Folk Art PA

David Castano

Carved Figures
(Nurturing Well-being and Health)

David Castano is a full-time wood carver and descendent of Italian immigrants in the lumber woods of Potter County. In 2009, Senator Scarnati commissioned Castano to make 70 figures as gifts for his colleagues in the Pennsylvania Senate.

“The approach I always have had to working in wood was not so much to create a piece of art but to have something that represented families and their histories. I would give carvings away and found that if I had something that related to people who had befriended me, it meant a lot more to them. That’s really how I got started.  It didn’t become art so much as something from the heart. I made a connection with these people, maybe in a small way, of how their lives went.”

Castano’s figures make a statement about the value and diversity of workers in America.  “When I was asked to carve these nine miners from the Que Creek coal mine accident, I wanted to carve something that represented the type of work they did or something about their time trapped in the mine.”  His attention to detail contributes to telling the story and helps the community remember its history and heal from the near-disaster of that event.

For David Castano, each carving is part of a story. “My work is not high art,” he says.  However, his figures sustain family history and stories and invite imagination. 

“That’s what developed with these carvings of the Que Creek miners.  When I was asked to carve these nine miners for the Windber Coal Heritage Center, I wanted to carve something for each one that represented either the type of work they did underground or something about their time trapped in the mine.  It wasn’t just the nine miners—it was their families, their community—it was everybody in that whole group of people that go out to work every day, with their lunch packed in a bucket.

On Wednesday, July 24, 2002, at a small underground mine in southwest Pennsylvania a disaster occurred that held the world riveted for almost four days.  Due to mapping errors, a group of miners at the Que Creek Mine cut into an abandoned adjacent mine that was full of water which then flooded the area they were in.  At the time when Que Creek Mine flooded there were only 200 to 250 underground miners in Somerset Co., and it was a close-knit community. 

In the end, all of the miners survived—a near miracle.  Miners on a level below were able to get out after being alerted quickly.  Several days later, the other nine were rescued, one at a time, using an old safety cage.

 A. “43-year-old Randy Fogle of Garrett, Somerset County was the leader of the group. I gave him a rock hammer because he would carry this hammer around and used it as a portable seat, placing the handle on the ground and sitting on the head.”

B. “Harry "Blaine" Mayhugh wears the distinctive dark blue overhauls that the company gave them.  His yellow rain slicker is rolled up and he carries a mine self-breather in his hand.” 

C. “Thomas Foy, age 51 and a Viet Nam vet, is holding a metal cable that would have been used in the mines on equipment.  He grabbed it thinking that it could be run through all of their belts if they were going to die so that at least they would all be found together.”

D. “John Unger, age 52, became the chaplain to the trapped men.  He offered comfort when they thought they were doomed.  He tried to answer theological concerns when they were worried. He was a roof bolter and carries the tools for that work.”

E. “John Phillippi is carved holding an old tin or aluminum miners lunch bucket of a type used 85 years ago.  His father and his grandfather were miners all their lives so the old-time bucket was used to represent them.”

F. “Ron Hilemand, age 49, has glasses and is also carrying tools used in roof bolting.  Ron also has on knee pads.  Most miners still dowork on their knees.”

G. “Dennis J. Hall, age 49, of Johnstown made a phone call down to the group of miners in an area below that allowed them to get out quickly and safely - but probably kept him from getting out at that time.  He is carved with a blue plastic lunch bucket. The nine miners shared his lunch and it helped keep them all alive.”

H. “Robert Pugh, Jr., age 50 of Boswell is holding a small sledge hammer.  Bob grabbed a sledge hammer when the water was flooding into the mine thinking that he could use it to bust through the cinderblock walls to the air shafts.  Without that sledge hammer, they might not have been able to get out—it very likely saved all nine men.

I. “Mark Popernack, age 41 of Somerset, was the miner running the cutting machine that broke into the old mine which contained millions of gallons of water.  When the water poured in, he got separated, but the others came back to get him.  He carries a small grout bucket.  In that bucket, the miners placed final words to their loved ones.  It was sealed up with duct tape with the hope that it would be found if they didn’t get out alive.  It is still passed among the miners today and has not been opened.