First Look: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art will present a major museum exhibition of photographer Builder Levy’s series of work created in Appalachia

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By: Lynne Partington

I have just returned from a sneak preview of the Ringling Museum’s “must see” photography exhibit “Appalachia USA” that opens tomorrow, July 10, 2015 and runs until September. Noted photographer Builder Levy has spent much of his adult life capturing, on film, the lives and lifestyles of miners throughout Appalachian America. Although he grew up in New York City, Levy was influenced as a young boy by the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and others who protested in support of the unionization of mine workers. Levy’s work can best be described as “emotional realism”. And emotional it is! Photographs depict coal-grime covered miners emerging from long shifts of back breaking labor, the wives and children who wait for their return home each day, and photographs of confrontations between mine workers and mining companies against repressive conditions in the coal fields. Mr. Levy’s work spans more than 45 years of life in Appalachia including his most recent aerial photographs. One of them is a heartbreaking view of a Mountaintop Removal Mine, taken in Southern West Virginia in 2004. Another gripping photograph, also from 2004 is of the Brushy Fork Coal Refuse Impoundment in Raleigh County, West Virginia. The impoundment (a reservoir, built to contain liquid coal mining waste) is the largest of its kind. It defines a space 900 feet deep and capable of holding eight billion gallons of coal slurry (waste), containing known pollutants and, what many consider carcinogens with a potential impact on the environment and human health in nearby communities.

Although efforts to unionize the mines was largely successful in the twentieth century, the introduction of mountaintop removal mines has led to new issues and complications for Appalachian communities which include deforestation, pollution, unemployment, poverty, and continued efforts to marginalize the unions. One of Pete Seeger’s most beloved songs, (written in 1931, sung by him in 1967) entitled “Which Side Are You On?” was the inspiration for Builder Levy’s interest and fascination with a widely misunderstood and little known segment of American society; the mining communities of Appalachia.

“My Daddy was a miner

And I’m a miner’s son

And I’ll stick with the union

Till every battles won”

The battle is still ongoing for America’s mining communities in Appalachia but thanks to the efforts of Builder Levy, their story is being told through his unforgettable photography.

Thanks, as well, to the Ringling Museum for providing Sarasota with the opportunity to learn about an important chapter of American history and the cultural region that we know as Appalachia.




Photographer Builder Levy’s Appalachia USA Presented at The Ringling This Summer

The exhibition showcases over 40 years of photographs

Sarasota, FL.—This July, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art will present a major museum exhibition of photographer Builder Levy’s series of work created in Appalachia. The exhibition will feature 50 black and white photographs taken by Levy over a 40-year-period, showcasing the artist’s in-depth exploration into the heart of America’s coal mining country from 1968 – 2009.

Levy, a New York-based photographer, is celebrated for his work that combines fine art and social documentary photography and his commitment to exploring the diversity of quintessential America. “Appalachia USA” is a story of the people in this region, their collective struggles for better working conditions and improved standards of living, and their efforts to protect their natural environment against powerful economic interests.

Organized by Christopher Jones, Assistant Curator of Exhibitions at The Ringling, the exhibition will be on view July 10 – Sept. 13, 2015. “Appalachia USA” highlights the rich heritage of the region and charts the dramatic changes that occurred over Levy’s four decades of artistic and social engagement. Levy began his career as a photographer capturing the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. His interest in depicting the history of social change led him to Appalachia, where African American and white coal miners often toiled side by side in underground mines. Levy’s work focuses on these laborers and their families, the brutal work of mining, and the struggle for better conditions and wages.

“Levy’s photographs bring to life a group of people who have often been marginalized and stereotyped in the media,” said Jones. “This exhibition displays the artist’s dedication to documenting the region and community, and demonstrates his continued return to the area over the course of four decades to capture the changing story of Appalachia and its people on film.”

In the new millennium, Levy revisited Appalachia once again to gain a new perspective and to complete his work. These trips included reconnecting with some of the subjects of his earlier pictures and witnessing how decades of mining had impacted the region. Beginning in 2002, Levy took ten flights over southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky to witness the grand scale of the mining operations, which left behind the poisonous byproducts of massive mechanized coal extraction. The exhibition at The Ringling features images from each period of Levy’s project, presenting a full view of the region over four decades.

“Levy’s work is an important part of The Ringling’s commitment to showcasing the work of living artists,” Steven High, Executive Director of The Ringling said. “The Art of Our Time initiative has been a major focus of the museum for the last several years, and this exhibition is a powerful reminder of the ability of contemporary art to tell our collective stories and educate others about the times we live in. We are grateful for the opportunity to present this important work to our audiences.”

The exhibition is part of The Ringling’s 2014-15 Art of Our Time initiative and it is supported in part by a grant from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

About Builder Levy

Levy was born in Tampa, Fla. in 1942, but grew up in Brooklyn. Levy’s photographs have appeared in more than 200 exhibitions including 51 one-person shows. His photographs are in the collection of many institutions including the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston, the High Museum of Art, and the Museum of the City of New York. He was awarded fellowships by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Alicia Patterson Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and Puffin Foundation. He is the author of three books Appalachia USA: Photographs, 1968-2009; Images of Appalachian Coalfields; and Builder Levy: Photographer.

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Art of Our Time

Art of Our Time at The Ringling is an initiative dedicated to presenting cross-disciplinary exhibitions and performances that explore the diverse ideas and forms at play in the contemporary arts today. Through Art of Our Time, The Ringling promotes a holistic understanding of contemporary artistic practices and showcases artists that transcend genres. Building on the legacy of The Ringling’s first executive director A. Everett “Chick” Austin, Jr., Art of Our Time comprises an ever-evolving roster of programming that engages audiences through direct interactions with art that defies traditional categorization.

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