Art and coal |

Art and coal

Local women mine creativity at work

Collin Smith

— Tonia Perkins likes to four-wheel, camp and fish on the weekends. She hunts, too.

She talks plain, smiles a lot and likes Colorado. She spends her weekday nine-to-fives in the offices and pits at Trapper Mine as an engineer – and a painter.

Perkins, who has worked at the mine for nine years, and Wanda Nickels, herself a Trapper surveyor for 19 years, paint on boulders around the Trapper coal pits.

Since March, they have painted a 7-foot-tall eagle head, a cookie monster, a smiling portrait of Sebastian, the crab from “The Little Mermaid,” and a dozen other images.

“I don’t even know if you can call it art,” Nickels laughed.

They use the mine’s florescent spray paint – which they normally use to leave instructions on pit walls – to craft colorful depictions of cartoon characters, animals and whatever else takes their fancy.

The large paintings started on a “beautiful day in March” right before St. Patrick’s Day this year, Nickels said.

“There was this beautiful rock out there at the end of the pit, and we just couldn’t resist,” she said. “We’d never done anything like this before.”

Nickels and Perkins, or Frik and Frak as some of the miners call them, put up three paintings on three different rocks. They didn’t know how the rest of the mine would react. At first, they didn’t even tell anyone it was them.

But when those three disappeared – possibly because they fell down the hill – more and more boulders began appearing along the roads, Nickels said. Miners were using their bulldozers to carry boulders from the pits to the roadside.

“Rocks started popping up everywhere,” Nickels said.

It takes a while to find a suitable rock large enough, and in the right shape, to make a canvas, said Mike Stearns, ground man for the Queen Anne dragline.

Streans, who has worked at the mine for 29-plus years, has never seen anything like the paintings.

“We work seven days a week, so we like stuff that breaks up the monotony,” Stearns said. “It’s something positive. It gives us something to talk about. To this day, I’m still looking for a rock shaped like a pickup so they can put that out there.”

And one shaped like a horse’s head for the Broncos, he added.

Stearns remembered when their art was just in the pits. He asked the two women to spice things up because he was tired of seeing orange numbers all day long.

Then, around Easter this year, he started seeing Easter eggs, and then baby chicks, and then roosters. And then flowers and clowns, and then the girls couldn’t be stopped, he said.

And he wouldn’t want it any other way.

“We’ve got a rock up there right now,” Stearns said pointing to the hill past his dragline. “We’re just waiting for a good place to put it.”

Management is into the hobby, too. Ray DuBois, president and general manager, likes that it gives his workers something to laugh about at work.

“It kind of adds a little cheer,” DuBois said. “Helps people take a lighter look at life when they’re stressed at work.”

There have not been any negative comments since the paintings first appeared, DuBois said. He was thinking he might bring his daughter out to help on a couple.

Other people have taken to the hobby already, Nickels said. Looking hard enough, it’s possible to see other small pictures lying by the road.

“We were thrilled to death when other people started doing them,” Perkins said.

“Yeah, coming up with (the ideas) is the hardest part,” Nickels added. “We need a suggestion box.”

Collin Smith can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 209, or

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