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Eco-crusader with a hot glue gun

by: JONATHAN HOUSE - PAMPLIN MEDIA - Artist and environmentalist Bonnie Meltzer, top, puts the finishing touches on her work Coal Car, in her North Portland studio. Above, Meltzer knits a fishing line and shells.Bonnie Meltzer is taking on the fight against Big Coal. Her weapons: knitting, crocheting and a hot glue gun.

Meltzer, a fixture in the Portland art scene since 1971, is no stranger to the environmental activist world. She remembers testifying at Portland City Hall in the ‘80s about household recycling.

“I went down there with my yogurt containers and did a little visual,” she says with a chuckle. “It was very effective. KBOO radio repeated what I said, endlessly.”

Meltzer works full-time in the studio behind her North Portland home in the Portsmouth neighborhood, assembling found materials, knitting with wire and refashioning the many globes that people bring her. For years, she organized Portland Open Studios, an annual event in which the public could watch artists work in their studios.

Now she’s taking on Northwest coal exports, devoting an entire show to the subject at a University of Portland exhibit. Her show now on display, “Coal — Not in Any Backyard,” focuses on the fossil fuel at its dirtiest. Piece after piece goes after the strip mining, transportation and burning of coal.

The show is a protest against a flurry of export terminals proposed for Oregon and Washington. The terminals would bring coal from Wyoming and Montana down the Columbia River Gorge, by train and barge, for export to Asia, mainly China. They may have made financial sense when China was scrambling to import coal in 2009, pushing the price way up. But since the price dropped, three of the six terminal plans have bitten the dust.

Global subject matter

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Bonnie Meltzer knits a fishing line and shellsMeltzer works in a folk-art style, using everyday materials, punning titles and a simple drawing technique.

One of her art works, “Desertification,” is a globe whose surface has been painted the color of sand, covered in a net of crocheted wire. The globe rests on a pyre of wood, and the meaning is obvious: Global warming and deforestation threaten all life forms on the planet. She says the net is to give it texture, but also symbolizes chains, how we have “locked ourselves in” as a species with our consumer habits.

Another piece, “Particulate Matter,” is a large frame holding fishing line she has crocheted into a fabric, in which are caught specks of blackness. They get bigger toward the bottom of the piece, where they join a selection of black mussel shells.

“It’s an issue with the trains and barges and coal dust and diesel fumes,” she explains. She cites estimates that one pound of coal dust will blow off the 125-car coal trains for each mile traveled.

“The mint farmers by St. Helens are going crazy,” she says, referring to potential coal dust polluting their farmland.

“And the seas are getting so acidic that the mussels aren’t growing,” Meltzer says.

Global warming, acid rain from China, coal dust, diesel fumes ... her art show conflates several environmental problems stemming from coal exports via Northwest ports.

Scavenger for art

The New Jersey native taught high school art back in East Orange in the 1960s. She came west to get her MFA in design at the University of Washington, and stayed.

Meltzer looks a bit like her beloved art: she wears heavy, knitted sweaters inside when it’s cold, and dyed her hair red. She uses mostly found materials, but she’s not averse to buying stuff, such as the magnet wire that she knits with, from electric motors bought by the pound.

“I’m a scavenger but not a hoarder,” she says cheerfully. “I take boxes of things to SCRAP,” the Portland nonprofit that deals in recycled artist materials.

A lot of people knit at the coal terminal hearings, because the hearings are “interminable,” Meltzer says. (She would bring her wire or fishing line if it weren’t so big.)

At such hearings, the anti-coal crowd has taken to wearing red shirts, to show they are numerous and tenacious, a dominant force. “The red shirts were very effective,” she says. Pro-coal folks first wore green shirts, then switched to blue, which Meltzer saw as a public relations misstep.

Not in her backyard

So does she think her art will have an impact?

“Will it change the minds of people who are for the projects? Probably not, but maybe,” she says. “I am interested in bringing awareness to the issue and reminding people that it is still an issue. Some might even be called to action.”

Her home is near the busy North Portland Junction, the train intersection two miles south of the Washington border. When there was a possibility of terminals at Coos Bay and St. Helens, she anticipated up to 10 coal trains a day chugging near her house en route to the coast. Her not-in-my-backyard reflex revived her environmental activism.

“I had someone say to me ‘You’re selfish. You just don’t want it in your backyard, but what about the poor people in China, shouldn’t they have electricity?’ ”

Her response? “I think Chinese people should be able to breathe, too,” she says.

“Another guy said, ‘It’s not in my backyard, so you just have to define your backyard as the whole Earth. Because what happens here affects everything.’ ”

Black glitter stands in for coal dust in many of Meltzer’s works. “Routes Now: Three Down, Three to Go” is a white chair that was first displayed in Blackfish Gallery, where the window exhibit seemed to be affected by a dirty rain.

Another work, “Greenwashing,” is a dirty-looking dress made of pond-green tutu

material with the word COAL on the chest in red. (She made it from her Coal Dust Fairy costume from a street protest.)

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Bonnie Meltzer created several art pieces focusing on coal exports for a special show at the University of Portland. Changing tide?

In the Northwest and nationally, protests against coal seem to be having an impact. Most of the opposition takes place via campaigns such as Power Past Coal, filing lawsuits and using other media.

“I’ve noticed the president is not using the term ‘clean coal’ anymore,” Meltzer says.

In Oregon and Washington, environmentalists liken the fight against coal export terminals to the national fight against the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Both would lead to sizable increases in global carbon emissions.

“If they bring 150 million tons of coal per year, it would turn the Columbia River Gorge into the nation’s coal chute to Asia,” says Michael Lang, conservation director of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a watchdog group for the national scenic area.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Meltzer lives near a North Portland rail line where coal exports were proposed to pass through, but the title of her show, and this piece, is Not in any Backyard. “Is art an effective way to get the word out? Yes, emphatically yes,” Lang says. “We encourage using any medium to bring the issue to the public.” The Portland-based environmental group is working on a music video of Johnny Cash cover band Counterfeit Cash singing “Coal Train Blues.”

Eric de Place, policy director at the Sightline Institute, a green think tank in Seattle, believes public protest has been influential in mobilizing opposition to the coal export terminals thus far.

“The response from environmentalists is huge,” de Place says. “We’re talking about 200,000 comments opposing the Longview coal terminal, which is staggering. It’s the biggest opposition movement we’ve ever seen in the Northwest, even including the spotted owl uproar.”

As to whether the terminals will get built or not, it may be that the market will decide.

“The coal companies have to clear two major hurdles: grass-roots opposition by environmental groups, and the coal price crash — it’s way down,” de Place says. “Even the coal executives acknowledge the terminals don’t

pencil out.”

Meltzer agrees that money talks in the end, and sees light at the end of the train tunnel.

“I don’t think any of the terminals are going to happen. There’s a sense of nervousness. They have this commodity, and it’s like, ‘God let’s make a killing before it’s not used anymore.’ ”