89 Miles Along the Tongue River

horsepack-64-72Words by Sarah Wasko and photography by William Carson

I met William Carson in Copenhagen a year and a half ago while we were both studying abroad. One of my favorite memories from my time in Copenhagen was sitting around my kitchen table with William and two of our friends. We talked about the accessibility of the fart joke and how weird peds socks are, all the while eating French toast that we dipped in a communal syrup bowl. William just finished up his studio art degree at Colorado College. He’s making art, and it’s working. Unlike peds. William has employed coal, a material pertinent both to his story and to the art he is making, to unearth discussion about a relevant issue.


In 1976, William’s parents were on their way to Alaska in a VW Beatle when they were caught in a blizzard in rural Montana. They landed in the tiny town of Birney, decided to post up for a bit, and ended up sticking around for 40 years. Birney has a single paved road, a school, a post office, a church, and twelve houses. William’s mom is the only teacher of seven kids K-8. His dad spends his days horseback, tending to their Angus cattle ranch on Little Bear Creek. He says, “When I was a kid, I fell in love with the cowboy lifestyle. All I wanted in life was to ride horses, move cattle, and dance in cowboy boots to George Strait.”


William describes life along the Tongue River as “isolated, simple, and intrinsically satisfying.” However, this way of life is being threatened by coal development. Arch Coal is set to establish a strip coal mine and construct an 89-mile stretch of railroad along the river with an end goal of shipping coal off to China. In addition to the 2.5 billion tons of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere by the mine, the transportation of the coal will be a devastating source of pollution. William recognizes these implications; however, in the context of his project, he was more interested in local impacts. So he set out on horseback along the 89 miles, living with and getting to know the people of the Tongue.



Opinions about the mine are mixed. He says, “I met plenty of folks who wanted to talk for hours about how maddening they find the entire idea. They fear that building a new mine would destroy what they love about their home: the quiet, the beauty, and the raw land. For several ranchers, this new railroad would bisect their ranch, which you can imagine would seriously limit your ability to raise cattle on the land.” Along the way, he stayed with an Amish community who would have their community cut in half by the proposed railroad. Their small wooden schoolhouse would be directly adjacent to the tracks. He met members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe who hold the land sacred and were outspoken about their opposition to the project. There were people, however, who see the mine as a chance for revival, creating new jobs and drawing people to the area.





In addition to coming away from the project with a collection of stunning photographs, William used coal collected along his journey to create a body of drawings, paintings, and sculptures; challenging the viewer to think about coal as something other than an energy source. He wants people to look at the material for what it is. “I think coal is beautiful. I enjoy coal’s rough but flaky texture, the weight of the black pigment, and the shiny golden luster. So I started to play with coal: stacking it, dropping it, carving it, placing it, pulverizing it, pouring water into it, and making paint out of it. Through this process I started to develop a language and an aesthetic that I liked.” By focusing on the material, he was able to create a body of work that reflects his experience without allowing opinions and controversy to overshadow the art.

In William’s words, the work is a “balance between precision and unpredictability.” A rigid map outline in the painted pieces contrasts with the crackling coal enclosed within the established lines. William certainly had maps on the mind throughout this process, thinking about how we utilize, rationalize and categorize land. In his words, “We think that we have control and ownership over land because of maps, yet they fail to capture the intricacies of a place.”




William drew influence from Chinese Scholar Rocks, a tradition dating back over a thousand years. This is a practice of finding stones in nature and appreciating them for their aesthetic qualities through sculptures and drawings. His drawings, inspired by this tradition, reference the coal along the Tongue River destined for China. In place of Chinese characters, he used Montana cattle brands in the drawings. All of these subtleties, showing the interworking of the artistic process, make the project all the more profound.



Post-grad life continues on an adventurous track for William as he heads out on a month-long sea-kayaking trip in British Columbia with two friends.


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