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Visions of a Vast Landscape: Journey through the Southwest gives students expansive view of making art

It’s no surprise that many art students find inspiration by studying abroad.

But participants in a new program co-sponsored by The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Fine Arts and the University of New Mexico (UNM) are exploring new horizons closer to home—in the vast landscape of the American Southwest.

Three students build geodesic sauna frame at Muley Point, Utah

Jessica Murray, Jane Taylor and Jeff Beekman assemble a geodesic sauna frame in Utah.

Photo: Katie Phillips

In a series of treks that range over Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Utah, graduate and undergraduate art students from the two universities are following the migration paths of nomadic native Americans—exploring the western frontier, immersing themselves in the landscape and responding to it with art and design.

Their journey takes them across time and cultures, from pre-Columbian native American sites to contemporary Euro-American art installations. In Utah they visit the stone ruins of the Anasazi at Moonhouse and the Holy Ghost pictographs; in Arizona they travel to Roden Crater where contemporary light artist James Turrell has converted a massive volcanic cinder cone into a celestial viewing chamber. And they end their travels in Marfa, Texas—one of the classic settings of the movie West—where art historian Ann Reynolds lectures on the changing nature of land-based art in America from inside the fitting confines of a converted gas station.

Blake Gibson covered in mud at Chama River, Heron Lake, New Mexico, by Chris Taylor
Photo: Chris Taylor

Part mobile design school and part modern-day vision quest, Land Arts of the American West is a 53-day sojourn that for the first time last fall took 14 students and two professors across desert canyons, dry stone riverbeds and deciduous forests in search of new contexts and surroundings for their art.

The unique, field-based art and design program is the result of a two-year collaboration between The University of Texas at Austin and the UNM, initially funded by a seed-money grant from the Lannan Foundation aimed at assessing the viability of Land Arts as a permanent program through a three-year pilot project.

The first of its field classes were held in fall 2002 and took place over an 11-week period broken up into segments; three weeks in the field followed by a week back at home.

“It’s like a semester abroad in our own backyard,” says Chris Taylor, Land Arts co-director and assistant professor of design in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Texas at Austin. “We offer four courses—12 credit hours. The students’ complete class load is with us. We schedule classes and class meets out on the road.”

Encampment by Julie Anand, view of four white tents pitched at edge of bluff

Julie Anand

Land Arts’ goal is to break away from the traditional realms of studio and classroom to immerse students in a landscape rich with artistic traditions.

“With this program we hope to confirm the idea that if you bring the students out into the world instead of the world into the classroom, you can fundamentally change how the students learn, create and view their surroundings,” Taylor says. “We believe that in this context they will make deeper and more precise connections within their work and be inspired to create work that makes broader connections outside themselves.”

Getting the students outside the traditional classroom could be, ironically, one of the most important experiences for their college education.

“We take the students to places that are as remote as possible, remove the time pressures and over stimulation of contemporary American culture and allow them to immerse themselves in the western landscape,” says Bill Gilbert, professor of art at UNM and the program’s other co-director. “The students then translate their experience of a new sense of time and space into the making of art and design.”

Eagle standing on perch at Zuni Eagle Aviary, Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, by Geordie Shepherd
Photo: Geordie Shepherd

The student-participants encounter everything from pre-Columbian pictographs, petroglyphs and architecture, to contemporary earthworks, sculptures and environmental design. The program cuts not only across the boundaries of time and landscape but also across intellectual disciplines—giving students direct physical contact with the features that define the American West. The masonry and design of Native American towns, the effects of land-grant settlers and the modern earth sculptures of artists who’ve fled the confines of New York and Los Angeles all figure into the program. But so does the open road—the ribbons of shimmering interstate and two-lane blacktop, daubed with the modern desert oases of truck stops and roadside cafes. There’s even a trip to The Very Large Array, a field of radio telescopes in New Mexico where students revisit the age-old question “But is it art?”

The result, says University of New Mexico art student and Land Arts participant Julie Anand, is “a way of finding definition within the landscape. The program forces you to rely on your instinct and stay in the moment. You really feel part of the vastness of time out there.”

Jerry Brody reads sherds with students at Penasco Blanco in New Mexico

Jerry Brody reads sherds with students at Penasco Blanco in Chaco Canyon, N.M.

Photo: Colleen Moffet

Students respond to the landscape and the traditions that have preceded them with sculpture, photography, sound recording, digital video and painting.

“The landscape talks back to you,” Taylor says. “You need a responsive attitude.”

An impressive array of guest lectures and classes complement the perspectives brought by professors Gilbert and Taylor. During the first phase of the program there were lectures—delivered near mountain streams and in desert canyons—by traditional Pueblo potter Mary Lewis Garcia, archeologist Henry Walt and well-known cultural critic Lucy Lippard. The tour encompassed the works of contemporary artists such as James Turrell, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Michael Heizer and Walter di Maria.

But the Land Arts journey is more than just class, more than making art. On what some affectionately call “art and design boot camp,” the students experience the joys and trials of “art in the wild”: long hours of driving, fetching water from gas stations, or having their vans stranded by mud and rain. But they also witness moments like a full moon rise above a mesa. They make sushi on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and stand awestruck beneath a desert sky as an electrical storm rages in the distance.

Wupatki Ruins, Flagstaff, Arizona, by Bill Gilbert, view of open sky through doorway
Photo: Bill Gilbert

The three trips also give the students ample opportunity for community building and collaboration. Over their 11 weeks together, they cook, debate art and philosophy around the campfire, confer on matters of artistic judgment and slowly, the boundaries between study, work and downtime begin to dissolve as they navigate life on the road.

“There’s no on and off out there,” says Land Arts student and University of Texas at Austin design senior Ryan Thompson.

Over the course of the program, each student was required to complete eight works. One was to come from each of the four classes—Site-Specific Sculpture, Site-Specific Shelter, Indigenous Ceramics and Mapping the Body/Landscape—and the other four could be whatever the student wanted to do.

The product of last fall’s phase of the pilot program was recently showcased in an exhibit at The University of Texas at Austin’s Creative Research Laboratory and the John Sommers Gallery at the University of New Mexico. The diversity of responses to the experience and the landscape was striking.

One color photograph depicted the ocher desert through the lens of a fishbowl filled with water. Another showed a student who’d mud-plastered herself into an earthen wall. A collection of food wrappers and discarded items in Ziploc bags hung on another wall, each bag labeled with the date and location where its contents became trash— a record of the student’s progression through the landscape. Water and drought, austere beauty, the sweep of time, environmental degradation, the collection’s themes were as varied as the settings that inspired them.

Constant, Variable by Esteban Hinojosa, view of open road from front seat of moving vehicle

Constant, Variable
Esteban Hinojosa

Building on the success of last fall’s class, Gilbert and Taylor plan to expand the next incarnation of the program to encompass more Hispanic content and popular culture, including a trip to Mata Ortiz, Mexico, where the students will work alongside native potters and artisans.

Eventually, Taylor says he’d like to see a book come out of Land Arts, documenting the first five years of the program, and in the process, helping to “really develop the body of work coming out of this new model of education.”

He gets excited when he talks about the possibilities that Land Arts can bring—both for the students participating directly and to the work they can produce.

“This program breaks the historic mold of how universities do business,” he says. “It’s not just professors lecturing…it’s an opportunity to offer a very particular education about art and design.”

The co-directors want to ensure that the program “doesn’t become a road tour…at its core it has to be an adventure.”

Based on the artistic depth and diversity of its first year, and the extraordinary collaboration between the two universities, “adventure” looks to be guaranteed a permanent place on the Land Arts curriculum.

Edited by Trevor Rosen

Reporting by Dominic Smith

Images courtesy Land Arts of the American West

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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