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Arts & Culture

‘America’s Coal Miners’ Photography Exhibit Donated to W.Va. Art Collection 

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Jessica Lilly
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Jason Cleavenger was photographed for the project when he first began coal mining. He wore a red hat to help identify his status. The lifesize photo hangs in photographer Thorney Lieberman's home.

A photography project called “America’s Coal Miners” was recently donated to the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History. The project includes life-size images of West Virginia coal miners in high quality photographs.

Photographer Thorney Lieberman has kept some of the images of coal miners in his own home in Charleston since 2007. Some hang on Lieberman’s walls and others even hang from the ceiling and among his coat rack.

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Jessica Lilly
Several life size photos hang in photographer Thorney Lieberman's home in Charleston.

In 2007, two photographs won awards from the West Virginia Division of Arts Culture and History. The only image of a female coal miner in the project won a Merit Award. The subject of that image was Anita Cecil-McBride.

Lieberman says he'll never forget the first time he met Cecil-McBride at a church in Boone County.

“She jumped out of her car and she was driving like a tiny little Geo Metro,” Thorney said, “ and across the windshield in huge letters, it said ‘COAL DIGGER.’ She jumped out in her mining clothes, filthy. And I was so stunned. I didn't take a picture but it's burned in my memory of her jumping out of this coal digger car, and ‘here I am!’”

Lieberman photographed Anita in those mining clothes for a black and white photo, put together with mosaic images.

Six pieces of Lieberman’s coal miner series are already on display for the public in Moundsville at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex.

While he can’t know how every person has reacted to the images, he’s aware of a certain group.

“Especially West Virginians,” he said. “Very proud to have seen them. It makes them proud to be West Virginians. It makes them proud of their culture.”

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Jessica Lilly
Thorney Lieberman has kept some photographs in his home in Charleston, WV. John Freeman was one of the first miners he photographed.

The photographs are life-size portraits from the tops of the miner’s helmets to the tips of their boots. Most of the portraits are shot in black and white and mounted on steel sheets. The final pieces are almost 7-feet tall.

The project was meant to “put a human face on energy.”

The exhibit was originally sponsored by some pro-industry groups such as coal companies and Appalachian Power along with the United Mine Workers of America, and private donors like the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation.

Lieberman is not from “coal country.” Even when he moved to Charleston, he didn’t have much ties to the state’s coal fields. But he’s used to being an outsider to the subjects of his portraits. He photographed Native Americans in Colorado for 15 years.

“I’m very proud,” he said. “This kind of New Yorker, you know, came into West Virginia and was able to contribute.”

Initially, he was inspired to take the photos after watching the terror of the 2006 Sago Mine Disaster unfold, shortly after moving to West Virginia. Thirteen miners were trapped for two days underground in the Sago Mine Disaster. All but one eventually died.

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Jessica Lilly
The lifesize image of Coy and Corissa Daniels hangs in photographer Thorney Liebermans' home by his coat rack.

“The explosion at the Sago mine happened and it was big in the news,” he said. “And it shocked me into realizing that I lived in the middle of, even though I live in town and there isn't much evidence of it, but I live in the middle of coal country. And so I sought out some subjects to photograph.”

Throughout working on the project since 2006, Lieberman learned more about the coal miners’ values and sense of self.

“They all wanted to be photographed with their kids, which is telling. These coal miners are very family-oriented,” Lieberman said with a chuckle.

Lieberman said that familial pride is evident not just in the photos but in the reactions to his exhibit that’s on display.

“The kids of these miners are just absolutely thrilled to see their dads immortalized like this,” he said. “I mean, they come to the exhibits and they stand in front of them and they’re beaming from ear to ear and they're so proud. And and the wives and the kids really are. And the miners themselves are extremely happy that these things are being shown.”

Lieberman says 16 pieces, including most of the ones from his house, will find a permanent home at Chief Logan State Park. The exhibit will become a permanent part of the West Virginia State Museum collection.

The exhibit is expected to be picked up from Lieberman’s home in Charleston, on Aug. 23. He’s thrilled to know more people will see it -- and understand a bit more about those who do this often dangerous but important job.

“My work in these portraits had really been sort of a celebration,” he said. These were sort of heroic figures. I mean, they, you know, they work very hard under terrible conditions, but they powered America.”


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