process of making Hydroglyph 1

Carving out in the Utah Desert Canyons, 1992

I gathered a few flat stones of different types and got an artist friend to show me rudimentary stone carving technique. After several experiments and sore thumbs from missing the chisel with the hammer, I thought I was ready to carve. I contacted a local rancher and asked to visit him and his wife, as I knew there were some sandstone intrusions poking up on their ranch. I told them about my idea and was amazed at how receptive they were to the idea. They told me to go ahead and find the site I wanted and get back to them. I went exploring, pocket stuffed with broken bits of chalk, a scrub brush, and rags, into the red rock formations. I spent time taking in the feeling the red and rosy stone, a part of my soul in the western landscape. One place, a scoop of fine descending layers, felt as if it could have birthed me. I began drawing with the chalk, following the shapes generated by each specific bit of more or less level rock, trying to get the rock to speak to me. Drawings that didn’t fit disappeared under the brush and rags. One large long area said it could hold the spiral of life. I drew a spiral, then large ungulate tracks going into it and out the other end. Other drawings fit round, oval, teardrop shaped flat spots. We chose the spiral site, and I began the slow, strenuous work of “Hydroglyph 1”, down on hands and knees with chisels, mallet, knee pad, face shield, water bottle and sunscreen.

I didn’t have to carve for long to start wondering how it would look with water in it, so before I left one afternoon I emptied my water bottle into the small trench. To my dismay, the water ran down to one end and began to spill over the edge before it filled the top of the design. Uh-oh, art meets science. Law of physics: water runs downhill! My not quite flat spot was not behaving as planned. After a day or two of pondering, I devised cross bars to shorten the trenches, so that they looked long but the water was kept from running all the way to the end. The first of many ecology lessons I was to take on this adventure.

"Hydroglyph 1", Larimer County, Wyoming, 1985

The tracks going into the spiral celebrated and remembered the wandering elk, deer, bighorn sheep, even bison who must have passed by this place on the Wyoming high plains through history. One day the rancher came by with a visiting foreign student from Africa. Oh, the visitor said, hard work! I poured in some water to show him how it would look and work for wildlife. He pondered for a few minutes, then asked “Why you make cow tracks?”

It wasn’t until the weeks of carving work were done and I hauled water out to the site and filled “Hydroglyph 1” with water that I realized it was the inverse of Robert Smithson’s famous land art work, “Spiral Jetty”. His was stone in water, mine was water in stone, the small, more female action I had imagined, a gesture of nurturance rather than dominance.

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