Fly Ash (from a coal-burning power-plant smokestack)

Fly Ash crop

Fly Ash (from a coal-burning power-plant smokestack)
Jesse Townsley, Chris Roesinger, and Joshua Steindler
15.5 x 5 x 5 inches
Borosilicate glass, frit, enamel, clay; (gel light used in photo)
(Photo: Cascadilla Photography)

I designed this piece and made the clay base. Chris flameworked the glass parts, altered the clay base, and painted the piece. Josh advised.

Fly Ash was accepted into New Glass Review 33, an international competition and publication of The Corning Museum of Glass in 2012.

I found the electron micrograph image we based this piece on in the book Worlds Within Worlds: A Journey into the Unknown. Credit for that photo is as follows: Dr Gerald L. Fisher. © 1976 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science from “Fly Ash Collected from Electrostatic Precipitators; Microcrystalline Structure and the Mystery of the Spheres”, Fisher, G.L, et al.Science, Cover, Vol. 192, 7 May 1976.

Here is a statement I wrote about the piece for an exhibit that Chris put together for an Expo in Toronto in 2013.



Layers inside layers (inside layers)

Artist’s Statement written for exhibiting Fly Ash at the Treating Yourself Expo held in Toronto, May 2013

The electron micrograph that inspired “Fly Ash (from a coal-burning power plant smokestack)”, which I discovered in the book Worlds Within Worlds, has had a profound effect on me. I decided to try to give more people the opportunity to have a similar experience and had three main sets of intentions for the Fly Ash sculpture when I conceived it.

First, it appeared that the spheres within spheres (within spheres) structure, arising from an amorphous soup, was somewhat groundbreaking from a purely artistic perspective. I hadn’t seen anything quite like before. One of my desires for my art is to bring new concepts, shapes, etc. into the world of art, especially from the world of science, and the Fly Ash image seemed to have much to offer in this regard.

Secondly, the image gives a glimpse into parts of our world we normally can’t see. One of the traditions of “modern” art has been to make statements, bring the viewer to new awareness, and to perhaps help augment the way people see the world. This is an important part of art for me. In my opinion, the image that Dr. Fisher and his team first micrographed of the plerospheres (which they also named) can act as a sort of portal to another world. This other world happens to be the world we actually live in, as opposed to the one we think we live in. Layers inside layers inside layers—apparently Dr. Fisher’s team found that inside the small spheres were even yet smaller spheres. Before the electron microscope, the plerospheres created by the burning of coal were invisible to us. Now we can see them, so with this awareness, what does this mean for how we see the world and what we do? What other layers may be hiding in the layers of what we now can see?

So, thirdly, the piece is intended to open up questioning into our energy usage in particular, how we see things in general, and for people into this sort of philosophical undertaking, “how do we know what we know?” and is what we know actually right? Fly ash is an example of stuff that forms on the walls of the smokestacks of power plants. The basic structure of molecules is sometimes changed by our production and use of energy, our factories, our cell phones, our bio-engineered food, etc. and we can’t see it. Our technology has ramifications we may not be aware of. Our actions produce results, sometimes we act actively and sometimes we act passively. Awareness is in some ways a more complicated job than it used to be—but the laws of karma still hold.

In some cases, we don’t see what’s right in front of us, or we’re misled by such things as language, shared attitudes, and, sometimes, propaganda created by people with personal agendas. The sun, for example, doesn’t “rise”, we turn to see it and then turn away, riding a giant sphere rotating and revolving around the sun. And our solar system rotates and revolves inside our galaxy, which in turn rotates and revolves. (Layers inside layers inside layers.) We know this now, but we still say the sun “rises” so we haven’t completely incorporated even this awareness into our way of dealing with the world yet.

We know that companies with economic interests in the production of energy have created various PR organizations to affect people’s opinions as to the safety of their operations and to alter the legislation of their activities. But do we think about this when we read the news? Do we question why a particular story is being printed when we read it, why others aren’t, and what the “expert” who is being quoted or is speaking may be getting (and from who?) by telling us what he or she is?

Apparently there are trace concentrations of toxic chemicals and heavy metals in fly ash such as arsenic, barium, radium, uranium, and mercury. According to a September 2010 report by Physicians for Social Responsibility and Earthjustice,  “…coal ash toxins have the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality.”1

Because of EPA regulations enacted in 1980, around 99% of the fly ash created in coal-burning power plants is now filtered out before reaching the atmosphere. While this is a major step toward improved air quality from when Dr. Fisher published his micrograph in 1976, the resulting millions of tons of solid fly ash produced every year may be causing another web of problems. For example, in December 2008 the collapse of a holding pond dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant caused the release of over 5 million cubic yards of coal fly ash. Fish were killed, homes damaged, and a train accident occurred. A study done by Duke University after the spill found arsenic levels up to 2000 parts per billion in stream sediment near the spill, well above the EPA’s 10 parts per billion limit for safe drinking water. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation assessed the TVA with a $11.5 million penalty due to the accident. It may cost over $1.2 billion to clean up the mess, including the TVA having to buy 180 homes.2

The New York Times estimated in 2009 that there were more than 1,300 coal ash holding ponds in the US. Most of these ponds do not have liners or covers. According to a publication jointly produced by Citizens Coal Council, Hoosier Environmental Council, and Clean Air Task Force, “We can point our finger to more than 60 places in the country where these wastes have degraded our public ground and surface waters beyond any use—consumptive, agricultural, industrial, or environmental…We know that this is just the tip of the iceberg.”3

Meanwhile, fly ash is used in the manufacturing of such products as cement, fertilizer, cattle feed, PVC pipe, floor tiles, wall panels, shower stalls, cosmetics, and toothpaste. It is applied on roads, parking lots, and even rivers for ice control. The dike that failed causing the Kingston spill was made with large concentrations of…fly ash. Perhaps we should be thinking more about what might happen if we continue the way we’re going. And what may already be happening.

And on the positive side, with things like velcro being inspired by burdock seeds, what ways might we be able to use this “spheres in spheres in spheres” structure to create new things or methods? (That will hopefully not be toxic!) The fly ash sculpture is perhaps a first step in this direction. We’re now embarking on the nanotech and biocomputing revolutions, and ways of structuring atoms and molecules will be inspiring new products and industries. Apparently the spherical nature of fly ash increases workability of cement while reducing the amount of water required, so processes requiring viscosity could be one place to start.

Ultimately, our actions, thoughts, and words affect the rest of world in ways that we in many cases don’t see. What we do ripples out and we can’t completely predict how it’s all going to happen from there. 36 years after Dr. Fisher prints his photo in Science magazine he gets an email from me telling him how I was inspired by his photo, the glass art sculpture my partners and I made of his image was accepted into an international competition, and that someone who saw a photo of our piece would like to post it on A lot of us think that we can’t change things or make a difference, so it’s not worth trying—but we don’t really know that. Maybe if we try to do the best we can with the situation at hand with what we know at the moment, before going on to the next thing, maybe something good will come of it.

Much thanks to Chris Roesinger and Josh Steindler for making my dream for this piece a reality out of a photograph, some words, and a rudimentary clay model. They really came through for me and I very much appreciate it.

—Jesse Townsley