Page 19 - The Noise August 2017
P. 19

sketching the unseen paradox of grand canyon
by sarah gianelli
Alan Petersen has been exploring the Colorado Plateau since the mid ‘70s when he got . a job with the Fred Harvey Company in Grand Canyon National Park. Later he worked as river guide on the Colorado and Utah’s San Juan rivers. His enduring fascination with the region has now gone subterranean. A new exhibit of his drawings and paintings at the Museum of Northern Arizona marks the start of the artist’s ambitious intent to artistically catalogue as many of the 1,500 confirmed and potential uranium sites in and around Grand Canyon as possible.
Offering a creative response to an endeavor largely driven by scientific and philosophical inquiry, the subject of Grand Canyon uranium is proving to be the most complete synthe- sis of the artist’s interests in the geological history and aesthetics of the Colorado Plateau landscape.
“I’ve always been interested in both [science and art] and how they intersect, not just now but throughout history,” Mr. Petersen said. For him, the scientific and the creative pro- cess are very similar.
“They both involve investigation — in slightly different ways — but I think artists and sci- entists look at the world around them with open eyes and minds in an effort to understand and explain what they’re seeing.”
Thus far, Mr. Petersen, whose interest in the region’s geology has now dovetailed with his passion for art, has visited approximately 35 uranium sites in or around the canyon, all on foot or mountain bike with a US Geological Survey data set as his map.
A few of Mr. Petersen’s drawings depict sites that have been actively mined and have above-ground structures denoting their location — such as the Arizona One mine on the Kanab Plateau and the Canyon Mine just south of Tusayan, both of which are currently on stand-by status to resume mining operations. But the majority of uranium sites — and his drawings — give very little indication of their existence and go largely unseen by the droves of tourists that visit the park, even while uranium deposits exist in plain view on the popular Kaibab Trail, and on Horseshoe Mesa.
“I kind of feel like I’m revealing this mystery,” Mr. Petersen said. “I would like people to understand that there’s this whole hidden aspect to the landscape, and to come to the un- derstanding that this hidden part of the Grand Canyon landscape is a source of uranium in the area and therefore a source of great controversy — and yet that source remains largely unknown.”
For Mr. Petersen, it’s the paradox of Grand Canyon as the ultimate in terms of awe-inspir- ing landscape, and the concealed, underground existence of a material overwhelmingly perceived as insidious by the general public.
For many, uranium represents a great threat fed by news reports of nuclear accidents such as Fukushima, visions of the two atomic weapons that were dropped on Japan in 1945, and subsequent atomic testing. These incidents have imprinted apocalyptic imagery of un- imaginable violence and power in the collective psyche.
“Through human interests and devices we’ve used this metal for both good and evil,” Mr. Petersen said. “However, I can just imagine if people visiting the canyon knew they were surrounded by uranium. All you have to do is say the word, and people freak out. I think it would change people’s understanding of the Grand Canyon landscape if they knew there’s
above: alan Petersen’s Six Grand Canyon Breccia Pipes,
one in his new series opening at the Museum of Northern arizona this month.
this whole other side story.”
But like the untapped uranium sources, Mr. Petersen’s sparse drawings are neutral. They
offer an objective response to a controversial topic, and while the artist admits he has a personal stance on the issue, they do not come through in the work.
“I’m consciously not making a political statement,” Mr. Petersen said. “I’d rather let people make up their own minds. What I’m interested in is something that’s a little more subtle and insidious.”
While some of Mr. Petersen ’s drawings are explicitly mines, most portray empty, arid fields of scrub brush, the existence of uranium only announced by a shallow, almost imper- ceptible depression in the earth.
“That’s what I love the best about it ... You’ve got this visible feature, the depression, that is so absolutely banal next to the Grand Canyon. Maybe it’s super personal and weird and goofy but I think it’s wildly paradoxical.”
He also finds it paradoxical that the mining buildings and structures appear relatively innocuous, but contain an extremely toxic material and in a sense, do not fully reveal their purpose. While conducting research for an earlier series that focused more broadly on the nuclear facilities of the Colorado Plateau, Mr. Petersen learned about breccia pipes, the natural underground structures that are unique to uranium deposits in Northern Arizona.
Breccia pipes are vertical, roughly cylindrical structures stretching approximately 3,000 feet below the surface that formed when solution caverns collapsed approximately 200 million years ago and were filled with fragments of rock, collectively called breccia.
Groundwater flowing through the “pipes” and the rubble that filled it deposited a solu- tion of minerals, some of which contain uranium. Within the greater Grand Canyon region there are approximately 1,500 breccia pipe areas. Not all contain uranium, but many do.
Mr. Petersen was intrigued by the fact that except for a few geologists and the miners — those actually seeking sources of uranium — hardly anyone knows where they are. Even with his USGS data set, it sometimes takes him hours to pinpoint the exact location of a breccia site. When he does, he sketches and takes photographs in the field, which act as studies for the detailed pencil-on-paper drawings he completes in his studio. The sparse aesthetic of Mr. Petersen’s drawings echoes the dusty, barren landscape he’s portrayed.
In the paintings, Mr. Petersen has incorporated uranium-containing pigment made from rock collected from the sites. Using a mortar and pestle, Mr. Petersen crushes the rock into powder and mixes it with linseed oil to create his own ochre-colored oil paint, adding a tactile connection between the work, the viewer and the location.
During the 1950s, in response to the need for uranium for nuclear weapons, the Colorado Plateau became the primary domestic source of uranium. Hundreds of mines were devel- oped in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Northern Arizona. As the need for uranium and its price fluctuated, the production of ore from the mines ebbed and flowed. Some mines were depleted of their ore, others abandoned, and others put on standby until the federal government approved higher market value for the “national resource.”
The earliest mines in the Grand Canyon region, established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, principally produced copper and a small amount of other metals. During the mid-century uranium boom, these mines were recognized to also harbor minerals bearing uranium. The Lost Orphan mine on the South Rim of Grand Canyon was reactivated to pro- duce the newly important commodity and new mines, such as those in Hack Canyon, were established. The Lost Orphan, Hack, and Pigeon mines are all located within major Grand Canyon tributaries and in the case of the Lost Orphan, right on the South Rim in immediate proximity to visitor facilities.
In 2009 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a two-year ban on new min- ing on federal land in an area of approximately 1 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. Although the ban is on all mining, the main effect is on exploration and de- velopment of breccia pipe uranium deposits. Those claims on which commercial mineral deposits have already been discovered were exempt from the ban.
In 2012, Mr. Salazar approved a 20-year ban on mining around the Grand Canyon, which has since generated great conflict between opponents and proponents of uranium mining in the region.
There is currently no active uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region, but in June 2017 the Mohave County Board of Supervisors asked newly-appointed Interior Secretary Ryan ZinketoconsiderliftingthebanonpubliclandsinNorthernArizona. AndwhileMr.Petersen won’t say where he personally stands on the controversy — although one might guess — or allow his art to give him away, he did divulge an appreciation for provocative art.
“I always enjoy artwork that makes me a little apprehensive,” Mr. Petersen said. “I think art that puts people on edge can be very effective.”
“Unseen/Scene” opens at the Museum of Northern Arizona, located at 3101 N. Fort Valley Road in Flagstaff, on Thursday, August 17 and runs through October 15. For more information visit or call (928) 774-5213. | the NOISE arts & news | AUGUST 2017 • 19

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