September 21, 2022
Inkblot 10 of Hermann Rorschach’s test cards, inspires the anchoring form of my latest work. Marrying forms and metaphoric symbols to personality disorders and the development of nuclear weapons, not surprisingly, opened what seemed like an endless string of associated narratives. Having never been well graced at a subtle delivery (and frankly, not seeing the virtue in it most of the time- and certainly not in my own imagery) I placed the predominant form of the warhead centrally in the composition, stripping away the lesser details from the bomb itself.
The symmetry of a monarch butterfly echoes the symmetry of the inkblot while juxtaposing the messaging. I chose dark values of mixed greys and blacks to parallel the disturbing associations of Rorschach’s findings, and translucent vibrant oranges and quinacridones for the more delusional hedonistic implications of this application of the butterfly form. Human projection and personality are continually finding their way into the central theme of my work. Driven by a past experience of once having been shocked into the realization that while our perceptions create our inner world, they can be a vast chasm from the truth.
My interest in the subject of nuclear power was seeded at a young age when my grandfather Earl Ewald worked for Northern States Power Company. For many years he was instrumental in bringing nuclear power plants to the Midwestern US beginning in the late sixties. As he grappled with risk to the local communities, he often spoke of his concern over the lack of an ideal solution to the storage of spent fuel rods. As themes in our lives can sometimes repeat, I later found myself living near the largest underground uranium mine in the US, and simultaneously downwind from Rocky Flats, an experience that, together with other influences that coincided turning that same time period, became a turning point in my life and work.
For a five year period, I lived barely over two miles from the opening of the Schwartzwalder Mine, and simultaneously four miles south of Rocky Flats Plant, which had been the United States’ Department of Energy’s nuclear warhead manufacturing facility during the Cold War. I lived in the area from 1999- 2004, a time during which the mine had all but ceased operations after a nearly fifty-year run, and Rocky Flats Plant had begun its deconstruction phase.
From where I lived, a football field’s equivalence northeast of the intersection of 58th Avenue and highway 93 in Golden (Colorado, USA), the mine wasn’t visible. Its opening nestled a couple of miles up what is little more than a twisted dirt path that follows Ralston Creek, a tributary of Clear Creek, the site of the first gold discovery of the Colorado Gold Rush. That dirt path, Glencoe Valley Road, sits adjacent to highway 93. Despite the mine’s once massive production of uranium ore, it’s opening appears much like an old gold mine, marked with a relatively unassuming entrance (if not for the glaring radioactive warning signs) of a rusted front gate hinged to wooden railroad ties carved into the dirt of the canyon wall. That area and expanding into the western slope of Colorado is spattered with old gold and silver mines that once fed the spread of gold rush fever in the mid nineteenth century. But a hundred years later, gold mines largely exhausted and abandoned, the area became known for its molybdenum and uranium mines that made their owners rich by providing ore for nuclear weapons production during the Cold War. The Schwartzwalder, discovered by Fred Schwartzwalder in 1949, eventually went on to produce 97percent of the pitchblende ore mined along the front range.
The entrance to Rocky Flats was also accessed from highway 93. During the height of its operation, its 800 plus buildings spanned over 6,200 acres but views from the public road were limited. A series of security checkpoints and chain link fence was the face of the entrance, off putting and intimidating, but minimal. The plant was built in 1952 to manufacture plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads, but over its 37 years of operation, accidents and general negligence of the plant’s operations all but defined it. A criticality incident (an incident when the temperature increases out of control from a nuclear fission chain reaction leading to a meltdown of radioactive materials) was narrowly averted in 1957. Had the incident resulted in a meltdown, it would have dwarfed the Chernobyl event near Pripyat, USSR, in 1986. Two separate glove box fires at the plant, one in 1957, and one in 1969, led to contamination of buildings on the site. And in 1967 it was discovered that 3,500 barrels of waste were found to be leaking plutonium on an outdoor pad leading to the contamination of the upper layers of soil which were later discovered to have become windblown over the neighboring Denver suburbs. Thirty years after the plant was decommissioned, and 14 years after the massive cleanup had been completed, the long-term planning for a new area highway, the Jefferson Parkway, was derailed in February of 2020, after soil testing revealed elevated levels of plutonium in the ground adjacent to the former Rocky Flats Plant which the intended parkway would cross.
While it would be years in coming, neither the plant nor the mine escaped legal ramifications for operations that had potentially put the local communities at risk.
In 1992, following a raid of the plant by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Environmental Protection Agency, Rockwell International Corporation who had managed Rocky Flats, was sued for 18.5 million for environmental violations. At the time, it was one of the largest settlements of its kind. Separately, a class action lawsuit awarded $375 million in 2016 to property owners who owned land around Standley Lake at the time of the raid. The lake itself, lying just east of the plant, is a key water source for the northwestern suburbs of Denver.
In 2010 the State of Colorado sued the Schwartzwalder Mine for the contamination of ground water around the mine with uranium levels 1000 times the allowable limits for drinking water that allegedly led to the contamination of Ralston Reservoir with what was found to be 310 ppb of uranium. (Standards determined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency). The reservoir serves as the water source for the Ralston Line, providing water to Denver, Golden, and Arvada. The mine, which was acquired by Colorado Cotter Corporation in 1965, ceased operations in 1995, but has resisted pumping water out of the dormant mine shafts claiming the state has failed to provide evidence water inside the mine is the source of the contamination. Ongoing geological assessments monitor and forecast uranium levels in the ground water and the reservoir, and factors that may affect them, such as annual precipitation amounts. Whether the former mine’s operations, or the rich naturally occurring uranium vein that once fed the mine are the culprit continues to be a matter of legal dispute between Colorado State Agencies and representatives of the mine.
Like a dark city in an outdated science fiction film, Rocky Flats has become a relic of years gone by, now visible only through a series of legal and historic documents, and local resident’s memories. While most of the original buildings were deconstructed, and 21 tons of weapons grade waste hauled away, large portions of the highly contaminated buildings were buried in a shallow grave awaiting nocturnal burrowing animals or a highway project’s heavy equipment to rediscover them. Except for a 1,300-acre restricted superfund site, the area has been labeled a wildlife refuge, and dozens of new homes flank its perimeter. Despite localized lawsuits and significant data demonstrating elevated levels of radioactive materials and waste having it made their way via wind, water, and soil into the communities around Rocky Flats, to date, no collective study of health data has been accumulated, despite persistent requests to do so from residents of Golden, Arvada, and Boulder, leaving the effect on the residents of the respective areas still largely undetermined.
Downs, George R. and Allan G. Bird, “The Schwartzwalder Uranium Mine, Jefferson County, Colorado.” The Mountain Geologist, v.2, no.4, 1965, p. 183-191. Ayler, Maynard. “Schwartzwalder Uranium Mine Report.” Colorado School of Mines, Oct. 18, 1995
John Aguilar, “More than 5,000 claims in 375 million lawsuit “appear to be valid”.
The Denver Post, Denver, Colorado, June 2017, 7:16 p.m. Updated June 27, 2017, 9:18 p.m. “
Andrew Cohen, “A September 11th Catastrophe You’ve Probably Never Heard About”. The Atlantic, Sept 10, 2012.
“Rocky Flats cover-ups alleged”. Pittsburgh Press. wire services. June 10, 1989.
“Ex-Rocky Flats operator pleads guilty; agrees to $18.5 million fine”. Prescott Courier. (Arizona). Associated Press. March 27, 1992. p. 7A.
U.S. Department of Energy, Legacy Management, Update on Rocky Flats Five-Year Review, https://energy.gov/lm/articles/update-rocky-flats-cercla-five-year-review
Till, John E., et al. (September 1999). “Technical Summary Report for the Historical Exposures Studies for Rocky Flats Phase II”. Radiological Assessments Corporation.
Scott Surovchak, Rocky Flats Site manager, “Rocky Flats Overview”, Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Legacy Management (LM). August 20, 2014
Caine, J.S., Johnson, R.H., and Wild, E.C. Review and interpretation of previous work and new data on the hydrogeology of the Schwartzwalder Uranium Mine and vicinity, Jefferson County, Colorado: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011–1092, 55 p.
Hilary Lewis, “Schwartzwalder Mine”, Earthworks, May1, 2017
“Mining In Clear Creek County” ttps://www.clearcreekcounty.us/DocumentCenter/View/11021/Mining-in-Clear-Creek-County
Self-Portraits (Portraits of my Mother Group)
It’s not uncommon for me to stray from the initial concept of a work as I execute a painting. Often, even the most well thought out plan gets hijacked as new ideas or inspirations are unwrapped. The group of self-portraits where I pose as my mother was no exception.
For the first work, I had planned to paint my late mother sitting at the kitchen table smoking and wearing a lace trimmed tricot nightgown. An image memory had practically burned into my brain.
I began to gather old photos, even enlisting the help of my siblings, only to realize relying on them as references would be difficult. The obvious choice was to sit in as my mother, as I look enough like her, and take new photographs replicating the pose I was bent on getting.
I gathered the props (cringing as I purchased a pack of cigarettes for the first time in my life) and selected just the right ‘70s-style baby-doll-meets-cheap-Victorian influence for the gown. Adorned in her bun hairdo, retro blue eyeshadow, pink lipstick, I went to work.
The first shoot was barely successful enough to inspire me to keep going. Just getting the image quality I needed with the set of directives I had for the scene was new ground for me. A challenging combination of directional low light and my own makeshift system of colored filters, I finally conquered the formal aspects. However, after hundreds of shots the feel of the pose was still missing the mark, with their primary aspect appearing contrived. Finally, I resorted to shifting my focus to the memory of how the pose felt, and not what I imagined it looked like, as the shutter went off, and voila, it was there!
My mother was, as many of us are, a walking contradiction. Hopelessly social, outgoing, and warm when her friends or outsiders were around, she was, at best, searching for joy and driven by optimism. However, the mother I knew was venomous, crafty, and targeted anyone who tried to pull down her veil. The gaze I often saw as she sat and smoked provided a window for onlookers to her inner unrest and her relentless refusal to be sunk by it.
I see in my mother an unwitting victim of the complex influences that shaped her life.
She was bitter that her fairytale of marriage, inaugurated with a fountain of champagne, was in time reduced to simmering resentment. Her life as a divorcee in the ‘70s became an endless routine of working long hours (often at night), surrounded by a life of domestic mediocrity and children she saw as an inconvenience.
The decade itself was marked by a sea of Cold War propaganda. Even the smiley face motif, once created to restore an insurance company’s morale, found its way onto product messaging so prevalent it makes one wonder if Operation Long Leash expanded into textile manufacturing. Meanwhile, the Marlboro man was hard at work on every television screen, behind every drug store counter, and at every grocery store checkout. Part of a generation hiding from the threat of potential global destruction, she slowly smoked herself to death.
For myself, the works have helped navigate me through the forgiveness process following her death — aside from the similarities in my looks to hers, it gave me more empathy towards her and her lack of awareness.
The first in the group was Cedar View Dr, followed by Near Miss, the latter which morphed into a heavier focus placed on the propaganda of the era. The subsequent works, the compressed charcoal drawings, Self-Portrait in the Kitchen, and Mom, center around the effect of the era and her personality.