As the banks of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal continue to be developed, the legacy of pollution in its waters can be an uncomfortable narrative alongside gentrification. In conjunction with Gowanus Open Studios on October 21 and 22, artist Spencer Merolla is creating a pop-up bakery offering cupcakes, cookies, and other treats, all molded from coal ash. The inedible delicacies served from a mobile cart are meant to encourage conversation about the environment and climate change, especially on a weekend when many non-locals will be roaming the neighborhood.
“Gowanus is kind of a cautionary tale in terms of environmental degradation,” Merolla told Hyperallergic. “I love the work that is being done to clean up the canal and green the watershed, and it’s very exciting to think we can repair some of the damage we’ve inherited and be better stewards of this place in the future. But there is no putting the toothpaste back in the tube, here or anywhere. We have to do a better job of preventing these kinds of catastrophes in the first place. Because they are happening right now, all over.”
Her “Coal Comforts” bakery is now crowdfunding on Kickstarter, with rewards including a coal bundt cake and coal tart. Merolla often evokes the histories of her materials, particularly in themes of grief and memory, whether funeral clothes, human hair, or discarded objects from a backyard. Her recent Material Remains exhibition at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn examined the wedding dress as an heirloom object, and following November’s election, she transformed the white pantsuit she wore to vote into a mourning corsage. Merolla’s work with molding ash emerged around that time, with a piece called “Ashes in Our Mouth (Baloney Sandwich Series)” that suggested the bad taste many were left with after Trump’s election, as well as his support for the coal industry over cleaner energy.
“I’d wanted to work with ash for some time, given its association with grief, but it was the presidential election of last year that turned me toward coal ash specifically,” she stated. “Trump’s campaign relied so heavily on nostalgia in general and for the coal industry in particular, and it got me thinking about the many ways in which that nostalgia is toxic. It persuades people that because something is old-fashioned and familiar, it’s also benign.”
It’s worth noting that among the developers of Gowanus is the Jared Kushner-led Kushner Companies. The Gowanus Canal was designated an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund Site in 2010, thanks to its toxic cocktail of arsenic, radioactive material, and other pollutants. Lining the canal’s bottom is “black mayonnaise,” a concoction of coal tar, heavy metals, and other sludge from decades of industrial run-off. With rising tides of climate change, it remains vulnerable to flooding, even now pouring raw sewage into the streets in heavy rains.
During Gowanus Open Studios, Merolla plans to set up the “Coal Comforts” bakery cart outside the Gowanus Souvenir Shop at 567 Union Street. The tagline of the bakery is: “Can’t have your cake and eat it too.” By shaping the coal ash into food-like forms, Merolla references how much of the world’s population consumes poisonous air due to coal pollution, and the impossible balance between continuing the industry as it is and improving human life.
As she said, “The connection between food justice and environmental justice is only going to become clearer in the future — you can’t have one without the other.”