Painting opens wounds over mining on Comstock

CARSON CITY — A painting featuring Nevada dignitaries enacting a pivotal moment in state history is being publicly unveiled next month as part of the Silver State’s sesquicentennial celebration to raise money for preservation projects on the historic Comstock.

But two figures — whom most people won’t recognize — included in the festive scene are rubbing some Comstock residents the wrong way. They say it implies a coziness between elected officials and a mining company they’ve been trying to thwart from digging for riches in mountains and canyons near their homes.

Limited edition prints of “Nine Cheers for the Silver State” by Dayton artist Steven Saylor are being sold as a fundraiser for the Comstock Foundation for History and Culture. The nonprofit group was formed last year by Comstock Mining Co. to raise money for preservation work in Nevada’s historic Comstock region.

Residents along Nevada’s Comstock embrace the region’s storied past, when discovery of silver in 1859 touched off a frenzy of pick- and shovel-hoisting miners seeking fortune. But many oppose Comstock Mining’s renewed push to extract silver and gold from the rugged, dusty landscape with huge earthmovers and trucks.

They are irked that the artwork includes portrayals of two mining company executives — Corrado De Gasperis, president and chief executive of Comstock Mining, and John Winfield, one of the company’s largest investors. Both are also directors of the nonprofit Comstock Foundation.

“The recognition, it just looked sort of old-fashion, perceived of replicating a backroom deal,” said Joe McCarthy of the Comstock Residents Association.

“It comes across a little disingenuous. At least for those who are really sensitive to what’s going on up here,” he said.

BEHIND THE CONFLICT

What’s going on is a clash between the then and now, where some residents fear industrial mining activities threaten to destroy the tourism and cultural economy — ironically rooted in mining and the romance of the Old West — they’ve worked to promote over past decades after mining played out.

The communities, McCarthy said, “emerged out of extractive industries going bust years and years ago. So they no longer are mining communities.”

De Gasperis called his detractors “good folks.”

Comstock Mining has pledged to try to be a good neighbor. It purchased the historic Gold Hill Hotel and has invested in shoring up old mill sites to preserve the region’s history. The foundation recently announced its acquisition of the Donovan Mill in Silver City, which it plans to restore.

The mining company also has committed 1 percent of its bullion to the foundation for ongoing preservation and cultural work with the historic district.

In the painting, De Gasperis is seated across from Gov. Brian Sandoval, who is signing a proclamation commemorating Nevada’s admittance into statehood on Oct. 31, 1864. Winfield is standing next to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.

Set in the historic Cobb Mansion in Virginia City, all the participants are portrayed in period clothing. They include Paul Laxalt and Richard Bryan, both former governors and U.S. senators; former Govs. Bob List and Bob Miller; U.S. Sen. Dean Heller; Rep. Mark Amodei; former first ladies Dema Guinn and Dawn Gibbons; and Ron James, former state historic preservation officer, now executive director of the Comstock Foundation.

FOR A GOOD CAUSE

James scoffed at the criticism that he said is coming from a vocal few.

“All the feedback I’ve received is overwhelmingly positive,” James said.

“This is to raise money for a nonprofit organization that is doing a great deal to try to save the resources on the Comstock,” he said. “That mining company is donating hundreds of thousands of dollars for that goal.”

He added, “I’m not impressed by the naysayers who aren’t doing anything at all that’s positive,” James said.

De Gasperis said Saylor approached him about doing the painting as a fundraiser.

“He’s the guy who really spearheaded it,” De Gasperis said.

Saylor said he exercised artistic license to include the mining officials in his latest work.

“I asked them to be in it,” the artist said. “The mining people are on the foundation, the Comstock Foundation for History and Culture. They are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to do something here that no one else has been doing.”

De Gasperis said he was uncomfortable being included in the painting of notable Nevadans.

“To be honest, I don’t like the fact I’m in the picture, either,” he said. “It was really awkward.”

But he anticipates the prints will raise more than $100,000 “to preserve at-risk resources on our national landmark.”

James said the foundation paid $32,000 for the artwork and expenses, such as costs for making the prints.

‘CLUBBY ATMOSPHERE’

Erich Obermayr, a Silver City resident, said the mining officials’ inclusion implies a “clubby atmosphere.” Taken aback, he sent a letter to Reid, saying he found the senator’s likeness in the painting “offensive.”

Obermayr said he has no objection to the painting itself or using it as a fundraiser, and in an interview he acknowledged the foundation has done some good things. But he likened the residents’ ongoing fight against the mining company to Reid’s vocal crusade against the Koch brothers, the billionaire Republican donors the Democratic majority leader has described as “un-American” and a “cult.”

“Your participation is particularly galling to residents of Silver City and Lyon County because, for all practical purposes, Comstock Mining has made itself the Koch brothers of our county,” Obermayr wrote in a Sept. 15 letter.

“Your image is being exploited by the very people you have spent a career fighting against, and their motives are much more self-serving than raising money for a good cause.”

Reid’s office had no comment on the letter, a spokeswoman said.

For Obermayr, chairman of Silver City’s advisory board, the mining issue is a raw wound following the Lyon County Commission’s approval of a master plan and zone change that could allow Comstock Mining to expand operations in and around Silver City. Both the town advisory board and county planning department had recommended denial.

The approval is now being challenged in court.

Storey County commissioners also recently granted a permit allowing Comstock Mining to potentially expand its Lucerne Pit and operations at a nearby ore-processing site and realign a highway to access ore.

On its website, the company said during the first six months of 2014 it poured 9,152 ounces of gold and 97,979 ounces of silver, an increase of 27 percent and 67 percent, respectively, compared with the same time period a year earlier.

Saylor’s works in the past have been used for various fundraising efforts. Two notable piece are “Heavyweights,” done in the late 1980s depicting six former governors who were alive at the time, and “Celebrity Train,” featuring then-Gov. Bob Miller and an array of country-western music stars. Sales of those prints benefited the restoration of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad and Nevada’s State Capitol, according to Saylor’s website.

Reservations are being taken for the 150 prints being made available. Each print is signed by participants and will come with a 1-ounce medallion minted from Comstock silver. They are being sold for $1,150. For an additional $400, the print will be framed and include a second medallion to show both sides of the minting.

The original artwork will be publicly unveiled Oct. 31 at the Gold Hill Depot as part of Virginia City’s Statehood Parade.

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