Shadow Root: Retracing the Santa Fe Trail

“All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us.  Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside.  We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers.  What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.”     -T.K. Whipple, Study Out the Land

The Santa Fe Trail is a 19th century transportation route linking the settlements of Missouri with Santa Fe, then Mexican territory. The trail was forged in 1821 from Franklin, Missouri as a trade route, and eventually became a military road.  It served traders, military personnel, and others of pioneering spirit until the introduction of the railroad to Santa Fe in 1880. My small hometown of Great Bend, Kansas, named for a bend in the Arkansas River that travelers followed on their route, resides along the historic trail.  In a field east of town, a series of deep ruts carved into the sandy soil by passing wagons, mules, and oxen are still visible. “Shadow Root” was created in response to standing in these recesses of earth. The swales, a physical resonance of westward expansionism, provide the starting point for this project contemplating time and place. Bringing together photography, drawing, and sculpture, I present multiple ways of spatially and metaphorically considering the trail, the people who traveled it, and the larger ideas that it represented.

The two photographs were made along the trail in Kansas, at spots that were approximately 170 miles apart.  Each image was taken at a different time of the year and at a different time of day, summer at sunrise and winter at sunset. In each image, the raking low light illuminates the high ground, making the impressions left by the wagons visible in the prairie. In addition to the elevation differences, one can see a difference in color and texture of the grass in areas that these travelers passed through. The photographs are hung on opposing walls of the gallery to emphasize a directional path and to suggest the passing of time.
Adjacent to these photographs is a wooden wagon wheel that I acquired as I retraced the trail. The wheel comes from Westport, Missouri, which from the 1850s on served as a major rendezvous point for merchant wagon trains heading west.  The wheel, a literal symbol of travel, is an artifact of the era and a relic of my own contemporary travels along the same route.

Opposite the wheel and linking the photographs of the trail across the horizontal wall is a series of drawings based on the found object. The drawings are hung directly to the wall, each drawing overlapping another to create a mass that evokes many wagons advancing west. Erasure implies both the decay of time, and, coupled with vivid gestures, onward movement. Controlled draftsmanship gives way to more aggressive mark-making, bringing to mind the forward march of an empire that would go on to conquer the land pioneers crossed, removing the native Americans, and declaring war on Mexico in 1846.  

This is an exhibition about many types of mark-making: the mark on the land made by the wagons, the mark of charcoal on the drawings, and the mark of absence left after Manifest Destiny drove west, leaving the Great American Desert virtually vacant. These marks are evident while following the route today, and are felt deeply in small Mid-Western towns like the one where I was raised.  

This place has also made an indelible mark on me as an artist. Through the use of multiple materials I am translating my personal experience with, and exposing our shared historical connection to, the land it’s history.