the associate professor of art, technology and culture at the OU School of Visual Arts, collaborated with colleague Alison Fields, the Mary Lou Milner Carver Professor of Art of the American West and associate professor of art history, to produce a photoessay published last year by the University of Oklahoma Press. That book became the genesis for the exhibition at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

“The tornado had leveled houses in a significant part of the town, leaving only building foundations and pavement still in place,” Stewart said. “The ground was layered with material artifacts: photographs, books, clothes, toys, letters. All lay bare on the ground, all dislocated, all removed from their original context. During the next few years, each time I returned to Picher I found less and less remaining, the landscape increasingly enveloping everything left behind.”

A series of photographs of Picher, taken by Stewart from 2008 to 2017, documents Picher’s entangled identities – the thriving small town that is proud of its churches, schools and contributions to the U.S. military; the country’s most toxic Superfund site; the otherworldly ghost town precariously positioned over massive sinkholes. Stewart’s images, along with found objects collected by the artist, detail the way that memory, embedded in the artifacts, landscapes and structures left behind, is dislocated and reframed through events of environmental trauma.

“Picher’s demise raises the question, when material and physical markers of identity are destroyed, what remains to tell the story of the past?” said Fields. “This exhibit attempts to unravel the deep connections among memory, place and identity in Picher.”

The former town of Picher is located eight miles north of Miami on U.S. Highway 69. Situated on Quapaw tribal lands, the town had its beginnings in a 1913 zinc and oil discovery. In the Tri-State Lead and Zinc district, a network of underground mines extending from Treece, Kansas, to Joplin, Missouri, Picher became the top-producing mining field and reached a population of over 14,000 in the 1920s. Playing a major role in both World Wars, the mining field produced more than $20 billion in ore from 1917 to 1947.

After the mines largely closed in 1967, Picher was left with a transformed landscape. Ore production led to massive piles of chat (fine gravel waste made up of leftover mineral fragments), which still are standing today. The mine waste covered 25,000 acres and devastated Quapaw lands and the town’s economy. Abandoned mines filled with groundwater and acid seeped into Tar Creek. Sinking ground over former mineshafts swallowed homes.

In 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the Tar Creek Superfund Site the most toxic 47 square miles in America, including the towns of Picher, Cardin, Quapaw, Commerce and North Miami. Despite remediation efforts, in 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers declared that the town was unsafe, noting that one-third of the town’s homes were threatened by underground caverns. On May 10, 2008, an F4 tornado hit Picher, causing extensive damage and injuries, and taking six lives. Afterward, there were no attempts to rebuild.

“From Picher’s incorporation in 1918 to its formal dissolution in 2014, its mining industry fueled war efforts, supported generations of miners and their families, and ultimately left behind immense underground voids and towering mountains of waste,” Fields said.

The exhibition remains on display through Sept. 10 in the Nancy Johnston Records Gallery.

An educational space within the exhibition provides hands-on art activities and props that encourage discussion and storytelling. A writing workshop with creative writer and OU graduate student Matt Jacobson is scheduled from 2 to 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1. A closing reception with a lecture by Fields is scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7.

These events are complimentary and open to the public.

More information about Picher, Oklahoma: Catastrophe, Memory and Trauma, as well as related programs, is available on the museum’s website at www.ou.edu/fjjma.

The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art is located in the OU Arts District on the corner of Elm Avenue and Boyd Street, at 555 Elm Ave., on the OU Norman campus. Admission to the museum is complimentary to all visitors, thanks to the generosity of the OU Office of the President and the OU Athletics Department. The museum is closed on Mondays. Information and accommodations are available by calling (405) 325-4938 or visiting www.ou.edu/fjjma.

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IMAGE CREDIT

The tragic story of Picher, Oklahoma, whose overmining of zinc and ore, combined with a catastrophic tornado, led to the town’s eventual abandonment, is explored in a new summer exhibition at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. Photos of the landscape, such as this chat pile, and objects found by Todd Stewart reveal the effects of environmental trauma on a once booming small town.

Todd Stewart (U.S., b. 1963)

Chat Pile, 2008

Inkjet print, 40 x 50 in.

Image courtesy of the artist