For many, a hydroelectric dam is just that, a source of power and maybe a place to swim on a hot summer day. For artist Micah Cash, however, the hydroelectric dams of the south are a source of inspiration and a telling signifier of the area's culture.
Starting Thursday, Sept. 29, McDaniel College will host an exhibition of Cash's work, featuring both his photographs and paintings of the hydroelectric dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Cash, born in Texas, raised in South Carolina and currently living in Charlotte, North Carolina, said he's been working on this photo and painting series for the past three years. He said he is fascinated by the relationships between landscape and cultural geography, and these dams provide an interesting intersection between the natural and manmade, and public and private space.
According to Cash, the geography of space can often tell viewers about the social context behind an area. He gave the example of stopping at a red light, and looking at an intersection to try and determine how the community or neighborhood is treated and what is valued. He said these dams are a perfect example of this kind of geographic landscape.
"All of these locations are public space. We own them. You can swim there or touch them. You can go up to these dams that are accessible in a way unlike other places that produce our electricity," Cash said. "That comes up in the photos. You go in expecting to see landscapes, with foreground, middleground and background, and you don't get that. You have to ask yourself why there's no foreground in the photo. What is that saying?"
According to Cash, hydroelectric dams are the perfect metaphor for something that is needed to help society, yet comes with a significant sacrifice. He said while these dams create economic benefits, there are ecological and social sacrifices that must be made in order to support them.
"I know what it's like to make sacrifices in hopes of benefits, or have decisions made for me that require sacrifice," Cash said. "I started seeing these specific narratives in the hydroelectric dams and I wanted to capture that in images."
The photographs and paintings in the "Hydroelectric" exhibition capture two sides or narratives to similar locations. Cash said each medium has its own set of unique qualities that suit work that asks different questions. He said the photographs capture the way that he sees the world, while the paintings captures the way that he feels the world.
"Many of the photos are severely interpretive; some are more cynical and some are more joyful at times, and that's on purpose. If I'm in a space and I'm reading it in a way, I make a photo that seems how I'm reading that space," Cash said. "The photographs make sure the paintings are not belabored with too much content. I can showcase emotion, color, surface and material in ways other media can't do."
Cash has been painting for almost 15 years. He said photography came about as a way to expand his portfolio. He said he considers himself a classically trained painter and a self-taught photographer.
"My work utilizes both painting and photography as a one-two punch when it comes to this representation," Cash said. "I do my archival research in real locations to talk about specific political and social narratives. Then, as a painter in the studio, I reconstruct the landscapes based on memory."
Cash said he hopes this exhibition can help change the way people look at these dams and public space in general. He said it's not up to art to provide answers, merely to ask questions.
"A lot of people look at these dams as a New Deal program or just see them in a historic or nostalgic context," Cash said. "These dams are just as significant and valid today. Instead of providing jobs and construction, they're providing electricity to the south. The power program is still transforming the greater Tennessee Valley."