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Can Artists Help Preserve New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon?

The legacy of artists in National Parks goes all the way back to Thomas Moran, whose paintings of Yellowstone helped incite its park status in 1872.

Fajada Butte in Chaco Culture National Historical Park (by John Vokoun)

SANTA FE, New Mexico — In 2016, John Vokoun spent a month in Chaco Culture National Historical Park. He wasn’t doing trail maintenance or selling postcards at the gift shop; he was on an artist’s residency administered by the National Parks Arts Foundation. He lived in a National Parks Service building and spent every day in this UNESCO World Heritage Site, where he worked, hiked the mesas, and gazed at the star-spangled night sky.

During this period, Vokoun also got an up-close look at how the park and its surrounding area are being encroached upon by oil and gas development. “Once that land is destroyed, it’s never coming back,” Vokoun said, in an interview with Hyperallergic. Voukoun recalls driving out to Chaco from Santa Fe, where he has lived for 17 years. “I hadn’t been there for a few years, and I remember being kind of shocked at how many oil wells were there,” he said.

John Vokoun in residence at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, 2016 (by John Vokoun)

The National Parks Arts Foundation (NPAF) is now accepting applications for their October 2020 artist in residence at Chaco Culture National Historical Park; meanwhile the park is threatened by oil and gas operations and Congress is in the midst of debates about how, or whether, it should be protected.

According to the Wilderness Society, 91 percent of public land in northwest New Mexico is used for “dirty energy development.” Communities near Chaco have been affected by fires at fracking sites, pollution, displacement, and more. Last week, the House passed the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, a measure that protects both the park and the land in its 10-mile radius from further oil and gas development. This measure builds upon a one-year moratorium that passed earlier this year. Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat from new Mexico who proposed the measure, said this development will “build critical momentum toward passing permanent protections.”

The measure has now moved on to the Senate, where its future is uncertain. “We have two champions in Senator Tom Udall and Senator Martin Heinrich, and we saw some bipartisan support here in the house. I think we can reasonably expect bipartisan support in the Senate,” Lauren French, director of communications for Assistant Speaker Luján, told Hyperallergic. “We’re hopeful that Mitch McConnell will bring it up for a vote.” (Both Udall and Heinrich are Democrats representing New Mexico.)

Chaco Culture National Historical Park was named a National Monument in 1907 by Theodore Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act, and expanded in 1980 to its current size. In 1987, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It borders the Navajo Nation and a large swath of  land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Dawnja Burris, “Lignite Line” (2019), archive inkjet print on glossy photographic paper, 24 x 36 inches (courtesy of Dawnja Burris)

While in residence at Chaco during April 2019, Dawnja Burris created a re-photography project that involved shooting through transparencies from photos taken on a previous trip. The resulting images are enigmatic composites that speak to a mysterious landscape, layered in history. “This, to me, is a metaphor for what we can see, for what can be revealed. The legacy of Chaco is something more than what is apparent on the surface,” she told Hyperallergic. Chaco has long been an inspiration for Burris, and continues to be. “I refuse to call them ruins,” she said. “The place is very much alive.”

There is a storied legacy of arts in National Parks. In 1871, Hudson River School painter Thomas Moran was hired to travel on a geological survey expedition to what is now Yellowstone National Park. He painted and drew the landscapes, with the purpose of bringing them back east. His work was included in a report to Congress, and according to the National Parks Conservation Association, “historians credit these inspiring images with showing the grandeur of the region and persuading Congress and President Ulysses Grant to establish Yellowstone as the first National Park in 1872.”

Thomas Moran, “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (1893) (via Wikimedia Commons and the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Artists in residence today have a role in protecting these lands, too. “My work isn’t specifically about protesting oil and gas pumping,” Vokoun said. “My work is very much about chaos and language and lost languages.” But, he continued, his art is inevitably influenced by and in conversation with the political issues relevant to Chaco and other public land. “We’re in a time where artists are asked to be sociologists, anthropologists … We need to start making some cultural changes in terms of preserving the future.”

John Vokoun, “Chaco Landscape” (courtesy of John Vokoun)

For Chaco, preserving the future mostly means honoring the past. Chaco is home to a famed set of sixteen “great houses,” massive prehistoric structures that have been preserved for centuries. These edifices are remarkable artifacts in terms of understanding the organization and achievements of the Chacoan society that existed in the canyon between the ninth and 13th centuries. Like many archaeological sites, they are incredibly delicate and require maintenance, study, and reverence. “It’s such an environmentally sensitive area,” Burris said. “To destroy it for the sake of an energy source that is on its way out is just heartbreaking.”

Chaco is not only a site of historical and archaeological importance, but also sacred land. Congresswoman Deb Haaland, another Democrat representing New Mexico, posted a video to Twitter in which she called Chaco Canyon “hallowed ground” that “must be valued the same way we value other sacred places.”

One of Chaco’s “great houses” (by John Vokoun)

In her moving remarks given on the floor of the House of Representatives last week, Haaland said:

Chaco Canyon and the greater Chaco region have been home to my people for centuries. As a 35th-generation New Mexican and a descendant of the indigenous inhabitants of what is now the Southwest US, I can say that there are few places more exceptional than the Chaco region. Over hundreds of years my ancestors engineered and constructed massive multi-story structures at Chaco Canyon that became the ceremonial, administrative, and economic center of the region … We owe it to tribal communities, to the people of New Mexico, and the people of the world over, to permanently protect the Chaco region.

Can artists in residence at Chaco today, like Moran did over a century ago, help preserve this sacred historical site? Perhaps, albeit indirectly. “Artists tap into an emotional base that goes hand-in-hand with conservation,” French said. “Artists can help push the conversation by capturing the beauty of a place.”

The NPAF is an independent organization, Tanya Ortega, founder of the foundation, told Hyperallergic. “We enter into agreements with the parks, since there is a lot of permitting involved,” she explained. “Once art is controlled by, say, the government, it squashes the creativity. We are the ones who choose the artists.” The residency is open to artists in all media, and includes a $1000 stipend. Of the legislation currently facing the Senate, Ortega is hopeful. “We’re really excited. We want it to go further, and we hope we can help with that by showing how important the parks are.”

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