Desert X: A Twist on “Monumental”

I timed my annual trip to Arizona to visit my mom (writer Alison H. Deming), to intersect with Desert X 2021, the third iteration of a biennial exhibition in California’s Coachella Valley (this year curated by César García-Alvarez and Neville Wakefield). In this year’s version, work by 13 artists is installed in distinct locations throughout Palm Springs. The stated intention of Desert X is to have the work engage with the desert as a “place and idea,” and the most successful work approaches this goal by considering the colonizing histories of the desert landscape and futures that revision our relationship to the land.

I arrived in Tucson after a long day of travel. The surreal experience of getting on a plane for the first time since the start of the pandemic was compounded by having to switch planes due to a mechanical problem and then, finally airborne, having a passenger with a serious medical emergency who was carted off by medics in Dallas. After a day of feeling pinned in a jam-packed plane, doubting the wisdom of having ventured back into the world of commercial travel, I emerged into the Arizona air and breathed in the cleansing smells of creosote and sage.

Early the next morning, we set out on the road trip to Palm Springs. The closer we got to California, the more the green hues that dust the Tucson landscape were replaced by a drier, flatter, more desolate desert. We lost ourselves in conversation as the miles passed, and suddenly, about four and a half hours into our journey, I noticed we were almost out of gas. In the West you can drive for 2 hours and see very little but sand, scrub, and dilapidated shacks, but after a knuckle biting 20-minutes, we found a truck stop and filled up for the final stretch. Soon after, the California mountains came into sight on the horizon.

We had only planned for a single night in California, so we headed straight to our first viewing: Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead. The piece has taken multiple forms since its inception in 2009 (photography, a web-based multimedia presentation, and installation), all of which explore the Small Tract Act of 1938. The act held that federal lands deemed worthless could be made available for leasing for private homesteads. The act was different than the Homestead Act of 1862 in that it was designed to help veterans move west for health reasons, particularly those who were suffering from lung issues due to their service in WWI. Few were successful in maintaining their plots, and one can still see the deserted shells, known as Jackrabbit Cabins, in the landscape.

For Desert X, Stringfellow addresses this history through the construction of a small building evocative of a Jackrabbit cabin. The piece, through an audio component, draws on the writings of Catherine Venn Peterson, who scribed her homesteading experience in the 1950s. The Palm Springs cityscape where the piece is installed has been taken over by big box stores and so the structure underlines the shifting relationship with the land when placed in the context of this redundant urban setting, one we see on the edges of every city in the country. There was a voyeuristic pleasure in peeking into the windows to discover a typewriter with a poem-in-progress and a stack of wolf drawings.

Next, we headed over to the Desert X hub, a small room set behind a hotel pool jammed with imbibing sunbathers. As we picked up a map, one of the hub attendants said: “Go to Ghada Amer! It’s only open till 4:00 and this is the last day to see it. You don’t want to miss Ghada Amer!” We retraced our drive to the Sunnylands Center & Gardens to check out Women’s Qualities.

Amer’s piece was first created in 2000 and has taken a few different forms in the intervening years. The template for the work is letter-shaped metal containers that serve as planters for a range of flowers and greenery, each chosen to signify the words that they spell out on the landscape, in this case: loving, nurturing, resilient, strong, caring, determined, and beautiful. To generate the text for the work, Amer interviewed people on the street, asking them about the qualities they associate with women. Though the work has been popular and favorably reviewed, I was disappointed. The piece may, in its iterations over 21 years, speak to shifting traits associated with the feminine, but it still feels blunt. If there is intended irony—a consideration that ideals around gender association are detached from the actual experience of being a woman—it doesn’t come through in the actual work. The essentialist reading is still the strongest one, and it feels thin, as if what could be a powerful echo of 70s feminist practice (core imagery, the use of the decorative for fine art practice) doesn’t fully step up to address the complex ways that we now understand gender.

Next, we navigated to Eduardo Sarabia’s The Passenger, an arrow-shaped labyrinth, with walls made of woven palm petates. The trek across the hot sand to the installation site set the perfect context for reading the work. As I made my way across the hot sand, I imagined the much vaster, threatening landscape that some migrants experience–a visceral counterpoint to the rarified culture of an art biennial.

Sarabia’s parents migrated from Mexico in the 70s, and considerations of border politics are embedded in the work. As I wound my way through the labyrinth, the fiber walls provided a shelter and a path–danger and protection as dual sensations and dual readings. At the center of the labyrinth, platforms were constructed in each corner of the triangle where one could climb up and view the vast desert and distant horizon. As I looked around at the other visitors, it was clear that these platforms had also become selfie stages. That was a common Desert X sight, though not unique to this show; art as social media prop has become a common if somewhat surreal component of public art.

Nicholas Galanin, Never Forget

With the sun low on the horizon, we made our last stop of the day: Nicholas Galanin’s Never Forget. I’d met Galanin, a Tlingit and Unangax multimedia artist, years earlier at the Nevada Museum of Art’s triennial Art + Environment conference, and this spring, he was a visiting artist at MassArt, where I work as Dean of Graduate Studies. When Galanin made his virtual visit this spring, his Desert X piece had yet to be revealed, and I was eager to see what his contribution would be. The piece is set at the edge of the city, where the desert begins its rise into a small mountain range. INDIAN LAND is spelled out in the landscape in 45-foot letters, mimicking the classic HOLLYWOOD sign. In the 1950s and 60s, Palm Springs was a destination for (largely white) Hollywood stars, and with that simple reference, Galanin’s work makes visible the layers of colonization of the southwestern landscape, culture, and people. Galanin is refreshingly pointed and direct when he talks about the historical violence of colonial America and the continued pervasiveness of white settler mythologies, and the work is equally direct. Never Forget is a straightforward piece, but its physical impact, when you’re standing underneath the towering letters, is poignant. The piece has a sister project, a Land Back Go Fund Me site, where you can donate toward the goal of $300,000 to buy back a plot of land for indigenous nations, “to counter the devastating effects of colonization and settlement.”

From its presence on social media, it seems as if Never Forget has become a mecca of sorts. It’s easy to find social media documentation of sacred dancing and community sharing in front of the work, and in fact, there were a few native families gathering near the work as my mom and I left, and it felt right to slip away and make space for their experience.

Two of the Desert X installations are in Desert Hot Springs, and my mom and I decided to stay nearby so we could catch the two outliers early on day 2. The plan had been to find a restaurant nearby, where we could share a casual Mother’s Day dinner, but when we arrived, hot and tired, we found Desert Hot Springs to be a dark and depressed town. With trepidation, we navigated through the boarded up downtown and up a winding road to our hotel, Sagewater Spa. We arrived to a locked door but discovered a lockbox with an access code for our keys. After a bit of fumbling, we were surprised to find a small, lovely renovated hotel, with a handful of rooms lined up along a private pool. The rooms were clean and comfortable, with a mid-20th century modernist vibe. We settled briefly and then headed out to find food. After realizing that the complete range of options were KFC and McDonalds, we went to the grocery store and gathered beer, cheese, bread, smoked salmon, and hard-boiled eggs, and went back to the hotel for what turned out to be a relaxing, delicious feast, followed by a hot tub in the mineral water the area is known for.

The next morning, we packed up and headed out for day two of Desert X viewing. Our first challenge was in finding Alicja Kwade’s ParaPivot. We arrived before the piece was technically “open,” though exhibition hours weren’t evident from the parking lot. A handful of other visitors were wandering around looking for the work, and as we began poking around, they were giving up and hopping in their cars. Clearly, this had been an issue for the duration of the show, as there were hand-scrawled signs on nearby driveways: “This is not Desert X!” In the natural spot for our ascent to the work, there was a concrete road, but it was blocked by a metal gate, posted with “private property.”

We were determined, and began winding our way around and up the mesa on desert paths, trying to avoid barking dogs. As we approached the height of land, we had a sense we were headed in the right direction, if not on the prescribed route. We began to wonder if that might be the point.

It was a steep climb in the heat, and in the final stretch we had to bushwhack to avoid an abandoned shell of a house with an old RV parked outside. Eventually, I saw the sculpture rising up ahead, and felt a thrill of anticipation.

Alicja Kwade, Parapivot

The piece is smart and gorgeous, as Kwade’s work tends to be. It evokes a disorienting sense of one’s precarious position between earth and sky. The marble blocks, edged into interlocking metal frames, feel simultaneously astronomical and glacial. Blocks of ancient ice (marble) are placed in relief against the blue expanse of southwestern sky.

From the site of the work, it was easy to see that a cement road had been constructed for the installation, no doubt at great expense. It was on the opposite side of the mesa from our trip up, and we made our way down easily, noting the strangeness of a cement road plunked down in the rough landscape. We quickly came to the fence that had blocked our way and after navigating around it, we began to notice that signs advertising a 7-acre plot of land for sale, by Desert X, dotted the parking lot.

As we drove away from the site, I called the number on the sign, curious if it was part of the work or a true real estate ad. “Hello?” a man with a Latino accent answered, and I inquired whether the land was really for sale. He said that Desert X had leased the land, and that, “the art work’s not for sale, but the land is.” On route to the next piece, mom and I chatted about the complex economic realities of destination exhibits, the expense of creating the work, and how the link to big name brands (Gucci and North Face, in the case of Desert X) underscores a little understood aspect of the high-end business of art.

The second piece in Desert Hot Springs was Zahrah Alghamdi’s What Lies Behind the Walls, and getting close to the work involved a quarter mile or so of navigation up into the foothills.

The rectangular wall loomed increasingly larger as we made our way up. The ochre, umber, and burnt sienna palette of the piece evokes geological strata, and from a distance the work felt monumental and rock solid, but as the installation came into focus, it was a delight to discover something more intimate and temporary, more like a gigantic stack of folded fabric than a wall of stone. As we circled the work, we could see that the materials—foam sprayed with dyes, soils, and cements–had frayed in places, weathered during the run of the exhibit. One might think that the “fake” of the wall–when one discovers that its materials are light and temporary and only an illusion of something monumental–might make the work seem thin, but its faux monumentality isn’t disappointing; it’s a discovery that forms the heart of the work. The discordance of form and function create a slow reveal that make the work spot on for current conversations about scale, monumentality, and the significance of walls in the American southwest.

The last work we saw was Attukwei Clottey’s The Wishing Well, an installation of large modernist cubes crafted from the yellow plastic used in water-carting jugs in Ghana. Though less formally transporting, the work had a similar resonance to Sarabia’s installation, underlining issues of power and oppression through the lens of access to water and the laborious process many communities around the globe go through to gather this essential resource. The work stands in juxtaposition to the profligate use of water that enables urban development in the arid American west.

There were a few works that seemed out of place in the exhibit, including Vivian Suter’s paintings and Christopher Myers The Art of Taming Horses. The former could be engaging in a gallery or museum context and the latter, which is installed near the airport and difficult to view, didn’t add much to a show with such lofty aspirations for social engagement. I was also disappointed to learn that Judy Chicago’s piece, Living Smoke: A Tribute to the Living Desert, had been cancelled, and we missed the work by Filipe Baeza, Oscar Murillo, and Xavieira Simmons.

I left the Desert X exhibit thinking about how we overuse the word monumental in writing about art. I’ve been contemplating the relationship between monumental, as an artistic strategy that references scale or impact, and monument, a sculpture or architectural structure that serves as a memorial to a person or event. Artists and art critics use monumental to describe a physical attribute but also to elevate the grandeur and importance of a work. Is this completely disentangled from the monuments that litter the world–art objects designed to elevate the powerful, and in many cases, intentionally signifying ownership of and power over? Of course, there are monuments that capture the complexities of loss–Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial being one of the best known–but the versions that are both bad art and propaganda for the powerful are much more common. I’m not suggesting that “monumental” be banished from the art criticism lexicon, but it should be considered carefully through the lens of the intent to create a sense of awe, of scale, that speaks to importance and value. Much of the work in Desert X successfully plays with the history of monumental work, using awe, surprise, and the playful experience of navigation as strategies for inspiring the viewer to think about her relationship to the historical and future landscape.

Posted in Art, Art Review, Environmental Art, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

You’re Killin’ It!

In September, as I was getting my head around imminent surgery and radiation, I decided to schedule a mountain retreat so I’d have something on the calendar to look forward to. I reserved a little cabin near Franconia Notch in the White Mountains, where I’d be close to a number of trailheads. If I felt horrible, I’d just hunker down and do some writing and drawing; if I felt well enough, I’d take on a hike–scale would be dependent on my strength and any side effects from cancer treatment.

As it turned out, my weekend trip landed two-thirds of the way through radiation. I was a little worn down and had some discomfort in my chest, arm, and back, but I’d started running again post-surgery and found that getting my blood flowing made every part of me feel better. I was eager to be in the mountains and out of my daily work routine.

Knowing the trails would be wet, I rerouted to I.M.E. on my drive up and found a pair of light La Sportiva gore-tex hiking boots that would protect my feet from wet and cold. I was in and out of the store in under 10 minutes. Given all the holiday COVID warnings, I was surprised to see the streets of North Conway packed with Black Friday shoppers and tons of out of state plates. 

I headed from North Conway to Lincoln via the Kancamagus Highway, and pulled into Greeley Pond trailhead in the late afternoon for a short scouting hike to assess the state of the trails (wet, so I glad for the new boots!). It felt great to be in the elements. I got back to the car at dusk and headed for my cabin.

After I’d settled in, I laid out my supplies for the next day: hi vis outerwear, layers, extra socks, food, water, extra gloves, a puffy down jacket, headlamp, crampons, and a pair of sneakers in case the new boots chaffed. I looked through my list of possible hikes and decided to take on the most ambitious, Mt. Lafayette. 

Given that I was hiking alone, and my body was in the midst of other trials, I was determined to be conservative about the day. I would assess the conditions and my own strength and turn around if anything felt dodgy.

As I pulled into Lafayette Place to park, I noted a handful of other cars, with a few people gearing up for the trail. I popped my pack on my back and headed out. About a mile up, light snow began to fall, dusting the trail as I climbed a bit further. At one point, the trail was a frozen stream of solid ice, so I pulled on my Hillsound crampons. Above the tree line, the rocky peak was coated with a crust of ice and a layer of fresh snow. Everything about the mountain was stunning, and the trail was drawing me up. I felt great, and grateful.

As I climbed, the visibility diminished, but I kept my eyes on the cairns and determined that I would summit as long as the snow didn’t pick up. As I started questioning the wisdom of continuing on, I came across three young guys chatting on their way down.

“Am I close,” I asked?

“You’re practically there, and you’re killin’ it!” they replied.

I started grinning and couldn’t stop. After a few more winding turns and a few more cairns, I reached the summit of Mt. Lafayette at 5249 feet. I looked up to see a couple standing near the trail signs at the top, looking confused. They glanced up nervously. 

“Does that trail lead to Greenleaf?” they asked.

“Yes,” I responded, “Greenleaf is a mile down.”

I could see cairns and boot tracks in a few different directions, and with the low visibility, getting lost would be easy. I planted myself right near the cairn marking my trail. I didn’t want to risk getting turned around. I pulled on my puffy down jacket, had a few bites of a leftover thanksgiving turkey sandwich, swallowed a few sips of water, and started the trek down.

The full hike was around 8 miles. It was a magical day. I felt completely transformed at a cellular level—with a clear mind, full heart, and very, very sore legs.

The tale in photos:

Following the yellow blazes into the woods
Snow dusting after about a mile in–elevation around 2500 feet
snow was falling well before 3000 feet, and accumulating as I ascended

time to pop on the crampons!
My old Hillsound crampons were perfect for the ice
Greenleaf Hut, all buttoned up for winter. Elevation 4200 feet.
1.1 miles to the summit

Getting near the summit and starting to question visibility fo the cairns which were keeping me on the trail
warm, dry and ready to head back to babbling brooks


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Reading the Body: a Virtual Boston Marathon

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon hadn’t been on my radar when I ran my first 26.2 in the Baystate Marathon. My goal had been to see if I could complete a full marathon in an intentional and controlled way. In the end, I had a great experience, ran a 4:01:38, and when I looked up the results, I saw a BQ next to my name! In order to run the Boston Marathon, a person has to qualify on a certified marathon course, meeting challenging time standards for age and gender. Alternatively, some runners get in by raising $5000 for a charity. For any committed non-elite runner, qualifying for Boston is a bit of a Holy Grail. I hadn’t intended to run a second marathon, but the opportunity was too exciting. I registered, got in, and started training for April 2020.

Winter training went pretty well. I’m a practicing artist and writer, and I have a demanding job as Dean of Graduate Studies at MassArt. Running has to be done around the edges of my professional life. Still, by early March, I felt like I was on track for a good race. Then the pandemic happened. I began working from home around the same time that the B.A.A. (Boston Athletic Association) made the call to postpone the race until mid- September. I eased back on training for a few weeks, then began building up the miles again. At the end of May, the September Boston marathon was cancelled and replaced with a virtual event. Any runner who had qualified and registered for the Boston Marathon could complete the distance on any course, anywhere in the world, and submit the results in order to receive the coveted shirt and medal, among other mementos. After much deliberation, this was the B.A.A.’s response to the dangers of COVID-19. The Boston Marathon draws 30,000 runners every spring, not to mention the 500,000 spectators; the pandemic made it impossible to hold the race safely. So…I kept training, but my mojo was slipping. Work was increasingly stressful as we began adapting studio classes to a remote format and managing increasingly complicated visa issues for our international students (a situation where politics and the pandemic collided in a particularly frustrating way in higher education). Also, the summer was heating up, and I tend to get dizzy and nauseated if I run long in the heat. With in-person races being cancelled, I didn’t have the usual speed tune-ups as the marathon got closer. Still, I wasn’t going to back out of the opportunity to run Boston, virtual or not.

I still hadn’t decided where to run my race. I needed some place cool where it would be easy to keep a safe physical distance. In early August, my friend Craig Stockwell reached out to see if I’d be interested in running with a small group of people who would be completing the virtual Boston Marathon on the Clarence DeMar course in Keene, New Hampshire. I figured it would be a way to get a little bit of support and have a safe shared experience. I kept training with a race day of September 12th in my sights. In retrospect, I realize I was pretty run down after so many months of training, and then, in mid-August, I was thrown a massive challenge. I went in for a routine mammogram, which led to another, which led to a biopsy, which led to a diagnosis of early stage 1 breast cancer.  I hadn’t experienced any symptoms, and suddenly I was learning that my cells had secretly been mutating. As a runner, I have learned to read my body with a depth that I never imagined possible. My brain, my guts, my heart, my lungs, my legs, my feet, my nerves…I have learned how to listen to all of them in new ways, and yet I hadn’t sensed that something new was happening in my breast.

hospital waiting rooms...

The focus on training my body was suddenly less important, as was the marathon. Still, I’d put so much into it, and I figured that maintaining even a partial eye on my running goals would help me manage the stresses that come with a cancer diagnosis. At that point, I was in the last few weeks of training, before my taper, and with medical appointments and work, there was no time for my 2 final long runs. I managed one 16-miler on what turned out to be another hot summer day, then started to taper. I adjusted my race-day goals. I’d been hoping to go for a 3:49 time, but that was now out of reach. My running base was strong, so I decided to go for a 3:58 and change, in spite of being undertrained. I figured I’d set out with that goal pace and just hold on as long as I could. The Clarence DeMar course is reported to be beautiful, so I figured if the wheels came off, I’d just slow down and enjoy the long run (I realize this is hilarious to anyone who has run a marathon). My surgeon and medical team had given the okay for me run the event, and they scheduled my surgery for the 17th, so I’d have a few recovery days after the race, before heading to the hospital.

The night before race day, I crashed at Craig’s studio. We’ve been close friends and teaching colleagues for 20 years, having met in graduate school, and it was a treat to wander through his creative space, looking at books and paintings while trying to park my pre-race nerves. I’ve moved a lot in my life–22 times so far–and as my studio spaces have moved with me, lots of work, books, and supplies have been culled. Craig has had his same studio for decades and there’s a richness in that history that seems to hang in the air. I loved spending some time alone there, soaking it in. 

I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m., got up and forced down a bagel so I’d have time to digest. I’d been having some GI issues running over the hot summer, and I was worried about having to find a bush in the middle of Keene. Craig picked me up early the next morning, and we headed up to Gilsum for the 7:00 a.m. start. There would be 6 of us running, and as we gathered, I was welcomed by what would turn out to be an exceptionally enthusiastic posse of race supporters!

The event was organized by Alan Stroshine, the race director of the Clarence DeMar Marathon, and Thomas Paquette, photographer, coach, and founder of Next Level Running Co. They did a spectacular job of making sure the 6 of us had a memorable day. Due to the pandemic, each runner had designated support, and for me that was Craig, who rode his bike along the 26.2, always at the ready with water, Gatorade, and encouragement.

As we lined up at the start, I got my phone ready. People who’d already completed the virtual Boston marathon recommended that I use the B.A.A. tracking app along with my Garmin watch, just to be sure I’d have back up data to submit, in case one or the other failed. I had a few family and friends who wanted to track my race, and the app would allow for that as well. I got myself together just in time for GO, and suddenly, after all the ups and downs of the previous 9 months, it was simply time to run.

The first 12 miles of the course are mostly rolling hills with an overall downhill profile. We started off on a winding woodsy road, and It took a ton of effort to ease back on the pace and not go out too fast. That was the challenge for the first 90 minutes. I felt great. The weather was cool. A boisterous group of volunteers were cheering us on every few miles, and I was just trying to rein myself in. Along the route, the support team had planted sign posts announcing each major landmark from the Boston Marathon course. During one flat stretch before we ran up and over the dam, they’d written sidewalk chalk messages for each of us, including, “Lucinda, You Rock!” They blew bubbles for us to run through, and, closer to the finish recreated the Wellesley “screaming tunnel” from Boston. I was having a blast and feeling strong.

Photos: Alan Stroshine

At around 12.5 miles, we made a climb of a mile or so alongside a golf course. I ran over the top feeling good and saw that I’d run the first half on target. The second half of the marathon meanders through the city of Keene. I held my pace through mile 16, but at one point I said, “Craig, I’m starting to feel it,” and I was. My legs were getting sluggish and my left foot had started to ache. By mile 17, I lost my pace. I had 9 more miles to go, and the possibility of just slowing down to “enjoy the long run” was long gone. By mile 19, I learned what the marathon bonk is.

BONK, Photo: Craig Stockwell

I had no energy at all, and I didn’t care about my finish time. By mile 22, my outer left metatarsal hurt so badly, it was hard to put weight on it. I’d had to replace my racing sneakers the week before, due to another sneaker problem, and I was running in brand new Hokas. I love the shoes, but I’d only had one short run to break them in. I got to 26.2 by putting one foot in front of the other and stopping to rest and take water when I felt woozy. It was just survival to the finish. Finally, I heard Craig say, “it’s just around the corner; we run down main street to the finish line!” I picked it up as the end came into view and ran up onto the sidewalk where I could see two young girls in the distance holding a finish tape (a very sweet gesture for all 6 of us).

Photo: Next Level Running Photo

I glanced to my right and saw my son, Link, who had made the drive over to support me. There were more cheers and cowbells just ahead, and I picked it up a bit more. A few feet from the finish, my right calf froze up completely, but I was close enough that it didn’t matter.

Calf Trouble! Photo: Craig Stockwell

I crossed the finish line and checked my watch to make sure it said 26.2 and handed off my phone to shut down the B.A.A. app.

Photo: Next Level Running Photo

All six runners had come in, and people began to walk over to the lot behind the local running store, where they had set up a finish line with a big arch for photo ops.

photo; Alan Stroshine

Alan and Thomas handed out snacks, t-shirts, and goodie bags. I was feeling a little out of it so I sat down in the shade to rest and chat with Link and Craig.

Link and Craig, relaxing at the finish!

After 30 minutes or so, I realized that my phone had been ringing. A friend had been calling to see if I was okay. The B.A.A. tracker had posted, “quit,” and he thought I might have passed out before completing the race! Turns out I’d shut down the app moments before it reached “finish.” It hadn’t been a great race but no ambulance was needed, and I’d definitely run 26.2 miles!

I ran 25 minutes slower than I’d hoped to, but I finished the race, had an incredible experience with Craig, shared the finish with my son, and met, in Thomas and Alan, two of the most generous-hearted people I’ve had the pleasure of being with. To say it was a special day diminishes how emotionally overwhelming it was, given what I’d be facing later in the week. I was flooded with gratitude and love. My journey through breast cancer is ongoing, and my prognosis is excellent. I’ve had 2 surgeries and am moving on to the next stage of treatment. When emotion wells up in me these days, it seems to encompass all of it: personal pain and accomplishment, the love of family and friends, the support of strangers, and in that, some seeds of hope that stories of empathy and curiosity will begin to overshadow those that capitalize on difference and apathy.

Posted in Art, Breast Cancer, Marathon, Racing, Running, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Falling in Love with Running, Again


Last Sunday, I would have been racing the New Bedford Half Marathon as part of my Boston Marathon training. My aim was to go out at my marathon goal pace and then pick it up for the second half, basically to assess my readiness for Boston. My training has been close to on track, in spite of getting a nasty head and chest cold early in the year and then a 12-hour bout of food poisoning a few weeks back. They decided to cancel the half marathon on March 10th, and that was just the beginning. When I got the news that the Boston Marathon was postponed until September 14th, the wind went out of my sails. All the training and discipline seemed to disappear. An easy 6-mile run on the rail trail felt horrible; I had no legs, my toes hurt, my stomach ached…The news had just knocked me flat.

Over the winter, it took focus and fortitude to maintain training in the face of a demanding new job and commuting to Boston from New Hampshire, but the tangential structure the training schedule gave me ended up being a gift. It’s one of the things I love about the discipline of running. Having a running project occupies a quadrant of my brain and serves as a counterbalance to stress, disappointment, and longing, and since my work as an artist involves running and mapping, when I run, my art-brain is turned on. I’d pushed myself extra hard to maintain marathon training, and I’d also become dependent on having that side structure in my head–that space, always present and ready for me to step into. When the structure I’d used for the last 3 months disappeared, I was instantly tired and depressed. In the same week, MassArt, where I work as Dean of Graduate Studies, went completely online. I’ve been sequestered at home, logging many, many hours in front of the computer, doing the best I can, with my amazing work team, to keep students safe and their education moving forward.

Knowing that the only way to get over my sudden wall of exhaustion was to plant some seeds–to create some new kind of structure, I splurged on the NH State Parks license plate.  Coronavirus aside, I’ve committed to staying in NH for a while, and I love running the state parks. With my new plates, I get in everywhere for free. Given the need for social distancing, why not make a new commitment to our natural woods and parks? I’ll insert a public service message here: social distancing is essential to “flatten the curve” and not overwhelm our health care systems. I have several state parks within 20 minutes of my house where I can safely run on trails without endangering myself or others, and without risking remote areas where the possibility of my needing a rescue increases. 


With my new plates, I headed over to Pawtuckaway State Park, and in place of the New Bedford Half I spent 3 hours rambling on the trails. There were families and couples MEscattered about, and young climbers laden with crash pads heading in to boulder. Everyone was spread out and enjoying the fresh air. It’s a scary time, to put it mildly, but seeing kids hiking and exploring the woods is always a hopeful sight.

For me, every running goal is accompanied by an artistic goal. In the case of the marathon, I committed to drawing a duck for every mile run (each drawing has as many ducks as the length of the run, as well as the GPS shape the run generated). Thinking about animal idioms is always fun, and I’ve been claiming #likewateroffaducksback as a mantra to keep my compassionate leadership mind intact when tricky things come at me, which is pretty much constantly in my job. Also, now that we’re all forced to slow down, it makes sense to think intentionally about the animal world and the habitats we share. The Like Water Off a Duck’s Back project is a meditative drawing practice for me. What was going to be 17 weeks of ducks for 17 weeks of training will now be 38 weeks of ducks. It’s a ridiculous project, but it feels profound for the way it’s occupying my mind and body.

Is it possible that this catastrophe could somehow bring us to a more discerning relationship with information (true journalism and science), to richer collaboration, to radical kindness, to visionary leadership, and to a deeper respect for the natural world? There are examples throughout human history that indicate that we actually do know how to do those things well when we stop reacting out of fear and get present to ourselves and one another.




Posted in Art, Environmental Art, Nature, Running, Trail Running, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Mountain Stories


Wanting to mark the first day of 2019 outdoors, with only a few hours to spare, I drove to Mount Kearsarge, a local mountain I’d never climbed. The auto road on Kearsarge is closed for the winter, making for an easy, quiet passage from the Rollins State Park on the south side. The mountain is only 2100 feet, but it’s isolated in the landscape, with vast view that makes it feel much higher. The day was warm, 45 degrees, but there was a wind picking up and cloud cover in the distance, so I carried my small pack with some water, a snack, and an extra layer, which I’d be grateful for at the top. The road was snow covered, so I pulled NANOspikes over my gore-tex Adidas sneakers.

The auto road winds up through a dense pine forest, which breaks open for several stunning overlooks.  For the first few miles, I ran over slippery pavement covered with few inches of soft snow. As I climbed, the snow was increasingly deep– crust covering unpredictable pockets beneath. It was tough on the feet and ankles and hard to get any purchase, particularly on the steeper sections.

I ran into just a few other people on the mountain and was struck by how much joy there was in almost every exchange–strangers sharing a day and place, buoyant and grateful to be ringing in the New Year in the mountains.

Kearsarge1.jpgThe first guy I passed, on his way out, was a bit of an exception. He looked fictional–long, combed hair and a wooden walking stick, metal water bottle tied to his belt–he was in his own world and didn’t acknowledge my presence as I passed. I waved to his silence. A mile or so later, I came up behind a young man with a camera in hand. He was bright eyed and friendly. We exchanged a “Happy New Year!” and “What a beautiful day!” as I ran by.  About a mile and a half in, I came across a middle aged couple, walking down and looking elated. I asked how many miles it was to the summit–was it 4? They said that sounded about right, but that they’d had lunch at Kearsarge9around 2.25 and turned around due to the intense wind. They mentioned a big pine that had fallen across the road, cautioning, “Don’t get hit by a falling tree out there!” The wind was getting more intense, noisy in the tree tops, but I figured I’d still head for the summit. I did come to the tree the couple had mentioned, but snow was covering the root ball, so it wasn’t freshly fallen. There was another tree down near the upper parking lot, easy to scramble over and again, not freshly fallen.


As I passed the couple’s lunch spot, the going got rougher—deeper snow with a hard crust–and the temperature had dropped a bit. I decided to keep on and pulled out a running vest to add a little warmth to my core. The remaining mile and a half was Kearsarge7.jpgwindy and isolated. There were no human prints, but I did see what looked like moose tracks crossing back and forth. I also saw some large round prints covered by snow. The bears are likely hibernating, but I peered into the woods anyway, wondering…


The wind and cold were getting more intense, and when I reached the parking lot at the top, I decided to turn around, skipping the half mile of trail and rock to the summit. My feet were sore from the twists and turns of snow and ice. After a quick snack, I put on another layer and started down.


A half mile or so from the top, I ran into the young photographer, looking open and peaceful, camera ready. We shared a knowing smile, “look where we are–the woods!” As I continued down, I noticed that for most of the way up, he’d followed my footsteps exactly. It struck me as poetic–the choice to plant one’s feet in a stranger’s prints and navigate their meandering path through the snow.


A bit further down, I ran into another couple on route up. “We were just talking about running Kearsarge, wondering if it would be possible in the snow. Did you run all the way up?” the woman asked. I said that it had been rough going, more like a run/hike, but that yes, it was great! They both looked fit, with that wind-chapped look of people who spend winter outdoors. I looked down to see that the man had two blades in place of feet, and said, “Oh, if you mean running in the blades, I would think that would be tough given how irregular the snow is…” “No, she offered, we couldn’t run it in those.” At that, we exchanged a “Happy New Year” and set off in opposite directions.

The Kearsarge run was a perfect way to bring in 2019. I’m not one to make a big deal about New Year’s celebrations, but I did reflect back a bit, thinking about what I’d like to do differently in the year ahead. I pondered how hard I strive–in my art life, my academic life, my personal and family life, my running–and usually the striving feels like a gift. I’m grateful that on most days I have an innate drive. On most days, I look forward to momentum, to moving toward goals. But there is a flip side, when the hungers that cause me to strive spring from a sense of lack or in reaction to feeling outside of something that I long for. If I were to frame this as a resolution, I’d say: Check the striving when it comes out of a feeling of anxiety or a defense of self-worth; give rein to hungers and drives that are authentic, that come from curiosity, creativity, and empathy.

Happy New Year!


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Three weeks ago, I ran the Ashworth Awards Baystate BSfinish2Marathon, my first 26.2! I started running 8 years ago, and it’s become a big enough part of my life that people constantly ask, “Have you run a marathon?” Until the last year, I wasn’t seriously considering it. I’ve never been sure I wanted to take on the distance, in part because my professional life is so busy, but I was also insecure about whether I’d be up to it. I was a competitive x-c skier as a teen-ager, and though I loved it, the stress of those races lingered and gave me some trepidation about racing in any sport. I got over that after my first running race (the 2011 Portland Thanksgiving Day 4-miler); still, a marathon always seemed like a huge leap. Eventually, I realized that running is a big enough part of my life that the marathon was symbolically important.

Over the last year, I hemmed and hawed about which race to do, but finally chose Baystate, which a number of people recommended as a good first. It’s a relatively flat course, with just enough variation that no single muscle group is hammered throughout. Many people told me that getting to the starting line of your first marathon is an accomplishment in and of itself; in other words, it’s common to get injured through carelessness or overtraining. I had my first half marathon in the back of my mind, a race on Grand Manan Island which I took on shortly after I’d started running. It was a disaster. I wasn’t ready, hadn’t fully trained for it, went out too fast, and basically suffered for 11 miles out of the 13.1. I’ve had successful half marathons in the years since then, with a PR of 1:46, but I knew that the lessons I’d learned in that first experience would apply tenfold to the marathon.

Once I made the decision to do Baystate, I had to learn how to train for a longer race. By mid-summer, I had a pretty deep base of fitness. I’d finished the USATF northeastern mountain running series, including the epic Mount Washington road race. Still, I’d never run over 15 miles, and had only done that twice. I knew there was a risk in upping my mileage, if I wanted to get to the starting line healthy. Much of my training was done on the trails, where I focused on time rather than distance, getting a few 4+ hour runs in the books. Eventually, I finished two 20-mile training runs on the road. I put a few fall races in the mix–a 4-miler and the 12 mile Squam Ridge Race–in order to get myself into the racing head space. My weekly mileage was between 40 and 50 miles at that point, but due to the trail focus, I had several weeks with 7-8 hours logged.

Three weeks before the race, I began to taper, which, after the months of upping the mileage, was extremely tough. It felt counter-intuitive to begin to rest the body in preparation for a race. As the big day got closer, I was increasingly nervous, but I channeled the nerves into planning the nuts and bolts. I asked for advice wherever I could, and got coaching from running sage, Rick Chalmers. In the week before the race, we used recent races, along with my weekly mileage and hours, to determine three possible approaches to the marathon. The choice set before me:

1. Go out at 9:20s and run a relaxed marathon, approaching it like a long run.
2. Find the max pace that I think my body could sustain for 26.2 miles (I figured around an 8:55) and go for something close to a 3:50.
3. Choose a pace that would be push me but be more likely to give me a good experience.

I was determined to enjoy my first marathon and I wanted to challenge myself, so I opted for choice #3 and established a goal pace of 9:08s. For years, I’ve wanted to experience a sense of control in a race, from start to finish, rather than entering survival mode in the home stretch.  Throughout my training, endless numbers of people told me about THE WALL that I would doubtless hit at mile 20, where leg cramps and lethargy would take over. I also heard tales of running careers ending because of marathon injuries. I was determined that would not be my experience. The week before the race, I hydrated  and ate lots of simple carbs (3 big meals a day, with snacks in between). I focused on mental preparation. I kept my legs up as much as possible and did my best to avoid high stress at work. I’ve noticed that intense stress translates directly to having leaden legs and zero race mojo.  The night before the big day, I ate a big plate of pasta puttanesca (no garlic), steamed beets, and a beer, to calm the nerves.



Ready to go! (photo: Rick Chalmers)

On race morning, I got up at 5:00 and made myself eat a bowl of oatmeal, leaving enough time to digest before the 8:00 start. After making my way to Lowell and lining up with the other runners, I was in the moment–as ready as I could be and excited to just have the experience. As we waited for the starting gun, I asked the 4:00 hour pacer what she was planning to do. She said she’d go out at a 9:00 min/mile pace and stick to it. That gave me a little jolt, as that’s more like a 3:55 finish time. I decided to stick to my own pacing.




The Baystate Marathon draws one of the fastest fields of any marathon; it’s a fast course with speedy runners. The average marathon pace (all ages, genders, and locations) is something around 4:40, but the average for Baystate is closer to 3:50! One gets the sense that, as advertised, the event is created by runners for runners, and it’s got a great vibe. In spite of the fast crowd, I felt thoroughly welcomed and supported as someone running in the middle of the pack. It was all I could do to keep the tears at bay every time I crossed a bridge where the enthusiastic crowds were gathered. At the half marathon point, some of my friends and Maine Road Hag teammates had lined up to cheer, and that gave me an extra boost for the second half!


Happy to see my posse at 13.1 (photo: Amy Russell Roma)



I started the race with a 9:16 for my first mile, taking it easy up an initial hill, determined not to go out too fast and to use every hill, even the first, as a rest opportunity. Quite a few runners passed me in the first 6 miles, but after that, holding to my pace, I passed runners steadily till the end. At the finish a young woman bolted by me, but I certainly wasn’t going to take the bait on that and cramp up in the final stretch. My pace varied between an 8:49 and a 9:24 throughout the race. There were some serious stretches of wind, and my splits reflect that. Around mile 16 the gusts were so strong that a 5-foot section of tree fell down quite a distance, hitting the pavement in the 20 or so feet between me and the runners ahead. The wind kicked up from the other direction right around mile 24-25, as I was nearing the finish. When I was done, my Garmin said 9:08s for 26.48 miles! For the official timing, I ran 26.2 in a 4:01:38 (net time). The most satisfying aspect of the race was not having experienced the wall that I’d been warned about. The pace for my final mile was an 8:55, faster than my first. I had a tight right knee for the last few miles and was ready to see the end, but I still felt like I was managing my body. As I crossed the finish and they passed me a medal, tears came to my eyes. I’d been training for months, and so much mental energy and self-doubt had preceded the race. I was filled up with the scale of it. I learned so much about running and about my body’s abilities at Baystate–every run I’ve done since the marathon feels different. I have a new confidence and a different understanding of the mind-body relationship. The experience was a complete treasure, and I’ll never forget it!


I’ll close with a note of gratitude to the generosity of the running community. A group of friends had also run the marathon that day, including Spencer McElwain (3rd with a 2:30) and Adam Goode (19th with a 2:41). They stuck around for an extra hour and a half , joining others who had come down from Maine to spectate, and they all cheered me across the finish.  The generous heart of runners never fails to move me–that some of the fastest people in the field can celebrate the accomplishments of runners of all ages, sizes, and abilities. It’s a beautiful thing.

Knowing that my friends had been freezing for 4 hours, I didn’t bother to check the results before heading out for lunch. When I looked that night, I noticed a BQ next to my name! I hadn’t put it together that I’d be qualifying for my next age group, in 2020. The Boston Qualifying times were all reduced by 5 minutes this year, so I hadn’t even considered that I might make the cut. At first, it looked like I was the last BQ in the entire race, but as it turns out there were some recording adjustments made later in the night and there were a good number after me. Looks like I have a few more marathons in my future!  I look forward to trying another 26.2, cranking it up just a notch or two, and trying to remember everything I learned at Baystate.

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No Faking It

CabotViewFor four years I’ve been running with the Maine Road Hags, an all-women’s team that competes at the Cabot Trail Relay on Cape Breton Island every May. The 17 legs of the staged relay race take place over 2 days, after months of training and preparation. It’s hard to explain what makes Cabot different from other races, but in part, it’s the collective experience. A runner’s individual race begins and ends as part of a remarkably fluid stream of events. Around 1200 runners (70 teams of 17), along with a huge volunteer race crew, begin leg 1 at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday morning; the race concludes with leg 17 on Sunday. Sleep is often impossible because of the logistics of making sure every runner is where he or she needs to be in time to queue up at the start.

leg 13

leg 13 start, photo: Julianne Gadoury

There’s a tale to tell from every single leg in the race, but this year, the transition from 13 to 14 captures what it’s like to be in the thick of it. Leg 14 starts at 3:45 in the morning in a dirt parking lot scattered with ditches, puddles, and rocks. We had new runners on the starting and finishing legs–Kate Fleming  running 13 (her second leg) and Kate Miles running leg 14. My car at that point consisted of my co-captain, Casey Dunn, who had run legs 7 and 12 (placing second in both!), and Amy Roma, who had run leg 3 and still hadn’t had a chance to rest. We were all wiped out, but since I’d gotten about 20 minutes of sleep earlier, I pulled over to let the two of them rest, and ran up to the finish line to see if the two Kates were all set. Disoriented from lack of sleep and the flashing headlamps, I scanned the parking lot for my teammates.


Kate Miles, Leg 14 start

Eventually, I heard “Kate…Kate…Kate…” and followed the sound until I found Julianne Gadoury. Kate Fleming had crossed the finish line but couldn’t be found in the crowd of racers getting ready to start leg 14. It was cold, and we needed to get her into dry clothes and make sure she was feeling okay after racing 2 legs.  Kate Miles, who was about to start leg 14 had another issue. Kathleen Bell, the teammate who had planned to drive Kate’s car to the end of leg 14 had been unable find Kate and her keys, and had to leave in order to get to the start of leg 15, her race, before they closed down the roads (this happens 10 minutes before the start of each race).

Camaraderie and support go way beyond individual teams at Cabot. This was in evidence earlier in the night when Amy and I were just about to get a few winks of sleep at the start of Casey’s second race (leg 12). We were just shutting our eyes, when a guy knocked on the car window, saying his car support hadn’t shown up and asking if we’d drive his wheels down the mountain to the finish. So much for the few winks! We had no idea what his name was or what team he was running for, but he handed over his keys, and Amy and I caravanned the cars off the mountain.

We were on the receiving end of that camaraderie back at the parking lot. A group of Maine-iacs, our stunningly fast and gracious compatriots from Maine, saved the day. First, they (I think it was Greg, Ken, and James…but I was a bit delirious) offered to drive Kate  Miles’ car, and they tracked down Julianne and Kate Fleming (who had found each


Ready to roll, with the Hags 10-min magnet

other), in order to pick up the Hags’ car magnet, This would allow them to leave the lot in time to get to the start of the following leg. The magnets allow one car per team to leave the start earlier than the rest. This helps control traffic around the island while getting runners safely where they need to be. It’s a good system, but getting the magnet from car to car can be a major logistical challenge in the middle of the night. With Kate Fleming finally reunited with her dry clothes and support vehicle, and Kate Miles setting off toward daybreak on leg 14, with her car safely in the hands of the Maine-iacs, I ran back down the road to get Casey and Amy and head toward the next adventure.


Maine Road Hags water stop, leg–1970s Track team theme!

My own race, leg 9, had taken place the night before. Leg 9 is one of the mountain legs, and it’s rated 5 out of 5 in terms of difficulty. Though I was physically fit, I felt tired and distracted before the race. With half of our roster being runners new to Cabot, Casey and I had some extra logistical leg work, not to mention the fun of our leg 6 team water stop. I’d been running around taking care of details rather than resting up and getting my head in the game. Nevertheless, at 7:55 pm, we set off into the dusk with reflective vests and headlamps. The 11-mile race begins with a 6.2 km climb up North Mountain. I managed to keep my legs running up the climb, but in the last kilometer, I was cursing Cabot and vowing I’d never do it again!


Find the Moose!                                                                        photo by Julianne Gadoury (who ran a stunning leg 10!)

As the course flattened out on a plateau, a thick fog set in. Along that stretch of road, my teammates saw a moose strolling along the shoulder, then disappearing into the scrub. Later, I learned that runners had also seen a bear and 2 cubs crossing the road near the finish line, but the nocturnal critters were long gone by the time I ran by. The descent on the course was relentless, and after a few miles of running down, I started to get a painful side stitch. When the road returned to sea level, the ache had mellowed, but we had another 3 miles to go. At that point, my legs were toast, and we were running into a headwind. I knew I wasn’t going to run the time I’d hoped, so I just tried to sustain my pace.


Ken Akiha, who won leg 9 for the Maine-iacs. Photo: Rick Chalmers

In the final mile, two guys passed me, and one called out, “we’re not chasing the mat, just hang in there!” Given that the same amazing volunteer crew (timing, safety, registration, emergency, etc.) works all 17 legs in the event, they have to pull up the mats based on something close to a 9:30 pace finish, so that they can set up at end of the following leg before the first runner crosses the line. Dan Vassallo of the Maine-iacs almost beat them to it when he won leg 14, averaging a 5:04/mile pace for the 12+ miles.

There’s a time penalty for the whole team if a runner doesn’t make the mat in time. On the mountain legs that cranks the pressure up a bit for some runners. I didn’t have trouble making the mat, but I did finish 5-8 minutes slower than I’d hoped. Crossing the line, my legs were like noodles from the long climb and intense hammer down. As soon as I finished, I was met by Casey, Ali Chase (who’d stunningly won leg 4 earlier in the day), and her partner, Maine-iac Ken Akiha (who’d stunningly won leg 9!). I felt disappointed in myself and the first words out of my mouth were an apology to my teammates. They said, “Don’t be ridiculous,” clapped me on the back, and handed me dry clothes and water. There was an ambulance nearby, and one of the earlier runners was being hoisted into the back of it. There was also news of a runner who’d had a heart attack earlier in the day but was said to be fine and recovering. Pretty quickly, I was back in the mental groove, feeling pleased that I’d finished the epic leg with no injuries and that it was in the rear view mirror!


Holly Jacobson, 3rd woman overall in the glory leg!

Later in the morning, the races concluded with an inspiring leg 17, which Holly Jacobson ran beautifully for the Hags, placing third woman overall. After that, we enjoyed the awards banquet and feast, then commenced to Leg 18, a celebration of the conclusion of Cabot 2018, where we toast one another into the night, and start dreaming up plans for next year!

On the 12-hour drive home from the race on Monday morning, we made the ritual windmill stop, at the Nova Scotia welcome center, forcing our sore legs to do a quick shake out run. After chatting with some friends in the parking lot, we got back in the car, and Casey, Amy, and I started reliving the adventures leg by leg.


photo: Brian Hubbell

At one point, we got totally immersed in looking up race results for the Hags and the Maine-iacs, until Casey looked over at the dash and said, “Um, do we need gas?” I’d completely spaced it given my excitement and exhaustion, and according to the gas gauge, we had 30 miles till empty. We did a little research and found a gas station 12 miles away. We cruised along toward the exit and started going through the leg results again. After what seemed like just a few minutes, Amy called out from the back seat,
“Did we pass that exit?”
We had only a few miles left to empty and got off at the next exit, in the middle of gasnowhere. We headed along the rural road, fingers crossed, with the car reading “_ _ _ to empty.” I’ve never been so happy to see a gas station come into view, and now I know that you can get about 5 miles with _ _ _  in the tank!

There are many more stories I could tell from this year’s race, but it still wouldn’t capture what makes Cabot so special and addictive. It’s all-consuming in the best way–spectating 17 races in a row with a community of people who love a challenging, shared experience. The event requires full immersion–mental, physical, and emotional–and in the face of what Cabot demands, there’s no faking it. You’re reduced to your essence, and so is everyone else. I learn something new about myself every year—the good things (I’m strong, committed to others, take joy in new experiences…) and there’s always a mirror on my darker self too (self-recrimination, envy…). It’s a gift to witness the real in myself and others, and the raw richness of Cabot brings out the real. There’s no faking it!


Maine Road Hags 2018:  Amy Roma Russel, Ali Chase, Julie Lam, Renee Hall, Tia Parady, Holly Jacobson, Emily Meredith, Olivia Mackenzie, Casey Dunn, Lucinda Bliss, Nora Hubbell, Kate Miles, and (not pictured) Kathleen Bell, Kate Fleming, and Julianne Gadoury

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Art from the Edge of the World


Chris Burden, All the Submarines of the United States of America, 2017 (1987)

The Art + Environment conference at the Nevada Museum of Art takes place every 3  years. I attended for the first time in 2014 and felt like I was entering a living conversation–one that I would draw from in my art and teaching for years to come. Each of the A+E conferences is accompanied by a primary exhibition, and this year’s show, Unsettled, is a knock out. Conference presenters always include artists from the exhibit, and those doing research projects at museum’s Center for Art + Environment; this gives the event a feeling of intimacy and relevance, and inspires a lively discourse among the diverse group attendees–artists, academics, and environmental activists, who show up to examine the ever-shifting relationship of art to environmental concerns.


William Fox redefines the Greater West

One of the goals for the first morning of the conference was to define the Greater West, which was the conceptual frame for the event. William Fox, Director of the Center for Art + Environment, shared a series of maps, which presented, among other insights, the idea of the backside, and outer edge, of the Pangea (the single mass of land that existed more than 250 million years ago). It’s a mind twist to think about the supercontinent from another side, a “dark side” of the globe–one that still lingers in the remaining edges, and to think about what those edges mean to current global identity. The Greater West was the last colonized part of the globe, and includes Australia, Alaska, and the Western U.S., including Nevada. Its dismissal as a desolate no man’s land has led to infiltration by the military industrial complex, and, as would become clear later in the conference, by the rock stars of capitalism, who have taken root in TRIC (Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center), the largest industrial center in the world. Nevada is also a rich center of land art, both historical and contemporary, with works from Walter de Maria’s Lighting Field and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative to Ugo Rondinone’s $3.5 million installation Seven Magic Mountains, as well as the Burning Man event, which had a presence at the conference. Though it’s not my main subject today, I did leave the conference thinking about land art and gender, and how that theme could have been more overtly part of the agenda. Fortunately, Unsettled includes works by important women artists associated with these movements, including a stunning collection of Ana Mendieta images, but I would have liked to see some of that work keynoted in the conference itself.

JoAnne Northrup, the Curatorial Director at the museum, continued the discussion of mapping and the Greater West, noting that it is geographic, not political borders that 3.JoannNorthrupdefine us. She asserted that the power to make change in the world exists on these edges–that geographies can provide a locus for radical making and re-thinking. To my mind, this builds on theories from gender and identity politics, where the position of the Other can be a stance of witness, critique, and change-making.

I spent some of the conference sessions in the Skyroom, a high-tech lounge next to a rooftop deck, where the audience could view SkyroomDeckthe main auditorium remotely.  Each day concluded with a  reception and performance on the roof deck, and at the end of the first day, I was chatting away with a friendly man on the deck, about the museum’s stunning architecture. After 10 minutes of conversation, I introduced myself, only to learn that I was chatting with the building’s architect, Will Bruder! One of the most enjoyable aspects of the conference is the fact that programming is all shared (no concurrent sessions), and at the same time, there are multiple ways to engage; the building is designed to support a fluid experience. There are viewing rooms for study groups (a group of STEAM educators, in this case), the rooftop lounge, with couches and cushioned seats, and then the intimate auditorium itself. The exhibitions are  installed on the floors in between, so one can dip in and out, taking in the work over the span of the conference.

As I perused Unsettled, I was surprised to find Chris Burden’s All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987), with its 625 cardboard submarines swimming through the gallery. I attended my first Whitney Biennial in 1989, having just graduated from Skidmore College with an Art History degree. I recall being blown away by Burden’spiece at that show, and in 2017, the work remains dark, poetic, and relevant.


Bruno Fazzolari, Unsettled

Near Burden’s installation was an interesting work by artist and perfumer, Bruno Fazzolari. The artist created a scent for the show, which was housed in a glowing bottle in the shape of an atomic mushroom cloud.

Given my recent  project, Tracking the Border, I was particularly drawn to Ana Teresa Fernandez’s work. The exhibit includes a video


Ana Teresa Fernandez discusses her work,  Erasing the Border



documenting her Erasing the Border performance, in which she paints a segment of the Mexico-U.S. border wall the color of the sky, causing the illusion of a break in the wall. The video is accompanied by a tightly crafted painting, which reads like a video still. To my viewing, the painting is unnecessary, 7.AnaTeresa3given the power of the video, but perhaps it answered some formal drive for the artist. Fernandez was challenged during the QnA on her choice to wear heels and a tight black dress in the work. For her, the heels are key, she said, in that they reference the influence of tango dancing, as well as her experience in Mexico, where women are silenced at the table, but when they go out on the town, they’re “loud with their bodies.” For her, the tango, heels and all, is a superhero stance, and outfit, that fits her border project.

Trevor Paglen, a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, presented the keynote on the first day, introducing a collaborative project with the museum. Orbital Reflector, the “least romantic” title Paglen could think of, involves latching his piece onto a satellite and rocketing it into orbit, where it will circle the earth for 2 months in 2018. This “star,” will glitter alongside many other false stars. However, Orbital Reflector, Paglen asserted, will be uniquely detached from military enterprise, which has governed space research and activity through its history. Paglen’s work has long involved illuminating things that are “invisible,” including spy centers in desert and internet cables in the ocean. Similarly, Orbital Reflector will call attention to the other non-natural objects that orbit the earth, from secret satellites to space junk. In his presentation, Paglen mentioned Supremacist artist Kazimir Malevich, and his black “sputnik” paintings, saying that Malevich was the first artist to conceive of art in space. Though there is plenty of talk about “pure” art among the supremacists, Paglen made a distinction against a traditional Modernist interpretation and underlined Malevich’s references to Russian cosmic mythologies, placing his own work in that vein. Though Malevich’s goal was “cosmic oneness,” sputnik was designed more as a weapon. Through Orbital Reflector, Paglen hopes to separate space from war ideology, and in the process, to disrupt the application of frontier thinking on space.

4.AlaskaPanelA high point of the conference and exhibit were the contributions by contemporary indigenous Alaskan artists Nicholas Galanin, Da-ka-xeen Mehner, and Allison Warden. As part of the panel, “North: Adaptation and Resistance,” Galanin (Tlingit, Unangax) talked about his culture as living, moving, and free. “Our land is our life,” he said. His piece “Things are looking Native; Native’s Looking Whiter” is a good example of how Galanin’s work combines traditional Native imagery with images from popular culture, in order to underline preconceptions and hidden appropriations.

Artist and Twitter poet, Alison Akootchook Warden (Iñupiaq) offered a power-packed 5.AllisonWarden1.jpgperformance, slipping seamlessly from artist’s talk into personas that were radical and contemporary while drawing on traditional cultural vocabularies. The group as a whole made clear the problem of romanticizing or pigeonholing what it is to be indigenous. As Galanin said:  “Anthropology has homogenized the culture.”

The culmination of the conference was a presentation by architect Rem Koolhaas, which came with an announcement that he would be working to build an extension of the museum, along with a hotel, on the TRIC site. At this point in the conference, the fund raising component got pretty heavy-handed (I could say a lot more about the disruptive introduction from brothel owner and donor, Lance Gilman). Still, Koolhaas’ brilliance was a contribution to the new framing of the Greater West and how that lives in this particular art historical moment. As Koolhaas said, the current TRIC site is “free of architecture but filled with buildings,” and he feels called to engage with that as a project of architectural problem solving. He went on to frame the country as a critical domain for re-engaging with risk, in contrast to the urban, where there is a “diminishment of appetite for challenge, risk, and adventure.” To underline his point, he compared Richard Serra’s controversial Tilted Arc of the 1980s with Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate of 2006, dismissing the latter as “good for selfies.” The country has the possibility of engaging with site as a means of addressing the global effects of climate change.

As I’ve come to expect, the conference enlivened my thinking, inspired my practice, and connected me with a wide range of thinkers and makers. If there’s a looming question that I take away, it has to do with the relationship of capital to radical artistic thinking. Is there a point where the air becomes so rarefied, so monied, that vision becomes blurred and the audience diminished? How fully can art participate in capital without becoming complicit in the environmental and other degradations that it often implies? There were many side conversations among the conference audience that reflected these concerns. The most important question is, what happens next? Will Koolhaas’ work with the museum intentionally address complex issues of power, voice, and access? Will he problem solve in the arena between the rule of capital and the space of creative risk and invention? Will the work move in that space between power and the outside edge of the Greater West? It will be interesting to see where the project, and the conversation, goes in the intervening 3 years, and how the 2020 conference will move into the difficult space of risk implied by the Greater West as it was defined in 2017.




Posted in Art, Borders, Environmental Art, Landscape Art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sweat and Blood Experience

ZiggyLuceSeveral months ago, I participated in a storytelling festival at NHIA where the fablous NHPR Host and Producer, Virginia Prescott, was MC. We hit it off instantly. I was feeling a bit vulnerable that night, having struggled to write a piece about my childhood in Northern Vermont (“As the story goes, I was conceived in the back seat of a Pontiac in Avon, Connecticut on prom night in 1964…”). Virginia’s not a runner, but on hearing that I was missing my running posse in Maine, she mentioned that she’s close with a devoted group of trail runners in Concord. It took me several months to follow up, but with the head space of a few weeks off, I finally connected with Kate and Julianne, and they invited me to a join a group run at the Oak Hill Trails last Wednesday.

I pulled into the parking lot and found a cluster of runners—some looked lean and fast, and others like ultras, geared up with water packs; they all looked like they were fully in the running game! I pulled in, hopped out, and was welcomed heartily by the group. At 6:05, around 14 of us headed into the woods. Some planned to do the Fire Tower Trail and others a more scenic, less hilly route. As we hit the trail, I decided I’d do the ConcordTrailRunners.jpghill, given my upcoming Greylock Road Race in September. The race consists of 8 paved miles straight up, so I need all the hills I can get. A small group of us veered left and headed toward the tower. I was relieved to find the pace comfortable and the group social rather than competitive. We chatted about running, work, and family. A few of them were just getting into the ultra scene, and were preparing to run the 32 mile Pemigewasset loop in a few weeks. I was intrigued, as I hiked those trails multiple times when my sons were young, but that was long before I developed my passion for running. The group got quiet and spread out a bit during the steeper part of the climb, but we all gathered at the top to chat and catch our breath. After a few minutes and some pit stops, we crossed the clearing and began to run down a back trail, which would complete a wiggly lollipop loop and take us back to the trail head.

It turns out that two of the runners, Michael and Jeff, had been doing the USATF trail running series, so we compared notes as we ran. It’s a tough series, but if you complete 5 races, you get an automatic pass into the annual Mt. Washington event. That race sells out in minutes, so it’s a good motivation to stick with the series. I’ve completed Sleepy Hollow, Pack Monadnock, Cranmore, and Loon Mountain, so if I manage Greylock, I’ll be rewarded with a pass to a brutally tough race up Mt. Washington in 2018!

As we ran, we started talking about the difference in training for road marathons versus trail ultras, and I was immersed in listening to the others tell their racing and training stories. The trail was pretty technical, and as we ran down a hill and into a dip, my toe caught a rock, and I hit the ground hard. I felt (and heard!) my head hit a rock, and quickly realized I wasn’t able to hop back up. The guys in front of me turned around to look. I OakHillTrailpressed my hand to my forehead and felt that it was wet. One of the guys took a look and said, “Uh oh, not good.” Michael handed me his buff, and I pressed it against the wound. I could feel the blood pumping and knew I had to get my heart rate down and get out of the woods. Jeff pulled off his sweat-soaked shirt and wrapped it tight around my head so the pressure would limit the bleeding, and we started walking out as a group. We were over a mile in so it took a while to trek out. I hadn’t blacked out or seen stars, but I had taken a hit to the head. I didn’t feel like I was getting loopy or about to pass out, but just in case a concussion was about to manifest, we exchanged some key phone numbers, and I let them know where my car key was. We began strategizing for how to get me to the hospital, as it was pretty clear stitches would be in order. Every person in the group stuck with me, offering support and distraction on the way out. Kate and I exchanged tales and started laughing about the ridiculousness of the situation. I couldn’t stop apologizing for interrupting their run, insisting, “I never fall!” “I run trails all the time!” “This isn’t my first rodeo!”

It was a long walk out, and when the parking area came into view, I thanked everyone and got into the passenger seat of my car.  I was eager to get to the hospital to assess the damage. Kate got behind the wheel, taking a quick back route to Concord Hospital, and Julianne and David followed in a second car. The waiting room was pretty full, but given that I had a head injury, I was brought back quickly for an assessment. The steadfast Kate accompanied me, capturing a few shots of the the wound reveal. The major cut was on my eyelid, just below the eyebrow, and I was told that I was lucky it had clean edges; it must’ve been a sharp rock! After my initial vitals were taken, the nurse fast-tracked me to the doctor.  Kate, wonderfully determined to make sure I wasn’t left alone, stuck with me until it was time for stitches. As we waited in the procedure room, the ER nurse, Becky, came in to say that the doctor, “Jon Snow,” would be in shortly.
Kate and I looked at each other, exclaiming, “Jon Snow? No Way!” and in unison, “Game of Thrones!”
The nurse chuckled, “he doesn’t look much like that Jon Snow.”
We cracked up. Actually, we spent a good part of the time in the hospital laughing and telling each other tales, noting how one of the best things about running is how it generates stories and comradery. This was certainly going to become one of those stories. As the doctor came in, Kate took off to get back to her family and relieve her babysitter. I thanked her for being so amazing–we’d gone from total strangers to good friends in the space of a few hours.
As Doctor Snow gathered his needle and thread, I asked, “You’ve done this before, right?”
“A few times,” he replied. When I looked at him askance, he said, “A few times tonight!”
He went on: “I don’t know if it’s the coming eclipse that’s causing gravity to work extra hard, but I’ve been sewing up cyclists all night who’ve been coming in from the  Highland Mountain Bike Park.” He brought the needle to my eyelid, saying “okay, this is going to be the worst part.” After a few shots to the lid, all I could feel was pushing and tugging as he cleaned out “quite a bit of dirt and grass,” then the tugging sensation of the 5 stitches. I hadn’t developed a headache or gotten too loopy, so it looked as if I’d avoided a concussion. In addition to the cut and black eye, my hip had a serious bruise HipShinerand I’d sprained 3 fingers on my left hand. I was banged up, but cleared to drive home.
I felt pretty out of it but managed to navigate my way back to the condo in Manchester. I stayed up for a few hours, trying to relax and catch up with myself. I would occasionally have a falling sensation out of the blue, and I could tell that my body was in shock. I finally fell asleep thinking with gratitude about how caring and generous this group of strangers had been, and how I can’t wait to run with them again. They’re imprinted on me through the shared sweat and blood experience.

Hate has such a loud voice in the world right now, and I feel sheepish sharing this story, as if it’s myopic to devote words to a small personal mishap. It’s essential to be vigilant in using our voices to witness what seems to be a growing or resurgent sociocultural sickness, but I would suggest that witness to small kindnesses–to the essential goodness of people–should stand alongside the larger witness against racism, sexism, xenophobia, and hate. I’m grateful to have felt such unequivocal support and care from a group of former strangers. These small miracles give me hope.

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X Marks the Spot


Aerial Mapping II, graphite, colored pencil, and watercolor on paper

On July 12th, I completed an interactive “garden intervention” at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. The intervention was the culmination of work I’d been doing in Ogunquit for a few months. Preparation involved researching the town’s history, on-the-ground exploring, and meeting with some of the long-time residents, all of whom were overflowing with tales of Ogunquit, from the late 19th century to the present.

As is true with most of my current work, the project took multiple forms but was grounded in drawing. On the day of the intervention, museum docents introduced visitors to the project by showing them three of my aerial map pieces. Each drawing included 3 pink “x” marks indicating the 3 dialogue sites on the museum grounds. Visitors would begin by choosing a site, then meeting me at my drawing table.


photo by Larry Hayden

We’d start with a brief chat about the performative nature of the project and how they were embarking on a collaboration. Then we’d walk to the site they’d chosen. I’d begin by sharing some of Ogunquit’s social and artistic history, such as the tensions between Hamilton Easter Field’s Summer School of Graphic Arts and Charles Woodbury’s Ogunquit School of Drawing and Painting. Henry Strater, the museum’s founder, came to Maine to study at Field’s school in 1918. In the 1950s he purchased land on Narrow Cove, from the Woodbury family, and had the museum built on the water’s edge. Ogunquit has been a magnet for a wide range of known and unknown artists (Hartley, Hopper, Homer, and many more), and passions for the town and its history run deep. In my preparation, I heard as many stories of raucous parties during prohibition and wild theater galas as I did the more somber tales of artistic growth. What came across in all of my research conversations was a profound sense of community and a hunger to hold on to that intimacy in a world that is much more frayed, digital, and dispersed.

During the intervention, I shifted each dialogue from the historical to the personal. I pointed out how place lives in our very cells. Our cells pull toward or react against the places and people that formed us. I shared stories about some of my places: my grandmother’s driveway, the ferry landing in Blacks Harbour, the lower east side of Manhattan, and then I’d invite them to share a story in return. In every case, the conversations quickly dove deep, and I was blown away by the stories people shared. Below you’ll find condensed fragments of the 16 conversations.





photo: Larry Hayden


Cellular Places and Narrative Fragments

Hampton Beach
Lawrence, KA
Bangor, Ellsworth, MDI
Point Pleasant, NJ
Stonycreek,  PA
Steel Country, OH
Kennebec Valley and the Belgrade Lakes
The NH coast
The Cove
Ottawa, Canada

The  piers, before Hurricane Sandy buried them, and before the “Jersey Shore” was a thing.

Five miles from home there’s a place where the fields go on and on, then there’s a sudden valley. In the valley stands a 300-year-old oak, thick and knobby. You can hide a car behind it. 

In the winter, during the depression, there was a pond and a willow in the yard. No one was happy.

It feels trivial, but being a teen-ager on the beach, chasing the girls.

Always returning to the water and rocks. Scrambling over the rocks at ten, trying to decipher mysterious writing rising out of the hard, etched surface.

There’s a spot in the woods where we go that’s filled with green light. There’s a mound of moss surrounded by trees; it’s like a fairy land. One time there were hundreds of cairns in the stream. We’ve seen giant spiders skimming on the water. Even that was magical, and I’m terrified of spiders.

Losing my virginity at the family camp and returning to reconnect many years later.

The cove, a handsome man, and a missing oar. The place, and the man, cast a spell over me.

Working with a group of women, storytellers, where all the screwed-up family history and related questions of identity were dropped. It was a place where I became open. Where I felt what it was to be loved completely.

What it was to leave steel country and go to Maine, where your eyes can go for a walk and your brain with it.

Genetic imprinting of place is a thing, and Maine is in my cells. Maine is home, unlike the cannibal forest of the west. That forest holds the fears of being eaten and more. In Maine, as a girl, I walked in the woods like I was part of it.

Actual home is too dysfunctional–Disney World feels special and more like home to me. Family feels right when we’re there.

The family summer house with the pine floor, under the Tsuga hemlocks. There’s only boat access, and you can anticipate the tactile sense of the place while you wait for the trip over.

Places with stones, to do deep work in. Nature is alive, the stones are conscious. I’m drawn to places where there’s no dramatic crutch, existentially or artistically. Thoreau and a twig, not Acadia. The twig is the cosmos; Acadia does too much work for you. When I work, everything has to be right, and when it is, the wind and the clouds work with me.

The shamans in Peru.

In my adult life, I’ve been recreating my grandmother’s porch and its familiarity because it’s the safest space I’ve ever known: a white house with black shutters, hollyhocks, and the warm musty smell of a porch that puts you to sleep.

A stone grotto at the end of a field, with statues—the Virgin Mary with lambs. I love the Virgin Mary.

I was a dancer in New York, but now I need to go north…to Newfoundland…as far North as possible. I need austerity. I need to not be distracted from experience and to know a place by physically knowing it.

As each conversation closed, I ritualized the exchange by walking back to my table to draw a homing pigeon. I added each bird to a growing flock on the side of the museum wall as a way of honoring the stories shared and allowing myself a momentary quiet space where I could live in the world that had been shared with me.


In closing: Thanks to Andy Verzosa for inviting me to perform the intervention, in his role as Interim Director of OMA, and to Michael Mansfield, the current OMA Director for his continued support of the project.

On August 29th, at 6:00 pm I’ll be offering a Totally Tuesday talk at the museum: Tracking Narrative: A Contemporary Approach to Landscape .  I’ll share more about the project, including some of the local lore I collected, while offering some examples of the artists and artistic movements that have influenced my work.



Posted in Art, Landscape Art, Maine, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments