Over the Sierras
A Tour With California College of Art Students

186 Overlooking the not-there Auburn Dam. CLUI photo

IN THE SPRING OF 2010, Matthew Coolidge of the CLUI and teaching partner Marina McDougall took a group of curatorial graduate students on a field trip from San Francisco to Utah and back. The trip had a few purposes. One was to deliver the first installment of the archives of the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Wendover Residence Program to the Nevada Museum of Art. The students had been working on preparing the archives for their transition from messy living documents to artifacts of historic record for a few months. Then the group was going to spend some time in Wendover, a place they had been studying while preparing the archives, to document the Residence Program facilities and the regional context, also for the archives in Reno. Along the way the group visited a number of other locations related to the broader context of the program, following the trajectory from urban to rural, local to remote, here to there, and such things as are central to the programs and practice of the CLUI.

First stop out of San Francisco was the Auburn Dam Site, at the base of the Sierras, near the town of Auburn. Remnants from early and aborted construction attempts can be seen at the site of the proposed $1 billion Auburn Dam on the American River. The dam has been proposed in several forms since the 1950s, and each time the project failed to be executed. Construction even started on the dam in 1967, and continued until an earthquake stopped the project several years later. The function of the dam would be to help prevent flooding in the Sacramento area, making more land suitable for development. At least one limit of the modern development of the Valley seems to have been reached.

From this first marginal location, at the base of the mountainous obstacle of the Sierras, the group headed up into the foothills, to lunch in the quaint, fey town of Nevada City. This Victorian village dates back to the gold mining years of the 1850s, and is the hub for the hill country’s folksy ex-urbanite community, tucked in and around the hills and valleys of the western slope. Over lunch on the patio at the Bistro we spoke with regional historian Hank Meals who then took us to our next stop, the For-Site residency grounds. Located in a scenic rural spot down dirt roads far from town, the site has been used by several artists and school groups as a place to stay and generate work in and about the land. There is a workshop, classroom and event spaces, all relatively new, rustic-modern, and well designed. The land is woods and trails, and high views to the valley below. Work produced here tends to involve natural forms and structures: Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, Pae White, Chris Drury, Antony Gromley, and Katherine Johnstone are among the artists who have worked here.

Part of the reason for visiting For-Site was that in addition to working with the CLUI’s Wendover Residence Program, the class has been studying residence programs in general, especially those that are place-based, meaning those that encourage the production of work compelled or inspired by the location – the place – they are in. There aren’t so many, but we assembled a list, and proposed new ones. Visitors invited to talk to the class over the semester included Ed Dadey, the founder and director of Art Farm, a residence program in the middle of agricultural Nebraska; Adam Lerner, the former director of the Lab at Belmar, Colorado, which produced works related to its new-urbanist suburban site outside Denver; Peter Richards, founder of the Arts Program at the Exploratorium and former director of the artist in residence program there; and Smudge Studio and Lead Pencil Studio, both of which have participated in the CLUI Residence program; and many others, generating work about the places themselves. Local field trips were made as part of the class too, such as to the JB Blunk residence program in Inverness and the Headlands Institute, on the other side of the bridge from San Francisco, one of the most notable and productive residence programs in the country. But on this field trip, we were connecting many dots on a passage over the mountains, transcending layers of historic development of the West, and currently heading upstream towards Donner Pass.

The next stop is one of the most dramatic man-made landscapes in the nation: Malakoff Diggins. This site consists of a square mile mining pit with unusual erosional features, some resembling pinnacles of dripped wax, created mostly in the 1870s using the hydraulic mining technique. Hydraulic mining employed high-pressure water cannons to remove the soil and rock that held gold deposits. Several water cannons were used here to erode the sedimentary rock, mixing it into a slurry from which the gold was extracted. The network of underground drains and tunnels here was extensive. The main drain for the pit was over 7,500 feet long. At least one tunnel is still open and is wide enough to walk through. The sediment from hydraulic mining areas such as Malakoff, which is just one of many such sites all over the western slope of the Sierra, choked streams and rivers, and deposited an estimated 1.5 billion cubic yards of sediment into San Francisco Bay, where it remains today as a layer of mud around three feet thick. The practice of hydraulic mining was stopped in 1884, in what is sometimes cited as the first major environmental law passed in this countrythough the lawsuits were supported largely by the Southern Pacific Railway Company, which was concerned about damage to its tracks from the drainage and siltation associated with hydraulic mining.

Walking around the ghostly spires, mounds, and voids of Malakoff and the surrounding “diggins,” with new trees poking out where they can, is to be immersed in a futuristic landscape of a post-natural world from the past. Now a State Historic Park, nobody else was there when we visited. The emptiness was asserted again when we arrived at the restored historic town of North Bloomfield, next to the Diggings, where nobody was either. We headed out of the narrow roads of the hydraulic mining zones and back on the interstate, where heavy snow forced us to chain up the wheels of the van. We passed by Donner Lake in the cold night, and imagined the lonely pioneers stranded and starving on its snowy shores 164 years ago, before the Gold Rush had even begun. From here it was downhill to the haggard future post-casino town of Reno.