Arid Lands Pedagogy: Art in the American West | Bill Gilbert

Is there such a thing as an arid lands arts pedagogy? Should there be? If so, why is it necessary and why is it different from art pedagogy in other climatic zones? There is an assumption operating in most university art programs in this country that the Euro-American canon is a universal that is equally applicable in all regions of our country (if not the world). What, then, is the argument for an art education based in geographic, socio-political and environmental place?

At the University of New Mexico (UNM), we are developing an example of a pedagogy based in place. We undertake this initiative despite a near perfect storm in mainstream academia against the implementation of such a place-based pedagogy. The recent attempted firing of the president at the University of Virginia for resisting the rush to “distance learning” and STEM [1] disciplines is merely the most visible expression of the imposition of the corporate model on academia. In this model, cost is the factor that trumps all others. The “external university” with its digital delivery of course content is by far the most cost effective. One faculty member can enroll huge numbers of students with no limits imposed by the size of the classroom. There are no costly buildings to maintain, students are required to provide their own computers as the one essential tool. In a budget model that counts Student Credit Hours as all equal, traditional “face to face” classes become a luxury. No doubt, there are now programs that present themselves as being place-based while delivering their content entirely through the virtual sphere. Place-based programs that involve the physical transportation of students to engage directly with the topic are seen as prohibitively expensive.

In the larger time frame, the place of the arts in academe has been and continues to be tenuous. It is really only since the end of World War II that the arts have become a ubiquitous part of university rosters nation wide. The efficacy of the MFA as a professional degree remains in question, the utility of graduate programs in studio art in doubt. As a result, art professors are amongst the lowest paid in the academic hierarchy, their discipline regarded as secondary. In other countries, Colleges of Fine Arts have attempted to address this second-class status with the addition of a PhD in the creative arts. This initiative has been slower to gain traction in the U.S. Here the move towards the corporate model has been accompanied by an ever-increasing focus on the STEM disciplines to the exclusion of the humanities and arts. Science, technology, engineering and math are the disciplines that connect students with the best/highest paying jobs and that is now the sole purpose of  “higher” education.

And yet, we are now seeing the beginnings of a shift from STEM to STEAM [2] and the inclusion of the arts as an essential catalyst for creative thinking. As the tide has rushed so strongly towards the standardization of a STEM education in the digital sphere the need for a placed-based pedagogy situated in a particular socio-environmental context has become ever more acute.

A place-based pedagogy in the arts weds content and context. It takes a fundamentally different stance on how it is that students in the arts learn. By making physical place and human interaction a core part of the learning process it offers an alternative educational approach aligned to how art is actually made in that it requires an engagement of the entire being, an integration of both body and mind. It re-empowers body knowledge and sensory perception to establish a balance with the abstract and theoretical.

In a place-based pedagogy, students’ education is informed by the particular characteristics of their geographical/environmental context. Across time, geographical and social place have heavily influenced the practice of art. If the history and contemporary practice of art in Albuquerque, New Mexico is different from that in New Haven, Connecticut, a place-based perspective would argue that an education at UNM should then differ from the one at Yale. Many would counter that this is not the case, that the language of art is universal. In the digital age, students nationwide have access to the same cannon. The same images and texts regarding Richard Serra and Maria Martinez are available worldwide. Students work in essentially similar sculpture, photo, printmaking and other studio facilities. It is only by accepting a definition of the university that extends beyond the physical confines of campus to include surrounding communities and ecologies that the differentiation of a place-based pedagogy makes sense.

For those of us situated in the arid lands of the American West, a pedagogy based in place reflects a particular socio-political and environmental context. At UNM, we start with the consideration of our location at the nexus of cultural diversity in the American Southwest. On a cultural level, New Mexico encompasses elements as diverse as the traditions of twenty-two federally recognized tribes, the history of the Camino Real, a vibrant contemporary arts scene and national centers of innovation for science, defense, and energy.

From the environmental perspective, we realize that the common perception held by Americans from other regions of the country is that New Mexico is one vast desert. In fact, New Mexico, and the Southwest as a whole, is one of the most environmentally complex regions in the country. Our place-based program provides art students with time living and working in an intimate relationship with the full range of alpine, mesa, low desert and riparian eco-niches.

Perhaps most important is the direct physical engagement Land Arts provides. Our culture is largely cut off from the environment. Fewer and fewer of our students have any real knowledge of Albuquerque’s place in the ecology of the Southwest. They have a political understanding of the importance of the environment, but it is not rooted in any real intimacy with place. Land Arts takes them out into the variety of ecological niches that together comprise the Southwest and encourages them to explore and create their artworks in direct response to place.

We take the same approach to our study of the traces of cultural interventions present in the landscape. Spiral Jetty is an entirely different work of art when students walk out onto it from the shore of Rozel Point from the one they experience in a photograph. The understanding they gain of the Ancestral Puebloan site Moon House as an architectural presence situated in the landscape after hiking to it through slick rock canyons and climbing from the arroyo bottom to a precarious ledge is fundamentally different from the one gained from a book.

Our efforts at UNM to develop an appropriate pedagogy began with field programs at Acoma Pueblo and Juan Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, Mexico. These early experiments focused on traditional potters whose practice is based entirely in materials available in their home environments. Under the leadership of Mary Lewis Garcia at Acoma and Juan Quezada in Juan Mata Ortiz, we spent days wandering the local environs in search of viable clay sources, pot shards to grind for temper, mineral sources for paint and cow manure for firing. By the time we began to make pots the interweaving of practice and place couldn’t have been more obvious.

To broaden the scope of our developing pedagogy to include disciplines beyond ceramics, I started the Land Arts of the American West program in 1999. From its inception, the Land Arts program has been place-based. We have worked to make the institutional walls of academia more permeable by providing students with direct physical engagement across the time frame of a full semester with the ecological environments and social communities of our region. From the very beginning, the Land Arts program has invited professors from a range of disciplines, non-academic artists, and elders from local cultural groups to participate with us in the field.

For the first run of the Land Arts of the American West program we chose a set of eco-niches and cultural interventions that would enable students to position their practice in relation to the history of cultural interventions in the land from pre-contact Native American through to contemporary American cultures and establish a dialog between their ideas and a variety of environmental contexts. Our list of investigative sites was largely comprised of Native American architecture (Chaco Canyon, Moon House, Wupatki and contemporary Earthworks (Double Negative, Roden Crater).

In this initial run of our experiment it became apparent that our place-based pedagogy would have to transcend the disciplinary boundaries of art. To more fully develop an understanding of place we began to expand the frame. Chris Taylor was invited to join the program thereby adding the perspective of an architect working in the context of a design program. We started to look not just at architectural and artistic marks in the land but the full range of human interventions from the large gestures of the U.S. military and federal infrastructure to the subtle traces left in a landscape that tends to preserve all marks great and small. Our thinking in this evolution from “Land Art” to “Land Use” was strongly influenced by Matt Coolidge, Director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), through our annual workshops with Matt at CLUI’s unit in Wendover, Utah.

As our time spent each year at sites such as Wendover Airforce Base, Lake Powell, Bingham Mine increased and the days logged on our nation’s interstate highway system accumulated, another fundamental issue arose. In our pursuit of an arid lands pedagogy centered in the investigations of land use in the west, we had created a bifurcated model of investigative and work sites. Our approach to the investigative sites was essentially touristic, our time at work sites a more actively engaged dialog.

In collaboration with my Land Arts program partners, Erika Osborne, Catherine Harris and Jeanette Hart-Mann, we have begun to bridge the two definitions and involve the students in collaborative projects in our investigative sites. Essentially, we have evolved into a program of all work sites, some in remote environmental locations, others in settlements. We now design our journeys around particular themes that seem pertinent to developing an understanding of place. Our arid lands pedagogy is structured around a set of conceptual emphases, site-based partners and visiting artists/scholars such as The Foodshed with Hobo Ranch, Hogwaller Farm and Sangre de Christo Agricultural Producers Cooperative.

In this move towards a more project-based model engaged with community partners we have entered into a different mode of a contemporary art practice. In these site-based projects, Land Arts operates as a temporary collective providing students with an introduction to a collaborative approach. Contemporary students come to us with a fundamental understanding of the diversity of American society. It is the world in which they have grown up. As a result, they are comfortable working in groups whose members represent diverse cultural backgrounds, genders and age groups. They respond positively to the openness of an interdisciplinary dialog and a collaborative process.

This new collaborative aspect of our pedagogy helps prepare students to move outside of the modernist, solo artist model by teaching them the skills necessary to successfully work as a group in dialog with community partners. Students begin to acquire the skills they will need to work alongside other professionals in the public and private spheres after graduation.

Changes in the Land Arts of the American West program have been paralleled by another initiative. As the scope of our Land Arts program expanded it became clear that one program alone could not successfully cover the full curriculum necessary to support a comprehensive place-based, arid lands pedagogy. We needed a conceptual center recognized as a structural entity to create the frame for this pedagogy within our home in the Art and Art History Department and to act as the agent for interdisciplinary programming with other disciplines/departments.

In 2008, Art and Ecology was added to the roster of areas in the Art and Art History Department to serve this function. Originally the brainchild of Basia Irland, this new area was conceived as interdisciplinary from the very beginning. With the addition of faculty members including Catherine Harris, Jeanette Hart-Mann, Szu Han Ho, Andrea Polli and Molly Sturges, Art and Ecology has established partnerships with Landscape Architecture, Biology, Computer Science, Social Practices and Museum Studies. We are now well positioned to develop an integrated arid lands pedagogy. There is much to be done to weave these diverse interests together into a coherent whole. It is exciting times at UNM. We’ll keep you posted as this next chapter in our experiment plays out.


[1] Studies in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
[2] Interdisciplinary Studies in Science & Technology interpreted through Engineering & the Arts.


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Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2012, Pedagogies

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