Monday, September 6, 2010

work in process #1 (Place)

The humble tenacity of things

waiting for people, waiting for months, for years

--From an Old House in America by Adrienne Rich

I went to Picher, OK with Toby and Christy yesterday. We have started our first WIP, the Place Project. That is the generic name for now. We are at the edge of beginning to understand what it is exactly that we are recording, gathering, observing. Not knowing yet what the story is, we are simply putting ourselves in a place where there are stories of home and family and the stuff our lives are built from. And of course, that is every place, for most of the spaces of the world are occupied by people- and people are the keeper of stories. I wonder if people leave places, do their stories stay and haunt the structures of their old lives? Does the story linger, like a ghost will hang around the bones of a body that used to belong to her? Do stories leave behind residue? Lives certainly do.

Picher is a ghost town now. All that is left is the lingering stuff. Ordinary objects, inconsequential things, left behind in the living rooms and bedrooms of people who did not take everything with them when they fled.

But it used to be a place of prosperity and promise. A real American Place.

Picher was a boomtown, a place that was born literally overnight due to the discovery of lead and zinc ore in 1913. The Picher area became the most productive lead-zinc mining field in the Tri-State district producing over $20 billion worth of ore between 1917 and 1947. More than fifty percent of the lead and zinc metal used during World War I were produced by the Picher district. At its peak over 14,000 miners worked the mines and another 4,000 worked in mining services.

The resources depleted, the mining ceased in 1967, and the water pumping from the mines stopped. The contaminated water from some 14,000 abandoned mine shafts, 70 million tons of mine tailings, and 36 million tons of mill sand and sludge remained as a huge environmental cleanup problem. The area became part of the Tar Creek Superfund site. (Wikipedia)

Picher, OK has been called the most toxic place in America. The people were forced to leave their homes because of the health concerns. And for those families that held on tightly to their legacy’s architecture and did not accept the government buyout- they fled after the F5 tornado came through and destroyed what was left of the town.

The city's post office was scheduled to close in July 2009 and the city ceased operations as a municipality on September 1, 2009.

We get the feeling there is a lot of story there. Perhaps a big American story.

Before we look closer at the Superfund and toxicity, the failure of systems that were created to protect and support us, we simply want to witness the place. The ghost of home.

And we are developing a show about it. Perhaps. We will keep you posted.


  1. Dear Erika and all who're part of this inspiring project, I'm so moved and touched to see the poignancy and ordinary beauty in your witnessing of this scene of devastation. I feel the love, sorrow, pity. I'm glad you're there to call it forth.


  2. I also visited Picher and was overwhelmed by the emotion it brought. The sadness is incredible. If you would like to see my pics, please visit my blog,