INTERVIEW WITH EMILIE SKYTTA ON THE C.L.U.I. ARTIST RESIDENCY
Emilie Skytta, alumna, gives an in-depth interview on exploring the ostensibly hidden history of Wendover, rediscovering her materials driven and place-based creative practice, and developing strong bonds with fellow-artists while an art resident at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (C.L.U.I.) in Utah.
How did you find C.L.U.I. and why did you decide to do this residency?
I had never heard about C.L.U.I. Sometime last semester I learned Matt Coolidge was coming to Portland to give a talk about this residency program based in Utah called, the Center for Land Use Interpretation. I wasn’t completely sure what it was, but it sounded awesome. So, I went to the talk, and was completely smitten with the idea of going. Mack MacFarland had been trying to start a partnership with them, and this residency was 6 or 7 years in the making. With the dawn of the PNCA move to the 511 building, Mac worked it out so PNCA would fund 5 graduate students and 2 faculty members to be artist residents, and the work made there would be exhibited in the Feldman Gallery prior to a C.L.U.I. retrospective to be shown the following year. I already had unofficial plans to be in Utah this summer, and this residency made those plans more official. I applied – the application process asked why do you want to come here and what do you think you may want to do while you’re here? In my head, I was bound to go to Utah.
What type of work did you create during the residency and what influenced it?
Before I went down there I had preconceived ideas of C.L.U.I., knowing full well that probably what I thought it was going to be wasn’t actually what I would encounter. When I got there, it was a constant barrage of information, sites and experiences over the first week. It all started with an overnight campout at the Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt for solstice. Holt had past away earlier this year, so it was a bit of a memorial. There was probably an upwards of 200 people there that were all camping. It was an awesome first night; our welcome to the desert!
We spent the next couple of days with Matt Coolidge, who is an absolute wealth of information and quite the entertaining person. He took us all over the place. We went out into the salt flats, and we drove down to what I guess were roads, but not really roads. We were in the rental car going – “I don’t know if it’s gonna make it!” We went to bomb craters, and places I don’t think are on maps. You wouldn’ t know otherwise if there wasn’t someone taking you there.
We traveled a 40-mile radius from C.L.U.I. in any given direction and learned some of the history of the area from Coolidge. We talked for a good long time before Coolidge left for California, and I was telling him about how my work tends to be very based on materials and place. I get really inspired about whatever I’m touching. And I asked him about the history, and he handed me a book called Canaries on the Rim by Chip Ward. Ward had been living in Utah since this mid-70’s (Emilie begins to draw a map and points out the Great Salt Lake, the border of Utah and Nevada, and Wendover.). Basically from here this way (Emilie points to the southwest portion of Utah), they’re considered downwinders. The book talks about the downwinders and all the towns through here and Tooele County. There is industry, salt factories, chemical incinerators, and a magnesium plant. Essentially what happened from the 50’s onward were a lot of unregulated activities. The military was testing bombs, chemical and germ warfare. The book talks about this history that isn’t acknowledged and how industry and military interaction affected the lives Wendover residents. These towns are filled with patriotic people – the workingman – but eventually their health declined along with their families’. Much of their livelihood was taken away from them due the testing that had happened. Eventually it was an awakening to these people that they needed to do something about it, even though it might be too late for some. These small towns came together and attempted to change what was happening in their very small communities, and the military was trying to deny what had happened. I got really inspired by this concealed history. No one wants to remember, acknowledge, or take ownership of this history in its entirety.
I also ended up reading a history book about Wendover to get an idea of the land. I learned Wendover started as a railroad thoroughfare in 1907. It’s one of the only towns in Utah that was not established by Mormons. So there’s not really a religious presence there, which is bizarre in and of itself. The potash industry came there – the salt pots. Then WWII happened and they basically turned it into a military base. There are abandoned barracks there, and the Enola Gay hangar, you know the one that dropped the bomb? Well, that’s in the backyard of C.L.U.I. We looked at it every single day.
There’s a huge military history. Once the military arrived in Wendover, the population went from 500 to 20,000 overnight. When the military left, it went back to 500 people, and today it’s about 1200 people (on the Utah side). There’s evidence of the history through historical markers, but then there’s no site to be seen. It’s just remnants. There are historical markers with nothing to mark. It’s fascinating to think that people are acknowledging the history, but they also really don’t want to remember it.
Today, Wendover is split between Utah and Nevada. On the Nevada side there’s about 5 casinos, more money, things are in better shape, where all the businesses are, and more people live there. On the Utah side it’s dilapidated and has hardly any people.
I started collecting fabric from all different places around C.L.U.I. There were a couple of sites where there were house fires, and I was pulling out burned sheets and curtains as well as getting fabric from dump piles in the middle of the desert. These were seemingly random places in the middle of the desert where people would just go, I think through a lot of effort. They would take their old couch in the middle of nowhere, shove it off their truck bed and use it for target practice. I got fabric from all these places thinking there’s evidence that people exist here; I just don’t know where they are.
I ended up quilting that all that together. And I’m in the process of collaborating with someone else to make the rest of the project. The whole project is going to sort of reflect on the physical region’s narratives from my outsider perspective. I’m taking a massive amount of information I learned and am trying to piece together to make a narrative about it. It may or may not be totally be accurate, but that’s not the point, it’s more about what I’m discovering about that place.
How has this residency changed your way of thinking…or has it?
I don’t know if it’s really changed my way of thinking, but it has changed my way of being. I came back from this realizing it was good for my soul. I needed removal from my daily routine and the place I’m in all the time. Being in an environment that’s so drastically different slowed down my sense of time and tapped into my desires to go out and homestead. It showed me that I need to figure out a way, on an annual basis, to take a sabbatical for 1 – 3 months from daily life. This experience didn’t really change my way of thinking, but it definitely gave me a good idea of how I want the rest of my life to go.
How do you think this residency may influence your future work?
I was thinking about that actually. Particularly because my design practice and art practice are completely separate. I see one as nourishing my own personal needs and the other side is my own work ethic. It had been a solid 8 years since I had made anything where I really sat down and thought about creating something that had substance to it, rather than me working with my hands just to make something. I didn’t realize how long of a time had passed, and how important it is for me to create some kind of work at least more frequently that does have some substance. When I go through the day-to-day grind, I don’t sit down and really think of what I am passionate about or research.
Most of my work is very material driven, but their tends to be some element of whatever is happening around me at any given moment. What drives my work is experience in a place, what I’ve learned, and the materials. I learned it’s good for me to have an assignment where I’m free to wander, discover, and trust my process.
Do you have any final thoughts?
I highly recommend this residency for anybody interested, or even not interested. It was one of the best experiences of my life. It was more amazing than I could have ever dreamt. I was actually very nervous going into it, because I was basically being thrown into a situation where I’d be spending almost a month with 6 other artists, only one of whom I knew, and not very well. I didn’t know what was going to happen – and thought it could turn into a horrible reality show where every day someone says, “I hate your guts!” Who knows!
But, I had some of the best conversations I’ve had in years while I was out there. Somehow everybody there just worked magically together. The first couple of nights we cooked dinner together. When Mac and Matt left, we kept cooking together, and it literally turned into this family. We were this weird little artist family. I mean just being around those people every day was incredible, and normally, I seek solitude. It was really wonderful getting to know everyone and weird being thrown into such an intimate situation – no subject was taboo. We had very deep conversations from the beginning.
It was strange because we all sat around the last day and no one wanted to come home. That’s funny, because normally when I leave Portland for more than three days, I really miss it. It was such an incredible experience. If PNCA continues it in the future, I absolutely 100% encourage anyone to apply for it – and take that chance.