Brian Harnetty brings 'Shawnee, Ohio' project to the screen

The Columbus artist turned archival material from Southeast Ohio into an album, and this week the Wexner Center will host the project's film premiere

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Main Street in Shawnee, Ohio, circa 1909

For several years now, Brian Harnetty has immersed himself in the rich history of Shawnee and other nearby Appalachian towns of Southeastern Ohio collectively known as the Little Cities of Black Diamonds, a reference to the area’s long relationship to coal mining. Harnetty has turned this ethnographic research into multiple art projects bearing the name Shawnee, Ohio, including an album and a series of performances that combined contemporary chamber music with archival video and audio from the region.

More recently, Harnetty, a Columbus-based interdisciplinary artist, used some of the same material to launch a project he called Forest Listening Rooms, during which participants sit silently in the woods of Southeast Ohio to deeply contemplate the surrounding sounds and the future of the land. A portion of the listening sessions also included some of Harnetty’s original music and interviews with Shawnee residents past and present. 

Now, Harnetty has turned Shawnee, Ohio into a film, which will premiere at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 9, at the Wexner Center and will remain available to screen for free through March 23. But it’s possible the entire project — the film, the concerts, the album — would never have happened if someone hadn’t handed him a box of cassette tapes from the 1980s and ’90s containing oral histories collected from the Little Cities of Black Diamonds. 

“There was a deliberate effort by the people of Shawnee and these other towns to record the stories of the older generation before they died. And in doing so, it completely changed the stereotypical narrative of what's happening in the region and brought out the richness of the labor history and the environmental disaster recovery — the ways that the towns and people worked to hold their buildings up and hold each other up,” Harnetty said. “There were community members who would listen to those cassette tapes for years afterwards and keep them in mind. And I think that was really the start of the change for the region.” 

For the Shawnee, Ohio album, Harnetty spent hours listening to the tapes, pairing spoken-word selections with music to create aural portraits. (He also supplemented the tapes with audio from the Library of Congress collection of Anne Grimes, a musician and folklorist who made field recordings from all over Ohio in the 1950s.) With those pairings already solidified, Harnetty set about making the film version — a project he hadn’t originally intended to pursue, but one that now feels like an essential part of the Shawnee journey. 

“Everything was built backwards, with the music being composed as a result of the archival tapes, and then the film and image part of it being added in to fit the music. … It puts the music and the voices front and center and allows for the viewer to really embrace it and feel it very deeply,” he said. “It feels like you’re peeling layers of an onion, and trying to get at the historical stories of the region, but also the emotional stories that are there, too. I think that’s the contribution that art can make to these issues. It's the one thing that I think I can contribute.” 

Brian Harnetty

Harnetty divides the one-hour film into three parts: Town and People, Mining and Disaster, Protest and Hope. In the first section, “Jim,” a former Shawnee resident recollects the boyhood version of his hometown, and as he describes the buildings and people along Main Street, Harnetty juxtaposes archival images of Shawnee with modern-day photos. 

The middle portion of the film also includes some of the oldest known footage (likely early 20th century) of Ohio miners coming out of the mines after a workday. “It reminds me of very early cinema, like the Lumiere brothers,” Harnetty said. “There's also a bunch of footage that comes from the ’50s and ’60s from Murray City, which is really close by [Shawnee]. There was an amateur filmmaker there, and that footage was given to me by a resident of Murray City who had digitized it himself shortly before he died.” 

In a remarkable on-camera interview (“Sigmund”), a survivor of the 1930 Millfield Mine Disaster that killed 82 miners still struggles to comprehend the enormity of the tragedy. “Almost every house was touched by death,” he says. “Everybody was numb for weeks.” 

That depth of feeling is threaded throughout the film alongside historical documentation of incidents such as the New Straitsville mine fire of 1884, when striking miners set the mines ablaze. The fire continued burning for more than a century and still smolders underground to this day. Archival photos depict residents frying eggs in a pan over the smoking ground and a sign boasting, “World’s Greatest Mine Fire.”  

Shawnee, Ohio touches on modern-day issues, such as fracking, as well as the racial history of Southeast Ohio, including the town of Rendville, where many Black miners lived in the late 1800s. During the “Protest and Hope” segment, Neva Randolph, the granddaughter of freed slaves who settled in Logan, Ohio, sings “My Station’s Gonna be Changed,” a gospel song evoking the Underground Railroad.   

“Being a film and documentary buff myself, and because this is a virtual, online event, I'm imagining people watching it from that perspective, like they would be watching a documentary, except that there's no narrator, and you hear the stories from the voices of the people themselves. It becomes very deeply immersive for the audience to watch it this way,” Harnetty said. “It's not detached at all. You feel very connected to it.”