Five Longhorns set out on a 10-day, 4,000-mile journey to explore the great Earthworks of the American Southwest. The result: a new art exhibit at UT’s Visual Arts Center.
Nestled deep in the deserts of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah are some of the United States’ most fascinating works of art: the Earthworks. In the ’60s and ’70s, land artists used natural materials like soil and rock to construct landscape sculptures, known as the Earthworks, virtually in the middle of nowhere. Allie Underwood and her classmates had learned a lot about land art in their art and art history classes at UT, but they weren’t satisfied just seeing it in photos. They had to see the works, like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty—a counterclockwise coil of mud and salt crystals jutting out of the Great Salt Lake—for themselves.
So Underwood, BA ’12, teamed up with friends and then-UT students Ally Acheson-Snow, BFA ’12, Life Member; Karina Eckmeier, BFA ’12; Maia Schall, BA ’12; and Chantal Wnuk, BFA ’12, to apply for the College of Fine Art’s Undergraduate Professional Development Travel Grant.
“It happened very serendipitously,” Underwood says. “We were all drawn to the land artists of the ’60s and ’70s. And then we thought, ‘How fantastic would it be to see them all together in sequence?’ It really evolved organically from there.”
The grant supports short-term group travel, provided students first get a faculty sponsor and submit an extensive day-by-day proposal. Underwood and co. were surprised to be accepted—most grant recipients head to art hotspots like Los Angeles or New York.
With the hope of creating art inspired by their trip, the ladies loaded up their Chevy Tahoe with cameras, video equipment, and other art supplies, and set out west on a journey that would take them from Austin to Amarillo, New Mexico to Nevada.
“There was lots of anticipation of not knowing where we going,” Eckmeier says. “We only had instructions to get to the sites; there was no GPS. We had no connection with direction at all, and we’d be driving down these remote dirt roads.”
The group visited four different Earthworks over a period of 10 days, all the while working on individual art projects they hoped would form a larger exhibition someday. Eckmeier focused on photography and video, while Wnuk created small sculptures out of materials she gathered on the trip.
“I was the only one who had been to one of the Earthworks before,” Wnuk says. “It’s truly something you can only experience in person. Our perception of the works changed so much from what we knew about them, and there were surprises at every location.”
Some of those surprises were potentially disastrous, like when they thought they’d locked the keys in the car and were stranded on a mesa in Nevada with no cell reception. (They later found them sprawled in the grass near Double Negative.) Or when thousands of sheep flooded the road and they couldn’t move for nearly an hour.
“This herd dog laid down in front of our car so we couldn’t pass,” Underwood laughs. “As far as you could see left and right, sheep were filling the road. It made for some really funny photos.”
After they returned to the Forty Acres, the friends graduated and dispersed across the country—Underwood and Eckmeier in New York, Wnuk and Schall on the West Coast, and Acheson-Snow in Texas. But they didn’t stop collaborating on works surrounding their westward journey.
Now the fruits of their labor will be on display in the Center Space Gallery, a student exhibition space, in UT’s Visual Arts Center starting Jan. 31. For the group of UT grads, being able to show their work at home on the Forty Acres feels like coming full circle.
“It’s really important, since we went on the trip with a grant from UT, to show the end result on campus,” Wnuk says. “It kind of feels like we’re paying it forward. We hope to inspire other groups of students to do the same.”
Girls Gone West will be on display at the Visual Arts Center from Jan. 31 through March 8.
Top, the group visits Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. Photo by Karina Eckmeier. Inset, Self Portrait by Lightning Field by Chantal Wnuk. Bottom, Spiral Jetty Objects by Chantal Wnuk.