Stokes County native Caroline Armijo recently received a $350,000 grant from ArtPlace America to create art installations and provide public programming to address coal ash impacting her home community. Walnut Cove is adjacent to Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Power Station, which houses 20 million tons of coal ash. Armijo, a mixed-media artist, will partner with scientists from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to create a series of sculptures that repurpose the hazardous waste material safely and will become the centerpiece of possibly, a new public park.
“The grant requires a certain amount of the budget to go to specific items, but from those items there will still be great deliverables, like documentation and videos, which I hope will be valuable to the community. This grant does provide the opportunity to leverage additional grants from other organizations. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to build on this project to include many other subsequent projects,” she said.
At this point, Armijo believes Fowler Park seems like a natural fit for the project.
“It’s located in the center of town and I see it serving as a gathering spot for the entire community. However, nothing is set in stone yet. I am hoping that the final answer will come out of some upcoming community planning meetings. Every time I think of a different space, a new project evolves,” she said.
The project, which officially began on January 1, 2018 and runs through June 30, 2020, will pay tribute to Stokes County native Jester Hairston, who composed and sang “Amen” in the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field”.
Armijo said she read about Hairston in the early 2000s and as an artist, wanted to recognize him.
“I thought perhaps a mural. But this grant provides us the opportunity to honor him in a much larger way. I watched the movie and was moved by the unlikely group of people who came together to rebuild a chapel in ruins. None of them spoke the same language, but somehow they managed to create something beautiful together.”
Armijo often lends her voice on behalf of concerning environmental issues.
“A lot has happened regarding coal ash over the last five years. The Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup at Belews Creek has made a significant impact on how stories are being shared about coal ash. Our group is part of a larger statewide group Alliance of Carolinians Together against Coal Ash (ACT), which is working to address a number of issues, including a lot of advocacy work. My personal focus within the group is to look into creative solutions to help clean up the coal ash.”
In early 2016, she enrolled in a Servant Leadership Program at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Greensboro. Through the class she learned that her call was to make art out of coal ash.
“That idea seemed a little absurd to me and I had no idea how to pursue it. But I reached out to the researchers at NC A&T State University in February of 2016 and began meeting with them. They were unaware of the health concerns in the community. They also began attending public forums that we held in Stokes County. During our meetings, we discussed ideas for how to fund a pilot plant at Belews Creek and product development.”
Armijo said she never considered asking the group about making art with coal ash because she knew the process would be very expensive. But in January of 2017, when she saw an ad from ArtPlace America, she became one of 987 applicants to apply for the highly competitive national program.
The Lilies Project kicks off this weekend. On Saturday, the Walnut Cove Library will host Armijo from 10 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.
“We’re going to present the different programming areas of the grant, which includes oral history, planning for the art installation, energy innovation, public health and more,” she said. “Princess Hairston, a NYC filmmaker, will present a clip of her full-length feature Tracing the Hairstons. She has filmed several of the elders in the community. Princess will also present a clip about Jester Hairston at the Sunday event, which is in collaboration with the Stokes County Historical Society. We will screen Amen: The Life of Jester Hairston at Arts Place of Stokes in Danbury. After we will have an opportunity for community members to share their personal stories of Jester Hairston.”
Armijo also plans to attend the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., march on Monday, January 15 in Walnut Cove beginning at 11:30 a.m. followed by a noon service at Rising Star Baptist Church.
Although Armijo resides in Greensboro, her roots run deep in Stokes County. She’s the daughter of longtime Walnut Cove attorney Jerry Rutledge and a South Stokes graduate.
“I have many great memories of Stokes County. My mother was on the board of the arts council in the seventies. We were always doing something with the arts council. The Stokes Stomp and watching the local artists do live demonstrations is particularly vivid in my memories. It was a magical experience with a profound impact on my identity. I knew that I wanted to be an artist at the age of four. We’re hoping to give other children in the community similar experiences.”
Amanda Dodson may be reached at 336-813-2426.