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Phoenix Art Museum explores the history and art of mining in the American West in an upcoming exhibition.


Erika osborne

Erika Osborne, The Chasm of Bingham, 2012. Oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist.

Landscapes of Extraction: The Art of Mining in the American West explores the evolution of mining, featuring more than 65 works created from the 1910s through today that depict regional landscapes of enterprise and examine how mining has altered the natural environment on a spectacular scale. Organized by Phoenix Art Museum and curated by Betsy Fahlman, Ph.D., the institution’s adjunct curator of American art, Landscapes of Extraction, will be the first major exhibition of Western American art at the Museum since The West Select presented in 2014.

“We are excited to present Landscapes of Extraction to our community,” said Tim Rodgers, Ph.D., the Museum’s Sybil Harrington Director and CEO. “The modern history of Arizona as a U.S. state is inextricably linked to the expansion of mining across the Southwest. The industry provided thousands of jobs and contributed to the expansion of our cities, but mining also contributed to the pollution of our environment and created health risks for workers and surrounding communities. In many ways, the exhibition traces that evolution of our understanding through art, beginning with WPA-era paintings that honored the grit of workers against the backdrop of the Depression, to Edward Burtynsky’s ecologically aware photographs of the lasting impact of mining on our world.”

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Helen Katharine Forbes, Mountains and Miner’s Shack, 1940. Oil on canvas. The Schoen Collection: American Scene Painting; Courtesy of the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia.


Throughout modern history, the mining industry has transformed the American West, competing with the scenic landscape on its terms. In the first half of the 20th century, large-scale and open-pit mines across Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah dramatically altered the natural environment. It also dictated the lives of those who worked in them, with cyclical booms that employed generations of families and economic crashes that often left ghost towns and mass unemployment in their wake. Over the decades, mining has continued to shape natural landscapes across the western United States, creating stunning views in their own right. However, public knowledge on the destructive environmental and health effects of mines has increased, revealing the vexed legacy of the industry.


Lew Davis, Little Boy Lives in a Copper Camp, 1939. Oil on Masonite. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Gift of IBM Corporation.

Through more than 65 paintings and prints, Landscapes of Extraction explores the modern evolution of mining imagery, illuminating how artists have interpreted and conveyed these landscapes of enterprise from the 1910s to the present. The exhibition begins with works from the early- to mid-20th century, when artists such as Lew Davis, Philip C. Curtis, Paul Sample, and Louise Emerson Ronnebeck portrayed regional themes and industries in their work, inspired, in part, by New Deal programs during the 1930s and early 1940s. These paintings showcase images of open-pit mines and coal tipples, the towns that grew up around mines and were abandoned when they closed, and the miners and their families who lived, worked, and toiled in those environments.

Contemporary works created into the 2010s stand in contrast by demonstrating how artists have, over time, become more attuned to the monumental impact that humans, technology, mining, and other industries have had on the natural world, with a number examining the ongoing legacy of pollution specifically. Works by artists such as Edward Burtynsky, whose work was featured in a survey exhibition at Phoenix Art Museum in 2016, as well as those by David Emitt Adams, Martin Stupich, and Robert Adams, explore the environmental costs of our global reliance on mined materials. The exhibition also includes a work by contemporary fine art photographer Cara Romero, an enrolled citizen of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe who uses photography as a tool to resist Eurocentric narratives and spotlight the diversity of living Indigenous peoples. Titled Oil Boom (2015), Romero’s photograph stands as commentary on the experiences of Indigenous peoples globally who have been displaced from traditional lands for oil pipelines and other mining ventures, while also making a more universal statement about communities polluted by the industry.


Lew Davis, Copper Camp—Spring, 1938. Oil on board. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Bequest of Iris L. Darlington.

Landscapes of Extraction offers a panoramic view of the art of mining in the American West that truly spans an entire century of change,” said Betsy Fahlman, Ph.D., who curated the exhibition. “Through this nuanced framework, we can examine the way artists have reflected society’s shifting perspectives and understanding of both the benefits and the dangers of mining, illuminating how a powerful regional narrative has become a fundamental element of national identity, manifested in natural geographies on a vast scale.”

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