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Making art of 'Industrial Scars'

  • Story Highlights
  • "Industrial Scars" runs October 19-30 in the Singapore Sun Festival
  • J. Henry Fair makes aerial photographic runs over industrial sites
  • He disputes some environmentalists' calls for recrimination
  • Fair works in "the frightening beauty of the detritus of the industrial machine"
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By Porter Anderson
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CORTONA, Italy (CNN) -- So seriously does J. Henry Fair practice what he preaches that the blond-wood frames on the artworks in his exhibition, "Industrial Scars," were made from a tree that died in his yard in Lewisboro, New York.


J. Henry Fair's "Transition" is an aerial photo of bauxite waste, an image he says reminds him of Kandinsky's work.

"The sugar maple," Fair is saying, surrounded by what appear to be radiantly colorful abstract canvases, "is stressed by global warming. And a sugar maple at my house became sick. So the sugar maple came down. I milled the wood and designed the frames for these pieces so that the weight of the frame is spread out in all directions. It holds the print flat."

Opening Friday at Singapore's Arts House to run through October 30, Fair's show was seen recently in Cortona, Italy, and in a short intermediary exhibition in Cologne, Germany.

While the show was in Cortona, someone who had wandered into the ancient and crumbling church, Sant'Agostino to see these works, might have been forgiven for not knowing until Fair said "print" that these works aren't paintings. Video Watch J. Henry Fair talk about his work at his 'Industrial Scars' exhibition in Cortona, Italy »

Luminous in the eerie darkness of the centuries-old sanctuary, these are huge prints made of Fair's aerial photography.

Often ferried aloft by environmentalist-piloted small planes, Fair has flown into the pages of National Geographic and Harper's with exactly these shots -- no color retouched, either. This is the real thing. Photo See a gallery of images from Fair's "Industrial Scars" exhibition, now being seen in Singapore »

"This one is fertilizer waste," he's saying to an exhibition visitor, one of the many people in the hilltop city of Cortona for the annual Tuscan Sun Festival of music. The piece in question is about 4 feet tall, 5 feet wide and framed by that sugar maple wood. Grainy with a terra-cotta red image, a mottled terrain appears veined and splotched, like a colored lunar ground shot.

"I'm at about a thousand feet over this one," he explains to someone who has asked how high above a site he has to be to get such range into a shot. "I would say this place is about the size of a football field."

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This is phosphate fertilizer waste. "Comes in all colors of the rainbow, I've found," says Fair.

His work has a kinship with that of Robert B. Haas, the Dallas, Texas-based financial trader-turned-photographer, who also flies above the sites of some of the "extraction industry's" biggest efforts to bring up coal and make the substances demanded of what Fair indicts as "our consumption-based society."

Given a few minutes to talk by one of his works, Fair is soon berating anyone who uses paper towels. "I'd rather dry my hands on my pants than use something made from an old-growth forest."

And he is insistent that naming names -- stating which company owns which mill or strip-mining operation or plastics manufacturing plant -- is counterproductive.

"Greenpeace," he says, "likes to remind us that the Valdez wasn't a case of Exxon's bad driving" when it ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling more than 11 million gallons of oil. "It was all of us driving. We all drive cars, which burn gasoline, which causes global warming, which is part and parcel of the destruction of natural environments."

"And this image?" He walks over crunchy Italian gravel, the new and utterly natural flooring in this old, old house of worship. "This one happens to be the effluent pool at one of the most popular facial tissues' plants. You notice, again, I very carefully don't use names. I don't want industries to be on the defensive. I want us all to change our behavior."

Maybe so, but he risks some defensiveness at times in a title. "Claws of Brawny" shows a circular stack of tree trunks waiting to be pulped for paper towels.

In one instance, Fair delivers an image that's far from abstract and, to some, deeply moving. "The Last Stand" shows a late-day mining operation at work, the topsoil of a graded site having been stripped away until only a small stand of trees, clearly cut off from adequate root nourishment, stands shuddering in the twilight.

In one of his most modernist-looking images, Fair has captured the effluent hoses of a phosphate fertilizer mining site -- red floats hold them on the surface, tracing a pattern across the field of vision that could be the tracings of a submarine's course on a navigation map.

Tiny trucks, Tonka Toy neat, scurry across black-coal landscapes in some images, and something that might be huge purple grapes and their green leaves is an image harvested from the aeration tank at a sugar mill.

"This is bauxite waste," Fair says, stopping beside a rose-toned image. "And these are machine tracks moving across this bauxite waste. I love the transition in these colors from warm to cool. In fact, this circular shape and these three linear shapes remind me of (Wassily) Kandinsky," the Russian-born expressionist painter who once said, "Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies."

What Fair does with cameras from planes is look for colorful harmonies that will fool us into approaching his works. "My idea is to make images that are beautiful and frightening at the same time," he says.


"We're all used to seeing images of environmental devastation that make our eyes glaze. How many times have we seen deforested hillsides and been told about one thing or another? And then we turn on the television and watch 'Animal Planet,' and think, 'OK, well everything's fine now.'

"I know that things aren't OK." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Robert B. Haas' exhibition of photographs from his book, "Through the Eyes of the Condor: An Aerial Vision of Latin America," runs through January 15 at NorthPark in Dallas.

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