By Hanna Wheeler
Ruth Blackwell Rogers describes her painting and environmental activism as “all one thing.”
“My paintings have always been trying to make visible in some way… that everything’s connected. The spirits of the trees, the highland bogs, the beavers, the river are all alive. And if we are aware of it, we know we are all dancing together,” she said.
Blackwell Rogers says her spiritual connection to the natural world has been “innate” in her since she was a child. She clarified her beliefs by studying Contemporary Core Shamanism at the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.
Her studies inspire her paintings. She has painted eight Journey series inspired by Joseph Campbell’s look at the world’s mythologies. In her Four Worlds So Far, she painted a series of images across a long scroll that she unwinds while telling the Hopi creation story. “With a good story telling, you’re in another zone,” said Blackwell Rogers. She says audience members are often completely silent during the telling. Sometimes they won’t even blink. “Everybody seems to be able to relate to it in some way,” she said.
Her spirituality extends to even the process of painting. “Even my way of painting and getting the image in my mind’s eye is a little bit shamanistic,” she said. Blackwell Rogers describes how she sits still until an image forms in her mind. She remains quiet and attentive while she mixes her paint colors and applies them to the canvas. “After I get one spot of color on, it kind of rolls on from there. That first spot is the most important thing,” she said.
Her love of nature took the form of environmental activism in 1996 after a pair of devastating floods brought attention to the water quality impacts of coal mining and logging in the region surrounding her home of Kerens, West Virginia. Blackwell Rogers helped form a citizen watershed group and served as its president “to help bring people together for the sake of the watershed,” she said. She also began leading excursions and writing articles for the nonprofit West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, which works to promote and conserve the mountain highlands region of West Virginia.
Just like she does with her paintings, Blackwell Rogers tries to create harmony through her environmental activism. “Each little spot of color is alive and connected with all of the others [in the paintings]. I see a watershed in the same way,” she said. Her goal with her environmental work is to connect different groups of people living and working in the watershed: farmers, landowners, tourism businesses and the various state and federal agencies.
A painting isn’t finished yet if it’s “not quite singing,” said Blackwell Rogers. “Sometimes it’s as much as one spot as big as my thumbprint that suddenly puts the whole thing in dynamic balance,” she said.
Similarly, she’s had experiences within her environmental work where out-of-balance situations suddenly come into harmony.
For example, she collaborated with a tourism railroad line to get 20 volunteers and 1,000 red spruce saplings up the mountain for an ongoing native habitat restoration project. All of a sudden, the train stopped, and out jumped another group of people armed with cameras and clippers. This group started cutting down all of the brush in site, including red spruce saplings.
It was a moment of utter disharmony.
Instead of getting too upset, Blackwell Rogers talked to the owner of the railroad and discovered that the group with cameras was preparing for a rail fan photography trip. Because of the curve of the tracks, the whole train could be photographed, except for the trees in the way.
Blackwell Rogers used the opportunity to explain the mission of the habitat restoration. The railroad owner expressed his dismay over the incident and gave his continued support. The rail fans would have to have a few trees in their pictures.
“He realized he needed to be a little aware himself and make his rail fans aware,” she said. Just a little thumbprint and the whole thing was back in harmony.
In the early 1990s, Blackwell Rogers and others started a non-profit called Corridor H Alternatives to stop the building of a 100-mile section of a four-lane highway through the mountain highlands.
“Because we had some success, we got an injunction,” said Blackwell Rogers. Bulldozers were frozen in their tracks at the edge of the forest. “It was a very visible and tangible thing,” she said.
But it created disharmony in the community. People would walk across the street so they wouldn’t have to pass Blackwell Rogers on the sidewalk. They would whisper negative things about her and her husband in the grocery store. “It didn’t change our intentions or beliefs,” she said. Yet, the struggle really impacted their youngest son, who was in high school at the time. “The tension of it was difficult for him and he sometimes had a hard time at school,” she said.
A couple of years into that struggle, Blackwell Rogers was invited by a small group of artists who were starting a co-op gallery downtown. Blackwell Rogers says she told herself, “It’s not what I want to do but I’m going to do this to show that I’m part of the community.” The gallery grew to be successful and now includes about 20 artists. “We didn’t all have the same beliefs, yet we all were working together on one project. We had to be civil while acknowledging our differences. I’m so glad I made that effort,” she said.
Due to Blackwell Rogers’ efforts, environmental awareness, the red spruce ecosystem and the arts community continue to grow in her little corner of Appalachia. And it’s her love of the Appalachian landscape that enlivens her art and her activism. “Mountains embrace me and hold me. There is so much to discover in them,” she said.