The Desert Notebooks: Charted Territories

May 21, 2012 at 7:44 pm 1 comment

“Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
Aldo Leopold

Arizona is one of the most beautiful states in the Union, a diverse range of landscapes, each more breathtaking than the next, ranging from vast and desolate plateaus to hidden canyons opening into lush, green fields, from cactus fields to piñon forests.

Arizona was an even more abundant land before the arrival of progress and massive numbers of new residents and industries built on extraction.

Native communities thrived here for centuries before Europeans arrived. The canyons of northern Arizona are littered with large numbers of prehistoric ruins — sophisticated, multi-story masonry structures built into protective cliffs and along rivers. These structures were abandoned well before the arrival in the area of the Navajo, the largest Native community in the United States, who now trace their origin stories to this land..

The former abundance is reflected in the sheer number of these ruins, a mysterious precursor of the wildly expanding low-density sprawl we have in Arizona today. Matteo Rubbi found an aerial photographic map of Apache Junction taken in 1971 that shows a view of largely undeveloped that will never be reproduced.

Visiting artists Miguel Palma and Bruno Pereira Sousa, both from Portugal, and Matteo Rubbi from Italy and I traveled north this week on behalf of the Desert Initiative. On May 14, we were hosted on a visit to the Navajo Nation and other locations in New Mexico and northern Arizona by Phoenix artist Steve Yazzie (http://www.stevenyazzie.com). Yazzie and his family grew up on the Navajo Nation, and he had an opportunity to visit his mother while we were there. Yazzie’s late grandfather was a Navajo Code Talker, and Yazzie served in the Marines before dedicating himself to his work as an artist. One of his works was recently acquired by the Phoenix Art Museum.

Our first night was spent in Gallup, New Mexico, at the historic El Rancho Hotel. Gallup was once called the “Indian Capital of the World,” and about 30 percent of the city’s population traces its roots to Navajo, Hopi, Zuni or other Native communities.

The following morning, we had a meeting with Manny Wheeler, Director of the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, and learned about many of the exciting exhibitions, projects and commissions he is leading there. We previewed several new temporary public art installations yet to be unveiled as part of a collaboration between the Navajo Nation and New Mexico Arts, the state arts agency. The commissions will be inaugurated in Sante Fe, N.M. on Friday, May 18. Desert Initiative and ARID Journal partner and ISEA2012 Artistic Director Andrea Polli and Will Wilson are among the artists commissioned. For more information, including a map and texts in both Navajo and English, visit http://www.timenm.com/

After a traditional Navajo lunch in Window Rock, we headed southwest through the Navajo Nation toward Chinle Canyon, where we saw several of the prehistoric ruins and watched horses run across the canyon floor. We spent the night and following morning in historic downtown Flagstaff, where we also met with Alan Petersen, Curator of Fine Arts for the Museum of Northern Arizona, and toured his current exhibition, Shadows on the Mesa—Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond. I highly recommend a visit. More information is available on-line at http://www.musnaz.org/exhibits/shadows/index.shtml

On the drive south back to Phoenix from Flagstaff, as the elevation dropped, the exterior temperature rose from 72 degrees to 106 degrees over a roughly 140-mile drive. We passed by the fires raging on the west side of I-17 near Sunflower, Arizona. At a certain point, smoke from the fires blocked out the afternoon sun and cast otherworldly light and shadows on the landscape.

I saw things on this short journey that I’ve never seen before and may not ever see again: Horses attempting to open the front door of house. The sun sinking through a red and black veil of smoke rising from the largely uncontained Sunflower fires raging to the south, at one point lighting up the previously invisible silhouette of the San Francisco Peaks like a volcano as it slowly sank behind the horizon. Through it all, the best moments were watching the landscape through the eyes of international guest artists and watching the creative process in action as everyone interacted and responded creatively throughout with vision, inspiration, laughter and friendship. My sincere thanks go out to Steve Yazzie, Manny Wheeler and Alan Petersen for their time and support on behalf of the Desert Initiative and ASU, and to our visiting artists Miguel Palma, Bruno Pereira Sousa and Matteo Rubbi.

GREG ESSER
Desert Initiative Director
ASU Art Museum

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Photographs by Steven Yazzie.

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Entry filed under: Art + Performance, Art Events, Art Trips, Artists at the Museum, ASU Art Museum, ASU Art Museum International Artist Residency, ASU Art Museum Press, ASU Art Museum special events, ASU Art Museum: Behind-the-scenes, Desert Initiative, People at ASU Art Museum, Random Acts of Art, Steven Yazzie, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Last splash for “Performing for the Camera”! We knew her back when: Lekha Hileman Waitoller

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