“Matewan as Metaphor”


With her advanced degree in cultural anthropology, Jean Hess might have explored the Battle of Matewan from a purely academic standpoint. With her personal background — she had family involved in the 1920 incident in West Virginia, which was memorialized in a movie and in popular culture — she might have created a sentimental rendering steeped in nostalgia. 

Instead, the mixed-media artist from Knoxville presents “Matewan as Metaphor,” a broad and compelling series of collage paintings, assemblages, textile pieces, and faux artifacts. The exhibit opened last month at Flood Gallery Fine Art Center and runs through the end of November.

Garden 1920

“It’s an experiment in artistic license,” Hess explains in a statement. “By combining real and imagined resources, I hope to transcend limits on what is possible and allowed in addressing history and visual art.”

Also known as “The Matewan Massacre,” the deadly gunfight was named for the mountain town where miners who were trying to unionize clashed with armed enforcers from the Stone Mountain Coal Company, sent to illegally evict local families living in the camp. By the end, the town mayor, two miners, and seven agents were dead.

Thread Map

Hess starts her pieces by making meticulously hand-drawn maps and charts. “That helps me think about the salient issues … extractive industries, population displacement, exploitative labor practices, suffering and loss,” she states. “However, I typically cover everything over with multiple layers of paper, paint, other drawings, and resins. Only traces of the original markings show through the layers. 

“I might sprinkle dry metallic pigment on the surface of work — it’s a sort of ritual blessing and also a way to mimic a firmament of stars.”

Hess’ work is in numerous private and public collections. The latter category includes the Huntsville Museum of Art; the Evansville Museum of Art, History, and Science; the Knoxville Museum of Art; the University of Virginia; the Farm Credit Association; and the Knoxville Convention Center.

Exhibit runs through Nov. 30. Flood Gallery Fine Art Center, 850 Blue Ridge Road, Black Mountain. www.floodgallery.org. 

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