Season 3: Landfall
AMBI: INTRO MUSIC
MADDIE GOBBO: For this season of Raw Material, we’re driving across California looking at art and the landscape.
JESSICA PLACZEK: My name is Jessica Placzek and I’m a reporter.
GOBBO: My name is Maddie Gobbo and I’m a fiction writer.
PLACZEK: Together we’re looking at what art can teach us about life in the West — its past, present,
GOBBO: and possible future.
PLACZEK: This is season 3: Landfall.
GOBBO: A production of SFMOMA.
GOBBO: So far for this season of Raw Material, we’ve visited a lot of arid landscapes, like the dry lakebed in episode one, or the one-hundred-degree Fresno fields in episode 2. Artists working with the landscape REALLY like deserts. But there’s one region in particular that seems to hold a special power for the land artists.
GOBBO: Michael Heizer’s City, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty are all located within its borders.
PLACZEK: It’s called the Great Basin. It’s an arid landscape that includes large swaths of deserts and mountains. It spans across California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah.
GOBBO: Though its deserts may seem unforgiving, the Great Basin has been inhabited by native peoples since about 10,000 B.C. Michael Heizer’s father conducted archeological digs in the Great Basin. And, following in his dad’s footsteps, Heizer came back to this landscape to build his masterwork, City.
PLACZEK: The land surrounding City is home to Native American trails and petroglyph sites. Petroglyphs are rock carvings. So what draws artists to the great basin? What is so special about this place?
GOBBO: To find out, we went to visit two artists I know who have lived and made art in the Great Basin for years: Katie Peterson and Young Suh, both professors at UC Davis.
PLACZEK: But to get to them, we had to drive across nearly the entire width of California, to a remote valley east of the Sierras, where Katie was spending the summer teaching at a very unusual institution: Deep Springs College.
GOBBO: We’re driving down a dirt driveway lined with…
PLACZEK: Lined with beautiful trees!
GOBBO: Huge trees!
AMBI: CAR RADIO
PLACZEK: Oh my god this place…
GOBBO: We’re passing, I think a mess hall. There’s a lot of like very chill dudes hanging out.
PLACZEK: Oh! This is a cute little seating area, to our left…
GOBBO: This is very cool. There’s like a cluster of little houses here kind of all arranged around a central green.
PLACZEK: We’ve made it. Six hours later, Seven hours later. Eight hours later!
GOBBO: A long time.
PLACZEK: Nine hours later! Nine hours since we left.
GOBBO: Oh, my god.
PLACZEK: Nine hours since we left.
AMBI: PARKING CAR
GOBBO: Deep Springs is wild. It’s this two-year, experimental college set in a remote desert valley near the Nevada border.
PLACZEK: It was founded in 1917 by an eccentric electricity tycoon named Lucien Lucius Nunn. He believed that this unique education would prepare students for a “life of service to humanity.”
GOBBO: Because in addition to studying the great books, the students are also expected to participate in self-governance and manual labor. They are involved in every aspect of college operations, from washing dishes to hiring new faculty. Students also help run the college’s alfalfa farm and cattle ranch.
PLACZEK: Picture kids riding through the desert on horseback, herding cattle, and quoting Plato.
GOBBO: Deep Springs is totally free. But the college only accepts about a dozen students a year, making it the smallest college in the United States. Until this year, they only accepted male students. But women have been teaching here for years.
KATIE PETERSON: My name is Katie Peterson and I’m a writer and a teacher.
GOBBO: She teaches summer courses and she also sits on the school board. And right now, she’s 7 months pregnant.
PETERSON: I'm in the third trimester. I’m really pregnant. I’m gonna get more pregnant but I'm still really pregnant at this point.
GOBBO: This summer she was joined by her husband, Young Suh.
YOUNG SUH: My name is Young Suh, I’m a photographer and I teach at University of California, Davis.
GOBBO: They met at the Yaddo artists’ colony, in upstate New York.
PETERSON: Yeah. We had the art colony love affair.
PLACZEK: Katie likes to describe this valley as “two places farther than anywhere you know.” The valley is about the size of Manhattan, but with way fewer people.
PETERSON: It’s rabbit brush and sage. Sort of low lying brush. And cottonwood trees in all of the runoff places.
SUH: It’s bleak, but not majestic. And a little arduous.
PETERSON: The students have even used words like boring and stupid to describe the landscape.
PLACZEK: The college sits at the far end of this high desert valley. It’s just a little patch of green about a mile off the main road.
PETERSON: There’s a sign that says “Deep Springs, no services,” because the college has an isolation policy for the students, so they don’t encourage visitors.
GOBBO: But this isolation helps create a tight knit community. Nobody locks their doors. At mealtimes, everyone gathers in the campus dining hall. And when a student leaves campus, they have to sign out on the big board in the dining hall, writing their destination and when they expect to return. That way if anything goes wrong, their fellow students can find them.
PLACZEK: But how did the college end up here? It’s because of Lucien Lucius Nunn.
PETERSON: Originally the founder of the college started a college in Virginia. What he found was that students were leaving campus, as far as he was concerned, too often to go have fun in town. He doesn’t want the students to go away on breaks to indulge in kid excitement and the picture show. So when he found this piece of land in the desert that nobody else wanted, he was like, “this is perfect.”
GOBBO: Nunn wrote: “The desert has a deep personality; it has a voice. Great leaders in all ages have sought the desert and heard its voice. You can hear it if you listen, but you cannot hear it while in the midst of uproar and strife for material things.” We wondered...did the land artists hear this voice?
AMBI: WIND WHISTLING
PLACZEK: Deep Springs was designed to bring students into contact with this voice. One big way the college accomplishes this is through its labor requirement. Every student has to go out and work under the same blazing sun.
AMBI: FARM ANIMALS
PLACZEK: Some students work on the farm, growing food. Others become cowboys, herding cattle through the valleys and mountains. And then others milk cows.
GOBBO: Jessica, you’re about to milk a cow for the first time. How do you feel?
PLACZEK: [laughs] Stoked.
STUDENT: …obviously you’re not trying to do your strongest grip ever but you can be pretty forceful. And, basically, just keep going.
AMBI: MILKING COW
PLACZEK: Young, Katie’s husband, had been working on the farm alongside the students all summer. The hands-on labor showed him how to live life at a different pace.
SUH: One of the insights that I had working the farm was how slow everything was and that you actually rely on the natural process. Rather than controlling everything.
PLACZEK: Farming here is not about physically dominating the landscape. For Young, it’s about accepting a landscape that you cannot easily control, and learning its ways.
PETERSON: One of the great privileges of living in the desert, is that you’re living in this landscape that can barely sustain you, and it throws you back on yourself in these interesting ways. Just mentally but also kind of physically.
PLACZEK: Out here, there’s plenty of room for self-reflection and meditation. Which might be why so many land artists were drawn to the desert.
GOBBO: But the land artists were not the first to make art in this landscape. Not by a long shot.
PLACZEK: On our second day in Deep Springs, Katie and Young took us out into the desert. We drove along a bumpy dirt road, eventually stopping by a creek at the base of these rocky foothills. Katie and Young brought us there to see some petroglyphs.
GOBBO: These petroglyphs were probably made by ancestors of the Northern Paiutes. That’s the tribe native to this area.
PETERSON: They say there were Paiutes in this valley living the way they lived until the 1920s.
KATIE: Yeah. Paiutes are one of the more wide ranging and diversified tribes in the West. There are Paiutes like, way, way north of here and Paiutes way, way south of here.
PLACZEK: Native people used the land to create images way before white settlers ever showed up. It’s amazing that we can still see them today. They’re some of the oldest examples of land art in this country. The designs on this rock face are mostly variations on circles, some with dots or crosses inside, or circles within circles. There are lots of patterns, too: zigzags, chains, and vertical lines.
GOBBO: These are incised into the rock, so they scratch off the dark surface.
PLACZEK: Petroglyphs look simple, but they take a lot of effort to execute. You need to be patient. You can only chip away at it bit by bit. It’s a little like tattooing...it takes thousands of pecks to create a complete picture.
AMBI: CHIPPING ROCK
PLACZEK: Everyone left me here with the petroglyph, which was kinda nice. But… Oh! And she’s signaling to me that she found more! Genius!
GOBBO: Follow me!
GOBBO: These petroglyphs are clearer than the ones on the first rock. There’s not as many of them, but come around to this side.
GOBBO: There are three different panels, I guess, on the face of the rock and I’m imagining that they light up at different times of day. So it’s possible the one with three suns is best lit in the morning, when the sun is rising. And maybe this landscape panel you can see better at sunset.
GOBBO: Petroglyphs can also have a pretty amazing effect on the way we see the landscape that surrounds them. Like, as I was looking for more petroglyphs, I became super sensitive to any discoloration or unusual patterns on other rocks, and I was noticing the sound of the birds, and I was feeling the sun beating down on me. I think overall, the petroglyphs heightened my experience of the desert.
PLACZEK: We also visited a third Paiute site. A birth cave, which has become more significant for Young and Katie. Because, well, they’re expectant parents. The cave was in the hills behind the college. To get there, Young led Maddie and I up a rocky, sage-covered slope, where we hunted for the birth cave’s entrance.
SUH: It might be that one… yeah!
SUH: Yes! Here it is.
PLACZEK: We can all fit in there?
YOUNG: Yeah! We can all come in!
PLACZEK: Oh wow!
PLACZEK: This birth cave isn’t so much of a cave. It’s two giant rocks that have created a kind of triangle. And so it’s much more light-filled than I thought it would be. And if you packed like sardines, maybe two people could lie down in here.
SUH: It’s open out to the landscape but it’s very, very private. You sit here and no one notices it, you know.
GOBBO: Yeah, we almost didn’t find it.
YOUNG: Right. And there’s this flat rock that looks like a pillow. You put your head on this rock.
GOBBO: And then maybe the midwife would...
SUH: Midwife would be, like, right here in the entrance of the cave. So the baby comes out towards the world into the mountains and sky.
PLACZEK: On the cave wall is a pictograph — that’s a rock drawing or painting. This one’s of a figure, painted using reddish brown pigment. It’s got a full head of hair and its arms reach up. There’s another drawing next to it that shows two circular shapes, one coming out of the other. Young lies down with his head on the “pillow” rock. His feet point towards the cave entrance. From there, he can easily reach out his hand and touch the pictograph.
GOBBO: Petroglyphs and pictographs speak to the history of the peoples of the Great Basin... and to their identity today.
MELISSA MELERO-MOOSE: Native people consider the land as part of their body. That connection. We are the land and the land is us.
PLACZEK: We spoke to Melissa Melero-Moose, artist and founder of the Great Basin Native Artist collective.
MELERO-MOOSE: I’m Fallon Paiute-Shoshone from Fallon, Nevada.
GOBBO: The identity and the spirituality of the Great Basin people is closely tied to land. Melero-Moose’s art explores this connection. Her paintings use this palette of mossy green, slate blue and rust, which are all colors you can find in these valleys. And she makes patterns on the painting surfaces with willow branches, pine nuts, and cattails.
MELERO-MOOSE: I’m from the Toi-Ticutta, from Fallon. We’re called the cattail eaters. All of the different tribes in Nevada are sort of named after the things that they eat from their region. And so I started putting the cattails on the canvas and sort of recreating the landscape around it in sort of an abstract way.
PLACZEK: We talked to Melero-Moose about an incident back in the fall of 2012. That’s when thieves snuck into a major petroglyph site, about fifteen miles north of Bishop. The thieves used power saws to remove and steal five petroglyph panels. Thanks to anonymous tip, the stolen panels were returned in 2013. But these pieces can’t be put back. They’ve been too badly damaged.
GOBBO: Melero-Moose says that disrespect for petroglyphs is all too common.
MELERO-MOOSE: I see it on a regular basis when I go visit the areas over in Fallon. People are shooting and spray painting on it. And I mean that just, that is so painful to see for so many different reasons. I mean, that's like going to the Mona Lisa and shooting a shotgun straight through it. You know, I mean that is our culture. That is our history.
GOBBO: We showed Melissa photos of the petroglyphs we saw at Deep Springs. They weren’t familiar to her, but they resonated nonetheless.
MELERO-MOOSE: I still feel a connection to them and it matters where they’re placed, you know, and why they were put where they were put. A lot of the petroglyphs, they have stories connected to them. And there are people that still know what those stories are, you know?
PLACZEK: Three months after our trip to Deep Springs, Maddie went to visit Katie and Young.
GOBBO: I met the family at their home in Albany, California. There’s a yard covered in leaves and a front room with bookshelves and a big picture window.
AMBI: BABY GURGLES
PETERSON: This is Emily Louise Suh, our daughter, who was born October 12.
GOBBO: Emily is tiny, with a fuzz of soft black hair and eyes that keep roaming around the room, always finding something new to focus on.
PETERSON: This is the living room and as you can see there’re explosions of color all over it. Because that is one of the things that happens when you have a baby, is people bring all these colors into your life.
GOBBO: But, this little bundle of joy had a difficult birth.
PETERSON: They had to induce my labor. I was in labor for seventy hours or something crazy.
GOBBO: That, and the fact that baby Emily was born in October, during a series of massive wildfires that destroyed 245,000 acres in Northern California.
PETERSON: When they induce your labor they put you on these drugs. And then every four hours you get a break and you get to go walk in the hospital garden. And the sky was full of smoke. And the closer we got to her birth the more smoke there was in the sky. I think about that as a significant detail in her birth this year. I mean this year has been a year of emergency.
GOBBO: Emergencies are part of life on the California coast. But the desert offers a different kind of danger.
PETERSON: The desert’s dangers are dangers of exposure. You have to protect yourself from what you’re in all the time.
GOBBO: Katie and Young have thought a lot about the struggles and rewards of this environment. They collaborated on a whole show called “Can We Live Here.” It explores new ways to survive and create in inhospitable places like the Great Basin.
SUH: You know, I think when we were going outside, I think we are looking for an intensity, you know, a kind of raw sense of life.
GOBBO: Their installation included photographs, films, and a room of antique wooden school desks, each topped with a book of Young’s photographs of people and landscapes, and printed alongside Katie's poetry.
PLACZEK: [reading poem] “Who comes here, to this field, this gorgeous expanse, in search of something he cannot name? Not wealth, but a fortune of the spirit, a freshness denied him in the cities. The valley glitters and brightens in the morning before its light becomes simply a condition of being. At night, the land grows dark again, and the houses, lit from within, appear to be hoarding what has no relationship with scarcity once the sun rises.”
AMBI: MUSIC FADES
GOBBO: In his photographs, Young searches for the moment when the landscape overwhelms his subjects. Instead of making art that depicts mastery over the landscape, Young likes to show people in the act of surrendering to nature.
PETERSON: In the show there are a number of portraits. And I think in the portraits part of what you see are these faces of people in a state of anxious contemplation. Thoughtfulness. A kind of frozen picture, about questioning both the possibilities for survival, and the possibility that survival itself is what the purpose of everything is, you know, kind of… not an existential dread but a worry that becomes a reckoning with the beautiful, is how I think about those pictures.
SUH: The kind of look and expression that I often gravitate towards in my portraits is this idea of bewilderment. They’re there, and they have no idea what’s going on and what their life is going to be like, and this kind of… You know, I think I love that word, bewilderment. You know, you’re confused but also in a very high, intense state of focus, in a way. And there is a sense of search. You’re searching for the answer, or solution, or exit. And maybe there is something about that in the idea of wilderness.
GOBBO: It’s weird...I felt like I had seen this look before...and then it hit me. It’s the look captured in Gianfranco Gorgoni’s portraits of the land artists. There’s one of Robert Smithson perched on a rocky desert hillside. His mouth is slightly open and he’s squinting into the sun and his brow is furrowed. He looks like he’s thinking, about to speak or give us an answer, but he hasn’t quite worked it out yet.
GOBBO: And there’s another picture from the same shoot, of Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt, standing on a ridge. They’re both looking out at a landscape that we can’t see, and Smithson’s gesturing towards something far away. He’s caught mid-sentence. Holt has her hands in her pockets and her hair is tucked into her collar. She has this expression on her face that’s really serene but maybe a little puzzled too, like she suddenly knows something without knowing how she knows it.
GOBBO: But it’s Gorgoni’s photographs of Michael Heizer that best capture this feeling of bewilderment. Usually, Heizer isn’t more than a silhouette, a miniscule figure, a black speck in the heat. Often we see him far from the camera, riding a motorcycle, or standing on the edge of a cliff. Then, there’s this one striking photograph. Heizer is clinging to the side of a boulder. You have to zoom in to see the detail: that Heizer’s arms are outstretched in an embrace, and he’s standing on tiptoe, like a kid reaching for his mom.
GOBBO: And if you look even closer, you’ll see that Heizer has turned his head so that his cheek is resting on the rock’s stony face. He’s listening.
PLACZEK: That’s it for this week’s episode of Raw Material. I’m Jessica Placzek.
GOBBO: I’m Maddie Gobbo. Raw Material is a production of SFMOMA.
PLACZEK: The guitar music you heard is the work of Scott Hunter. The last song you’ll hear is by Flower Girl. Elori Kramer composed all the other music in this episode.
PLACZEK: And you’ve heard us say it before, but you should check out Inflection Point, a podcast by KALW’s Lauren Schiller. She interviews women who have risen to a challenge and stepped up to create change. And again, thanks for listening. See you next time.AMBI: MUSIC