There’s a hidden gem tucked in Butler County. An art installation that reclaimed an abandoned coal mine for native plant and animal species. Last month, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh hosted a nature outing there in connection with the current art exhibit, I Want It All, by Italian artist Poala Pivi, which bridges the relationship between human manipulation and wildlife.
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The museum bussed 18 participants to the property of art environmental reclamation artist Angelo Ciotti to learn about his 22-acre earthwork, Twin Stupas and the bird conservation work there.
Jose Diaz, chief curator at the Warhol, coordinated this event with avian conservation biologist Nick Liadis over a year ago.
“There’s a really robust ecosystem that’s been revitalized and to bring science and the arts together I think is something that Andy Warhol would have celebrated,” he said.
One of Pivi’s installations consists of 27 feather-covered baby polar bears mimicking human behavior. It relates to “sculpture and artistic esthetics, but also to the animal kingdom,” Diaz said.
With Pivi’s focus on combining industrialism and nature, the Twin Stupas by Ciotti paired with Liadis’ efforts brought Pivi’s message to Pittsburgh.
“Jose was interested in my conservation work, the fact that I band [birds] in these human altered landscapes and decided that a field trip out here to see my conservation work in this formerly degraded landscape would be an interesting way of framing the work of Paola Pivi and vice versa,” he said.
The Twin Stupas installation consists of two mounds each the diameter of a football field: one is inverted 45 feet deep, and the other is 60 feet high. They’re connected by a spiral path that wraps around both mounds.
“This shape was chosen because that stupa was the first shape we know of in civilization, coming first from India,” Ciotti said. “People buried their dead in the fetal position in a mound, and it’s the womb.”
The Twin Stupas was once an abandoned surface coal mine. The land was barren; acid mine drainage created additional hazards. Ciotti purchased the land in 1970 and created a dam directing the drainage to small settling ponds for treatment.
“It was like a moonscape,” said Ciotti, “Stopping the flow of silt and indigenous vegetation started taking hold and the entire valley was covered with grass.”
In addition to treating the drainage, Ciotti planted trees which brought back the bird population. Since its creation, the Stupas have not been maintained – part of Ciotti’s concept as an artist.
“You can build the tallest buildings in the world, but in the end, nature will win,” he said.
Bird conservation at the Stupas
At the Stupas, Nick Liadis gave participants a bird banding demonstration. Liadis is the founder of the non-profit Birdlab, which focuses on bird conservation and education.
Here, Liadis bands birds, a process of capturing a bird to record biological data and place a small band with a unique number. He bands in urban, suburban, and rural locations that have been altered by humans. His goal is to find out how birds, specifically migratory songbirds, respond to these ecosystems.
“I’m catching birds whose kind of northern breeding destination is the Stupas,” he said.
Earlier in the morning, Laidis and his assistant set up large, nearly transparent nets near the Stupas. Each net is about 10-feet tall and stretches 40-feet wide. Once a bird is caught, it’s placed in a cotton sack to calm it down.
For the Warhol demonstration, Liadis captured two songbirds: a Veery, a reddish brown forest bird, and a Common Yellowthroat, a tiny warbler with a bright yellow throat.
The first step is to measure the bird’s leg to ensure the proper size band. It “fits like a little bracelet,” said Liadis.
He reads the unique band number to his assistant to record, then measures the wingspan and beak, weights it and then determines how much fat is on the bird by blowing on its translucent skin. With this method, he can also check for breeding conditions. The Veery, which had a band installed on its leg from the previous year by Liadis, showed signs of breeding.
“They breed around the stupas. This bird comes from central South America,” said Liadis. “Because this bird is showing breeding conditions and because it has a band on it, it’s coming back to its territory that it probably had last year when I banded it.”
After recording measurements and writing down the band numbers, Liadis lets go of the bird.
Once the demonstration finished, audience members such as Kevin Patterson were in awe of the intimacy of this event.
“This is a fantastic event,” said Patterson, “Coming out to an area that we were unaware of to think about where art and nature intersect and to see this wonderful use of space for further ecological investigation and preservation.”
Ciotti’s Twin Stupas are open to tour by appointment. Paola Pivi’s exhibit I Want It All will be exhibited at the Warhol museum until August 15th.