A statement about the new mural at BBCRC, from Shawnee Miller
In midsummer 2021, Heidi, Fiona and I painted a mural at BBCRC. The Hotlum trestle had just burned down in a wildfire, so the tracks at Black Butte were eerily silent with the absence of trains. It was a hard time to be up on scaffolding in the summer heat and smoke that has become the new normal in northern California. However, at night when it cooled off there was still the same old dusty campfire, surrounded by familiar faces sharing meals together. It wasn't the most ideal time to be up on scaffolding in the full sun, but with a small ocean of Grocery Outlet seltzers and lots of stretch breaks we powered through, and we are super happy to share with you what we have made.
Now, about the mural.
I am going to open this with a note from the person who asked us to paint this mural. She is our friend, a truly inspiring creative force, and a survivor. Just a small warning, this statement makes unexplicit references to violence and abuse and might not be for everyone, so just keep that in mind. Now here's the note:
With that, the aforementioned survivors asked Heidi T, Fiona Barnacle, and me to paint a mural where a different artists' mural used to be.
The survivors originally had in mind that this mural would be a tribute to Margaret Kilgallen. We all love her, but also didn't want to be trapped in the shadow of the work of a (very tragically) no longer active artist who often gets tokenized as the one widely accepted femme artist in the scene. That being said, we loved how in her work she celebrated the voices of outsiders. And so, we took on this idea from Margaret, but we wanted to make this mural our own too. And we wanted to involve voices that are active in our community right now that we felt don't get heard enough.
We decided to draft some interview questions to email around to different folks so they could send us their responses if they wanted to. We wanted to hear from riders, writers, and workers. We wanted to hear from women yes, but also wanted to make sure all femme, queer, trans, non-binary, gender-nonconforming, non-dudes, etc. felt welcome to participate if they wanted to. We just really wanted to try to make space for everyone who might have felt excluded before to feel included.
In Margaret's work, she sometimes would paint a lot of little pictures and words on wood panels that would be shown together to make a cohesive immersive experience. We decided to take this approach as well, by having the mural be one cohesive piece made of smaller images and words. In these images and words, we depicted the experiences of those who chose to share with us in order to amplify their experience. It felt important to us to profile others with this space because we wanted to not just use the wall for our own stories but to create connections and have conversations with other queers and femmes in our community. One of the arbiters of toxic masculinity in our culture is the isolation of us from one another, but by sharing with each other and uplifting our collective experiences we are more powerful, and can begin to heal.
We were amazed and blown away by the number of people who responded and the wonderful voices we heard from. I'll go into detail about where some of the content came from below — but first I just wanted to say, to all who responded, thank you so much. And to those who are out there feeling like an outsider to outsider culture, I hope this makes you feel more seen and less alone.
1) Huge woman with train winding through the whole piece
When she started exhibiting her work in galleries, Margaret Kilgallen painted huge freehand women on gallery walls. She was unafraid to take up space and paint big. I had this idea of women the size of mountains, femmes as an unstoppable force. The train sometimes takes on an almost elemental force. It doesn't care about you, it is simply going where it needs to go. Like the ocean, this makes it both dangerous to get on the wrong side of, and all the more exhilarating to catch a ride from when it works out. I wanted to show the train and women together as huge, unstoppable, and taking up space. Awe and appreciation for trains and femmes connected all the conversations we had, and here we hoped to connect the whole wall with this motif to make it a cohesive piece working together with a lot of different parts.
2) Woman playing guitar in the water
Sarah Rose, a folk musician who plays in Dawn Riding, talked about her experiences with trains and traveling with us. There was a moment where she was talking about the magic of traveling and how an action can "ripple out" into more. How you can end up changing your whole life in an unforeseen by taking that first brave little step when you go traveling. So we wanted to get the ripples in there, by painting water. And we chose to have a figure turning away from a tiny city to illustrate turning away from predictability, society or one's own comfort zone. And we wanted the figure to be looking in to the darkness of those ripples, in to one's own reflection, and making music from what she sees there.
3) Matokie willow tree
If you're familiar with Margaret's work, this image is directly from one of her drawings. We liked the willow as a symbol of bending, resilient strength. There's something feminine but also strong about it.
4) Can of sardines
One of our interview questions was "what is your favorite train snack?". Nobody actually said sardines but we couldn't resist putting one in there anyway. Some notable mentions were granola and butter (Butterbelt of course) Gummy bears and sparkle water (Kendra), and Cherry sours (according to Ashley this is actually a staple among train engineers in some yards).
5) A female worker
We value so much the input we got from female train workers. Sheila White, Linda Neiman, Ashley, and Marisa Evans contributed their amazing and unique perspectives. Sheila White, a black female BNSF employee who deserves a mural all to herself in her own right, famously challenged BNSF in 2004 for sexual discrimination and a hostile work environment. In 2006 she won her case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, in an unanimous decision that was a milestone for workers everywhere. When we asked her about her experience with the rails, she said "My story wasn't fun or nice working on the railroad. My very first day of work was unwelcome to work or be there, and some workers expressed that every day. I fought harder each day to work and do my job — from all the abuse and harassment each day on the job. I was told everyday to find me another job "cause the railroad wasn't a place for a woman. I told them I had to make a living just like them". We have some other elements of female workers scattered around the piece, but for this one we wanted to have a femme climbing up high and armed with tools.
6) The open gate
In our responses, we heard a lot about how gatekeeping has affected us. Some people expressed regret that they gate-kept the community as much as they did. Some weren't even sure where their own gate-keeping came from, except that it was the way they had been treated themselves when they were getting into the culture. I think it's a common response to patriarchy to emulate the aspects that have been harmful to us to other people. It's a bummer, and it's part of what keeps patriarchy perpetuating. Like Butterbelt said when we asked them if they have any regrets around train culture — "I've gatekept in the same way men have. I've made people feel inferior. It's just mean".
We felt like it was important to have some friends there, hugging each other, each holding flowers. Heidi had the idea to have one of them based on Margaret's look when she appears in Bill Daniel's "Who is Bozo Texino?" and there is that really beautiful scene where she is looking off into the distance and the sun is held in a lens flare, trapped just beneath the bill of her baseball cap.
8) Fighting Demons
I guess this is part of the darker side of being anyone on the rails, but especially a femme or queer. For a lot of us, whether we are survivors of abuse from members of the community or from dangers we encountered on the road, we have had our times of fear and struggle. Sometimes the things we fight are demons within us, and sometimes they've taken physical external form. We couldn't not include that there has been violence for a lot of people in this community, and some darkness. I had to give the lady a big sword to show she arms herself to protect herself, and also a candle to show there is hope and light in overcoming the struggle. Rather than quote anyone directly here, I'll say this — if this has been your experience, you are not alone, even though it may feel that way. Take care of one another.
9) Unbottled Magic
We really loved what Ashley, a train worker from Atlanta, said when we asked her about magic and working on the rails. She said, "The rails are bursting with magic. We have a secret language. There are ghost stories that are told in every siding. We are riding on and operating these huge pieces of steel that come roaring through cities, small towns and forgotten wilderness and yet we (the train crew) are invisible. When it snows and you are outside walking your train at night in the middle of the woods, the air is silent and the forest creatures are tucked into the night's foliage and there aren't any lights for miles and miles and the stars are so close you can reach out and almost touch them. That's pure unbottled magic". So beautiful, right? So we had to put at least a part of her quote on the mural.
10) Rust Belt
This came from Marisa Evans, a rider-turned-worker we interviewed. I'll just paste what she said here, because I think it stands for herself.
"One of my friends (Rust Belt) took her life at the beginning of this year. She was from Cleveland OH and had a hard childhood. As a teenager, she rode trains, and loved the adventure. She rode a lot of trains with a lot of different friends all over the country. She lived in Pittsburgh most of her adult life, which is where I met her. I moved there for a couple years to be a conductor for NS Conway yard. She had different monikers. One of them was Rust Belt. RIP Rust Belt. She has a mural in Pittsburgh painted for her that has tracks in an X, because she was straight edge. On one of her memorial weekends, we laid all of her belongings out and had a really free market so her friends could take mementos. I took her crinkled copy of the BBCRC guide zine. I know she went there for a visit. I just want to share about her because she is really one of our heroes".
11) Alligator Skin
This phrase came up when we were talking to Linda Neiman, author of the wonderful book "Boomer" which shares her experience working on trains in the 70s. We asked her how she dealt, enduring without internalizing difficulties of a constant sexist and hostile environment on the job. You got to have Alligator Skin, she told us.
Laurette Lee was a female Amtrak conductor who was killed in a derailment in 2011 outside Reno. Her story came up while we were painting the mural so we gave her a little memento. RIP Laurette.
13) Hands squeezing engineer hat and gathering the sweat
We hope this image shows drawing upon one's experiences of blood, sweat, and tears with the railroad and offering it to others. When we asked Maria how she celebrates her resilience, she said "I pass on what I've learned".
And from Ashley: "You should surround yourself with people who will celebrate you and you should celebrate others even harder".
14) I Got to Carry the Lantern
Also from Marisa, we liked this quote — "I went from a rider to a worker. It wasn't about adventure and the romance and mystery of it anymore. The experience of a worker is more about repetition — the same tracks, the same mile markers, the same signals. It's all about knowing the rules in and out. Doing the job, and BSing with the engineers. I liked it. I got to carry the lantern. Sometimes the sunrises were so pretty, they made me feel like I was riding again".
We also wanted to show a symbol of illumination, moving forward. We liked what Sheila White said here too — "It's a new day! And as women, we are fighters for our rights and dignity working on the railroad".
So anyway, hope that shows where some of this directly came from. But really, we read every response we got and we had a lot to think about and talk about while we painted this mural. I don't want to go in to too much detail explaining all of the symbolism because I think a lot of it is better for you to figure out — i.e. a sideways ladder. There's a lot that can be done still in the work it takes for a culture to self-examine and reevaluate who it elevates. We aren't done just because this mural was painted in an attempt of communal restorative justice. But we hope it's a start to future developments in this area — we're in it together! We hope you carry on this lantern.