"Grand What?": And Other Great Works of Earth Art

Perhaps you’d be interested in a hole in the desert in the shape of a pyramid upside down.

I entered the lobby of the Quality Courts Motel in Moonglow, Arizona, and found Mrs. Elsie Birderaft waiting for me. A stout, graying, nononsense sort of woman, she was an art critic from San Francisco and ours was an artistic mission. We were off to see the latest work of earth artist Max Jelke, who had been much in the news lately. My own interest in earth art went back to the early sixties, when Big Jim Raha had constructed his controversial Poignancy, an 800-foot heart made ol wrecked cars. It seemed to me that any movement that could deny all the canons of art in so massive and random a way must have a message for all of us.

I invited Mrs. Birdcraft to have luncheon with me, but she was eager to get started and said we could pick up something on the way. She proved to be a very fast and careless driver and from her thick spectacles and constant squint it was apparent that her eyesight was no more than adequate. As she drove, she told me something about Jelke’s latest. It is called The Square Root of Minus One and is a hole in the desert in the shape of a pyramid upside down. Looking at it in another way, it is an inverted pyramid of air, thought to be the only one of its kind.

Opinions on earth art are greatly divided, even among the artists themselves. Spectators want to know what is artistic about a hole in the ground or a half-mile square of rock. The artists shrug and rev up their bulldozers. They seem to thrive on hostility. The reviews of Gump Dortweiler’s 110foot-high twin mounds of earth entitled 48 double E labeled it pretentious, expensive, meaningless, and ugly. Asked for his reaction, Dortweiler thought for a moment. “Well,” he said, “I would say they hit it on the head.”

The air conditioner of the rented car wasn’t working, so we had to drive with the windows down and, since the roads were largely unimproved, we were soon covered with a fine layer of dust. We were to meet Max Jelke at a place called the Great Western Cafe, but the proprietress said she hadn’t seen him in several days. She did give us a note he had left which was entirely illegible. Mrs. Birdcraft was of the opinion that it was written in some foreign language.

The woman took back the note. “You are the people about the bottling machines, aren’t you?” she asked.

Mrs. Birdcraft said no we weren’t but it was all right because she thought she knew the way anyhow. We went back and got in the car and drove off.

Although we tend to think of earth art as something modern, its roots are deep in American history. The originator, or one of them, was Mustang Bill Fraley of San Antonio, Texas. In the 1880s he got together a herd of some five hundred cows, wrapped their feet in rags soaked in indigo, and drove them to Abilene.

Of course, the Blue Trail no longer exists, but we do have a number of watercolors of it painted by a schoolteacher named Hannah L. Beers. It is an ironic sidelight of earth art that the only mementos of its historic beginning are representational paintings, which all true earth artists despise.

After more than an hour of very rough driving, the road we were following came to an end at an abandoned mine. Mrs. Birderaft said it was apparent that the directions she had been given were wrong. She said not to worry because she thought she knew where she could get the right ones. I was beginning to feel light-headed from the heat and from missing lunch. Also I had gotten a nasty cut on my hand from pulling the rear fender away from the tire after Mrs. Birdcraft had backed into a post while turning around.

At the Last Chance Gas Station, an elderly man said he knew the place we were looking for and he was going right by it. We hurried to purchase some peanut butter crackers and cream soda—all they had in the way of refreshments—and set out. We followed the old fellow’s truck along a narrow trail in a cloud of dust for some twelve miles. I remarked jokingly that if we could only make a movie of the dust cloud, that itself might qualify as an earth work. Mrs. Birdcraft said it had been done.

Because of their nature, many earth works are available to viewers by photograph only. Terry Ramoulian, for example, has given a new dimension to the traditional art of wood-burning. Instead of using a hot needle to burn a small piece of board, Ramoulian uses a flame thrower and burns forests, later taking aerial photographs. His particular art is naturally susceptible to the vagaries of weather, the two worst enemies being clouds and rain, which can interfere with photography or even wipe out a whole fire. However, he accepts these hazards with equanimity. As he says, “You win a few, you lose a few.”

Other artists, such as K. K. Brancher, hold that their works must be viewed as they are and bitterly resent having them “stolen” by photographers. Brancher’s most recent work is a tunnel that runs through a granite hillside in Vermont. “Let’s see some bastard try to photograph that,” he is said to have remarked. The tunnel, which he calls Alimentary School, is eight feet in diameter and loops and turns for 1003 feet before emerging farther up the hillside. “I was going to make it an even thousand,” he said smiling, “and then I decided to add 3 percent tax.” It was pointed out that 3 percent of 1000 was 30 and not 3. “Well,” Brancher said, “the hell with it.”

The man in the truck finally stopped and led us several hundred yards from the road and pointed out a perfectly ordinary canyon. Mrs. Birdcraft asked him why in the world he had taken us all that distance for nothing. “We told you we were looking for a hole in the ground shaped like a pyramid.”

He said this one was shaped more like a pyramid than any other he knew about. “A pyramid is shaped mostly like this, isn’t it?” and he traced a shape in the air much like a loaf of bread.

Mrs. Birdcraft said no, a pyramid wasn’t shaped like that at all. He said, well, he didn’t know. We thanked him and headed back. Mrs. Birdcraft said that the only thing to do was to phone her office in San Francisco and get the exact directions. She turned the steering wheel sharply to avoid a jackrabbit and hit a small boulder, blowing out the right front tire. The spare was only half inflated but it was all we had. While I was changing tires, Mrs. Birdcraft opened the peanut butter crackers, which were nothing but crumbs. We couldn’t find anything to open the bottles with.

When I was interviewing K. K. Brancher in his studio, I met his friend Bobby Lee Taliaferro who is the undisputed king of earth-work graffiti. His most famous is near Provo, Utah, where he used dynamite to blast the letters of a single word on the face of a cliff. It can be seen for over forty miles and would have been without question the largest four-letter word in the world, except that Bobby Lee misspelled it, making it a five-letter word.

“I always thought there was an E onto it,” he explained.

He hasn’t been working lately—he feels dynamite isn’t adequate for his purposes and is hopeful of obtaining nuclear blasting power. “They talk about progress,” he said, “but they make us use the same stuff as the old-time Greeks.”

Someone suggested that the ancient Greeks did not, in fact, have dynamite.

“Yeah, they did,” he said. “They used it for the Acropolis and like that.”

He says Japan has offered him all the nuclear explosives he wants; it’s only a question of raising the funds. A museum in Moscow, he says, has shown considerable interest.

The Last Chance Gas Station didn’t have a phone but the proprietor directed us to a grocery about six miles down the road. The grocery did have a phone, but the grocer refused to let Mrs. Birdcraft call San Francisco even collect. He was afraid he would be charged for it. I told the man thanks anyway. “Better do something about that tire,” he said. “Looks like she’s going flat on you.” I said I knew. We decided to try to find a store or motel with a pay phone.

After we had driven a few miles, Mrs. Birdcraft said we should have filled the tire while we were at the gas station.

“Yes,” I said, “and we should have bought some food while we were at the grocery store.”

“You can’t think of everything,” Mrs. Birdcraft said.

We finally found a motel with a pay phone and she made her call. “I was right all along,” she said, “the place is no more than a mile from here.” But when we talked to the manager, he had never heard of it. Nobody had ever heard of it. “I can’t understand it,” she said, “it was in all the papers— New York—San Francisco . . .”

The manager said, “I tell you where to go—this fellow will know about it if anybody does,”and he gave us a complicated set of instructions and we set out once more.

When I talked with Bobby Lee, he had referred to Anson Block as one who had most successfully wedded the traditional with the modern. His pictures are as true to life as those of Rembrandt, except that for a canvas he uses a 640-acre field in Kansas. From a paper sketch, the outline is staked out on the field, he then goes over it with a twenty-blade plow, and later plants it with some gaily colored flowers. One of his best known, planted in poppies, is called Reclining Red Nudes in Wheat Field. I have never seen it myself, although it is on the airline route from New York to Los Angeles. Both times I flew over it there was a complete cloud cover. The pilot circled hopefully for over half an hour each time, but to no avail.

Certainly the most grandiose earth work ever contemplated was the one designed by Fred E. Natwick entitled Grand What? It called for the complete filling in of the Grand Canyon. Natwick received a government grant for a preliminary survey and the Army Engineers promised complete cooperation. His plans were well under way when someone observed that the best way to obtain the necessary till would be to dig an identical canyon alongside it. Earth artists everywhere hailed it as the purest example of art for art’s sake ever conceived. Unfortunately, this drew the attention of the conservationists and other reactionary groups, an uproar was raised, and the project shelved.

Natwick was understandably bitter over the outcome. “It’s the do-gooders and bleeding hearts,” he said. “They’ve always been against the artist. Why can’t they stick to the ghettos and leave the wilderness to us?”

At least the plans and sketches were saved. Those who wish can go to the National Archives and see what might have been.

As we drove along, following the man’s directions, I asked Mrs. Birdcraft if the road didn’t look familiar.

“All roads look familiar in Arizona,” she said. As it turned out, this one was familiar because the place it led us to was the Last Chance Gas Station. It was almost dark, so we headed back home.

As we passed the grocery I recalled that we still hadn’t put any air in the tire. A bee was buzzing around Mrs. Birdcraft’s head. She swatted at it with a rolled-up newspaper, knocking her eyeglasses through the car window and breaking one of the lenses. She said she didn’t use that eye much anyway.

We never did find The Square Root of Minus One. Like its namesake, it isn’t something you can put your finger on easily, but we know it’s there. Somewhere. And, in the final analysis, maybe that’s enough. □