Artist reclaims West Virginia coal for jewelry

By Aldona Bird

Coal runs deep in our part of Appalachia, in our mountains and in our culture. While many of us are starting to seek more environmentally friendly energy sources, no one can deny that this fossil fuel shaped our history and who we are today.

“My dad was a coal miner, a long time ago,” Stacy Elza said, until he was injured in a mine cave-in. Stacy didn’t follow in his footsteps as a miner, but her family connection to our black seams leads her to work with coal in a totally different capacity.

First, she ordered a box of coal. Then, “I got a chisel and hammer,” she said. Stacy also obtained some of West Virginia’s miners’ scrip — the currency many mining companies paid their workers, which could only be used in company stores.

Stacy chips off bits of coal, selects pieces of scrip and creates bracelets, necklaces and keychains. “I’m not at all crafty,” she told me modestly. She had an idea for a unique product and has been making jewelry for a couple of years.

“I did a couple of craft fairs and had a lot of fun,” she said. I met Stacy at a craft show and bought a necklace featuring a triangular chunk of coal and a small scrip coin.

The necklace is a conversation starter — every time I wear it, people ask about it, often wondering if the scrip is from their miner relatives’ workplace.

Stacy said her craft  encouraged folks to tell her many stories — people enjoy recognizing the mine names and small towns in the state.

“It feels very ‘here,’ ” she said. She enjoys creating a product that is local and specific to West Virginia and our  communities distinct from the globalized world of mass markets.

Stacy said she enjoys the upcycling aspect of her products: Using the coins, she gives new value to something from which economic development  removed value. The different kinds of scrip fascinate her — one of her favorite coins has bold lettering, which says “Good for one exploder.”

As Stacy works with scrip, especially pieces with such extra info on them, she imagines the communities where the company currency was earned and used, what life was like there and the personal histories of the coins.

Most of the scrip she got comes from the southern part of the state. “Because I live up here, I’d love if I could find something from this part of the state,” she said.

Some of these coins stand alone as pendants or keychains, but she   incorporates some with other materials. In addition to coal, Stacy acquired a miner’s cap, probably used by a small boy in the 1920s or ’30s.

The canvas cap was made to wear under a headlamp, and Stacy uses pieces of it in lockets behind coal and scrip, before pouring resin in to secure and protect the artifacts.

Stacy said she got requests for scrip from specific mines, but she has not had a customer bring her items to preserve and transform into jewelry — but she hopes eventually someone will. She said folks interested can simply reach out to her on Facebook.

The spirit behind Stacy’s coal and scrip jewelry really appeals to me — the history that  defined us, the heart of our mountains. I especially value that she creates beauty from something that has caused pollution, hardships and has meant so much (good and bad) to so many.

Aldona Bird  is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Contact her at columns@dominionpost.com.

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