When the Animas River turned mustard yellow from the Gold King Mine spill in 2015, artist Peter Hay was there to collect some of the silt in jars.
Hay, who is also exhibits director at Durango Arts Center and a co-owner at Studio & Gallery, began experimenting with the silt, creating a type of paint that he used in his show “Shroud” last year at DAC and carrying it over more recently to “Rivers,” a collaboration with fellow artist and DAC Administrative Operations Coordinator Doug Gonzalez.
The spill on Aug. 5, 2015, from the mine north of Silverton sent 3 million gallons of wastewater into the Animas River, discoloring the waterway for days.
The show, on exhibit at Studio & Gallery through Saturday, features Hay’s silt paintings and Gonzalez’s photographs of the Animas River. Some of the pieces are by the two individually, but the majority are combined works – Gonzalez has printed his photographs on semi-transparent paper and laid them over Hay’s paintings.
The purpose, Gonzalez said, is to explore things we may not see.
“There’s this idea of what’s hiding, what is there beneath the surface?” he said. “Things are beautiful on top, but what is hidden? What things can’t we see? What’s the reality behind what we see?”
He said that the idea extends past the theoretical and into the realistic: The panels containing the images have a bit of the border cut out, so you can see some of the silt outside the photograph overlay.
“It’s sort of off-putting; it’s not just a beautiful object where you don’t have to think about what it’s trying to say,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not just an object where that orange is just sort of completely covered; it’s bleeding out.”
The two started planning for the “Rivers” exhibit last fall, Gonzalez said, adding that because of the current political climate, environmental issues have come to the forefront, and the two wanted to create a show that spoke to that, something Hay said led to bigger, broader ideas about water, politics and the world outside Durango.
“The more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘Well, these are things that are universal – anywhere you go, you’ll find these things in some concentration and you have to filter them out of the water, or we like to filter them out of the water,’” he said. “Even thinking about Flint, Michigan … connecting our specific issue with maybe a larger global issue of water quality and where we’re going with that.”
For Hay, the coating from the spill was not only intriguing, there was something familiar about it, too.
“I started researching, and when I learned what the heavy metals and things were, they were very similar to, say, if I were reading the back of a tube of oil paint, like cadmium, lead … paint has so many different types of heavy metals that are used to make the pigment,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Well, how fine is this silt? And if it’s that fine, it should operate a lot like a paint.’ And it worked. It was a really rich orange color, and it does apply like a watercolor.”
Gonzalez and Hay said they hope their exhibit keeps what happened to the Animas River on Aug. 5, 2015, in people’s minds.
“I think it’s important that we don’t necessarily forget. It’s still there,” Hay said. “We all want to have the cleanest water we can and preserve that for future generations.”