by Chavawn Kelley
Rebecca Solnit had recently published Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas when she arrived at the University of Wyoming as Eminent Writer in Residence for the month of February 2011. Laramie’s weather, as if exerting its full force of place-hood, delivered an impressive run of sub-zero temperatures and blasts of snow and wind. The author of A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Wanderlust: A History of Walking covered the distance between her temporary cottage, the Safeway grocery store, and campus on foot, wearing a remarkable Russian ushanka hat.
“But I am a hothouse orchid!” Solnit protested. Occasionally she escaped the steppe-like terrain to join her sister orchids in the warm humidity of the university’s Williams Conservatory.
Solnit’s purpose in Laramie was to discover if the model of map as blended narrative and visual feast, which she introduced in Infinite City, could be emulated in Laramie, Wyoming. Over the course of four weeks she immersed Master of Fine Arts and Environment and Natural Resources students in books, maps, and readings—inspiration and philosophies of place and representation. With further support from the MFA program, cartographers Shizue Seigel and Ben Pease of Infinite City joined the effort and enjoyed a concentrated and enthusiastic reconnaissance, taking in key concepts and nuances of the locale. They began constructing the Laramie base map that would underlay most of the final works. Alyson Hagy of the UW MFA program was the course leader.
As Rebecca Solnit’s four-week tenure at UW ended, the group met at the historic Buckhorn Bar to bid her farewell, shoot cell phone photos, and regard the bullet hole in the bar back mirror. Solnit’s trajectory soon took her to Tucson and Dublin. In Laramie, the students’ mapping was just getting underway.
In creating Laramie: A Gem City Atlas, the mapmakers enjoyed a remarkable parity of discovery. In charting uncharted terrain, familiarity yielded little advantage, and transience proved no impediment to perception. As Jacklynn Pham, the course’s one undergraduate, wrote, “Cultural maps ask to be read as a narrative, not used like a utensil. . . . Anything is welcomed to be mapped by anyone….”
Alyson Hagy embraced the role of project manager for the Atlas. (She also created a map.) Most mapmakers partnered with visual artists, while some created their own designs. Collaborations reached far into the community and well beyond the gravitational pull of the university. Seigel became the chief architect, designer, and cartographer for the maps of the Laramie Atlas. The internet served as the primary conduit of communication between Seigel and Pease in San Francisco and the class.
Laramie is both a settlement and a landscape of transience, prominently defined by the Union Pacific Railroad, Interstate 80, and the University of Wyoming. Essays written to accompany the maps illuminate the relationship of the narrative map makers to the Gem City and the West.
LuLing Osofsky wrote about her move to Laramie from San Francisco:
"Wild Wild East" by LuLing Osofsky, Paulius Staniunas, and
Graphic courtesy University of Wyoming MFA Program.
Tshering Dema studied environment and natural resources for a year before returning to her post as a teacher in Bhutan. In Wyoming she found connection between Laramie and her native country through the practice of birding. Yet the tension of dislocation also manifested itself through the birds.
The raven, she explains in her map’s accompanying essay, adorns the Raven Crown of the kings of Bhutan. Through civil wars, resistance to British attempts at colonization, and the unification of the kingdom, the reverence accorded the bird increased until it became a symbol of Bhutan power and authority. “Having this romanticized image of ravens,” Dema wrote, “it never fails to disappoint me when I see the same creature from the king’s crown now hovering over garbage.”
More challenging was Dema’s encounter with falconry. “Buddhism does not believe in killing, and hunters have always been depicted as evil sinners. Every mural and painting on the walls of temples and monasteries in Bhutan depicts sinners as being in hell. It made me wonder if the falconer is a sinner for letting his falcon hunt. . . . As I ponder who the sinner is, I wonder, am I the sinner for second guessing my religion?”
Two different artists were drawn to Dema’s subject. The maps could almost be viewed as states of mind. Elizabeth Cochran electrifies the canvas with flocking, squawking, and manifold exuberance. Her birds are on the wing, restive. Gabrielle Reeves gives us a collection of exquisitely composed bird portraits, their subjects serene at rest and in flight. In the background of both maps (as if viewed from above) is the Laramie River, a blue line making a broad curve.
Mary Kate McCarney, an MFA and masters student in geology, contributed “Geography of Strays.” “Laramie’s roads impart a sense of both permanence and impermanence,” she writes, “a fixed infrastructure conveying a dynamo of travelers and cargo.” McCarney draws our attention to the fact that “18 of Laramie’s strays arrived from the concrete shoulders and exit ramps. . . . An additional 14 animals were impounded at motels, five more, including a chicken, from gas stations and in February, two dogs from the Port of Entry and a boxer from the airport. All told, 38 transients.”
Irina Zhorov states simply, “Here’s what I know: Wyoming is a lonely place.” Her maps and essay are titled, “Cartographic Collapse: On Maps that Fail and Betray Perhaps Everyone Involved.” She tells us, “One maps one’s fears, one’s desires: old maps teem with monsters and maelstroms lying low in the waters that lead to promised lands. . . . Out on the plains, in Wyoming, the monsters crawl through cold-stiffened grasses, creep quietly under the cover of the whistling wind.”
"Ghosts and Cottonwoods" by Tasha LeClair and Shizue
Graphic courtesy University of Wyoming MFA Program.
Mapmakers embraced subjects that were rooted, ephemeral, tangible, societal, and deeply human.
Seigel illustrated the evocative “Ghosts and Cottonwoods” by Tasha LeClair with the dark canopies of cottonwoods against the nighttime town. Katie Flagg mapped Cold War missile silos against the pine bark beetle epidemic that is devastating Western forests. Apple trees are mapped against rural healthcare, salons are counterparts to saloons, women’s work is seen against the industry of ants below us, while the elevations of structures orient us. Local sandstone quarries (now closed) are mapped alongside climbing routes (illegal) on buildings constructed of that native stone. The routes that five Native American students take home from the university are traced on a map of Wyoming landscapes.
The semester-long work of the Laramie mapmakers, artists, and cartographers culminated in Laramie: A Gem City Atlas, an exhibition held at the University of Wyoming Art Museum April 30 through June 18, 2011, which included corollary artworks and the final essays—hand-bound and assembled in an elegant presentation by Jacklynn Pham.
The 24-inch by 36-inch framed maps hung for the latter part of the summer at the university’s Coe Library, around the corner from the library’s 1930s-era “Literary Map of Wyoming.”
Through Seigel's efforts, a selection of the Laramie Atlas was shown at the California Institute of Integral Studies December 8, 2011, to January 22, 2012 and is currently on exhibit from April 23 to June 8 at the Seed Gallery, Thoreau Center for Sustainability, at the Presidio in San Francisco. The two cities share historical and physical links that began with the transcontinental railroad and continued in the next century with the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental automobile road, followed again by Interstate 80.The migration that brought Rebecca Solnit to Laramie as eminent writer in residence brought Laramie: A Gem City Atlas back home to Solnit, Seigel, and Pease. Solnit’s purpose in Laramie—to share her vision of map as blended narrative and visual feast—had been served.
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