Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Jessica Sowls' Cold War Desert

 Shortly after moving to Las Vegas, I was driving down Boulder Highway when a sign caught my eye. I pulled over to take a picture of the neon placard outside The Library, a defunct strip club that featured not just “Girls Girls Girls” but “Gorgeous Librarians.” Like everyone new to the city, I’ve photographed plenty of decaying neon, but this sign seemed like it deserved a specific audience. I texted the image to Jessica Sowls, a friend and former coworker at the Herron School of Art Library, where she works as a collections specialist. 

Her reply surprised me; Jessica said she missed driving around that area. Via text, she revealed her storied past in the Southwest—Utah, California and the Mojave. As an artist in residence at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah she’d embarked on her first exploration of decommissioned military sites and nuclear silos around the area, which led to more work on the topic. The conversation piqued my curiosity about my new home, and it created an unexpected connection with a friend whose past projects were news to me. After reading more about the colorful history of the Atomic Desert and the artwork it has spawned, I was inspired to inquire more deeply into Jessica’s work. 

Which of your desert-centric explorations of decommissioned space did you propose to the Center for Land Use Interpretation? Did you develop the project specifically 

for the residency? Did these projects relate to photographic work you were already doing?

What I proposed and what I ended up doing were very different. My proposal was to continue working on a photo series I had been doing involving a model rocket with a tiny camera on it. This was 2001, way before GoPros, Google Earth, etc. It was a still camera that used 110 film, which produced tiny and very grainy negatives. The moment the rocket fell back to earth, the nose cone separated from the body and the shutter was released. I would launch the rocket and then at the moment it took its picture of the ground from 500 ft in the air (presumably with me in it), I would photograph it. The two photos, one from the rocket's perspective, and one from mine, were then displayed as diptychs. 

Jessica Sowls, Corrugated Tunnel from Reconnaissance series, 2007How did you find the sites you ended up photographing? What's your relationship to the American southwest, particularly those desert areas-- Utah and California? How did you start thinking about those spaces?

I was at the CLUI compound in Wendover for two months, with nothing to do but explore and read about the history of the region. They had published a book about interesting military and industrial sites in the region, fashioned as a travel guide. I spent a lot of time driving to all the sites, and became fascinated with these secretive places that were hiding in plain sight, with vague signs, many miles of fencing, and white SUVs that would appear out of nowhere when I got too close. There was a sense of foreboding everywhere. The residency housing is on a decommissioned army base, surrounded by abandoned barracks and right next to an enormous rusted airplane hangar. The base was built in WW2 and used as a top secret place to assemble the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan and training the pilots that flew the missions. The rusty hangar was for the Enola Gay. 

This loaded atmosphere led me to want to do more "serious" work about the military. There was an interesting part of the old airfield on the base that had ruins of large ramps that were used to test the German V2 rockets that the US had confiscated during the war. At that point, these were the only rockets that had been invented, and the Americans were trying to reverse engineer their technology. So there I was, at the very spot the first rockets were launched on this continent. During this time I talked a lot with CLUI founder, Matt [Coolidge], who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the military industrial complex in the west, and he was suggesting other sites in the area. The next site in rocket history was not too far away, just a lone, unmarked, concrete bunker next to an asbestos disposal facility. It was there that the first missiles were launched. Rockets turned into missiles, and I just followed the trail, which took me to southern Utah, New Mexico, and Los Angeles. It was fascinating to learn about how the military evolved during the cold war, all while seeing changes happening in real time in response to 9/11. 

Jessica Sowls, Missile Project, 2002-4; The rusty ball on the floor is a gas tank for V2 rockets. Transparency film was displayed in 2x2” lightboxes.

Do you think there's something inherently "boy" to military/spy technologies?

It was not lost on me that my project was focused on a very phallic object. I thought of it as a distillation of the hypermasculinity of the military, wars, environmental destruction, etc. What better symbol of it all than a giant cock? Also I just liked how it all came back to this little model rocket I bought for fun. 

So I finished one series for the residency- photos of the missile launch sites and an accompanying booklet with the research I had done. I wanted to do more work in the area, so a few years later I came back to photograph the military sites from a different perspective. I was thinking more about what it felt like to be there while knowing what these innocuous looking ruins and giant swaths of fenced-off desert actually stood for. I pictured myself as a spy, decades too late to be of any use, futilely photographing cold war sites long after the cold war ended. My second project was a series based on that idea, grainy and washed out photos that looked a lot like the ones the model rocket took.

It's funny, the concept of being marooned at a residency with nothing to do but drive through desert sites and read about faded American history sounds so romantic, but quarantine has demonstrated that isolation can really drain creative focus.

What was the appeal of desert seclusion for you? What was the allure of the Southwest? As a Las Vegas resident, I'm trying to understand my own mystification of place--what drew me to move here. Did your time in LA [working at the Museum of Jurassic Technology] contribute to a sense of desert mystique?

I loved the work of Richard Misrach, and had absorbed messages about the freedom of the west from films like My Own Private Idaho and Paris Texas. The mystique is part of our culture- Easy Rider, Peewee’s Big Adventure, etc. When I first drove out to Utah from Minneapolis, I was amazed at how far I could see. A thunderstorm that looked to my midwestern eyes as if it were 10 minutes away was over an hour away. Everything was laid bare, all these military industrial sites were out in the open, you could drive around them and see everything (seemingly). It was as if a new way of seeing was shown to me. On all the dirt roads there were overturned rusted out cars shot full of bullet holes- so dramatic! The colors in the sky and the quality of light made photographs look better. 

As for ending up at CLUI, I just thought it looked interesting. And they paid residents $500/week, and I needed money and wanted to get out of the midwest. Simple as that. 

You’re right, isolation is so emotionally draining. And yet I’ve put myself in isolating situations many times because it feels familiar to me. It’s definitely one of my unhealthy reenactments of childhood.  

Jessica Sowls, Seneca Army Depot (Upstate New York), photograph, 2007


If you found yourself alone in the desert in 2020 what would you do now?


Alone in the desert now... it would be interesting to do a rephotographic survey in the style of Mark Klett. How have these military sites changed? Is accessing them more difficult in the age of terrorism? I spent most of my time out there in 2002-3, before much of the funding for stricter security actually went into effect. On a return visit in 2007ish, for the "Reconnaissance" series, things had changed a bit, but most places could still be accessed. 

I'd also like to expand a project I started when living in upstate NY, but never did anything with. I was working at the Cornell library, digitizing aerial photos of the entire state taken from an airplane in the 1960s. I became fascinated with the photos that showed the construction of interstate highways across the landscape, and the ones that showed the now abandoned Erie Canal. "Progress" in the making and discarded, both unnatural slashes across the landscape, like ancient earthworks. I saved the aerials, with GPS coordinates, and drove around photographing what they looked like now. If aerials like that exist in a western state, it could be a good compliment to that project.

Do any of the ways of working or insights that you developed during these projects influence your creative work now? Feel free to use this as an opportunity to contextualize what you're up to now.


My creative artwork now is barely existent. I discovered that I enjoyed being creative with food more than what the kind of work I was doing was inevitably turning into- a lot of time on the computer. The earlier projects were shot on film and printed in the darkroom. That method was becoming hard to access and digital means had replaced film. The exploring and shooting was still available to me, but I never wanted to do anything with the work after that. 

The biggest lesson I learned from the CLUI experience was the harder I tried to make something that encompassed everything I wanted to say, the more difficult it became to make anything at all. I was fresh out of art school, just 23, when I got the residency and an additional emerging artists grant. I wanted to prove myself so badly. My own perfectionism ruined my art career. 


Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Casual Walk Documentation


Fantastik Exit, Sekhmet Shower, Michief Night
Witch Tree, LA Turrets, Swap Top
Cactus Joe's, Graffiti Discourse, LV Bunting
Swap Chandeliers, Liberace Pole, Curb Music 

From walks around Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Indianapolis, 2019-2020.

Monday, May 11, 2020


I don't know why, but this Tweet keeps coming true.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Travel Residue

From a recent journey west. Here today...

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Back on the Blogroll, Cloth Monuments, Chicago Moments

Is it too late to say Happy New Year yet?
Is it too late to give my 10+ year old blog a snuggle?

A couple weeks ago I screen printed a cloth calendar for an old year at Cat Head Press.

Reference material here:

Now I'm back in Las Vegas making new images that parse the influence my years in Chicago had on my art education.

Sources revealed!

Bauhaus tapestries (and architecture at IIT Chicago)

Wirsum (the best one)

Crumb. I did a lot of unabashed loitering at comics stores looking at Crumb.

No resolutions, but my interest in blog maintenance has been renewed.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Blabberque at Sugar Space

A band of artists from BBQLA rode through Indianapolis on the last leg of their Fool's Journey, a migrating yearlong exhibition.
The show, staged at Sugar Space, was accompanied by a performance dinner informally referred to as Blabberque IN.
Borrowing from the concept of the Jeffersonian Dinner, the performance assembled eight artists to parse a term of art jargon in whatever medium they saw fit.
The event lifted two main aspects from the Jeffersonian formula-- uniting deliberately selected guests invested in a common mission, and holding the floor for presentation on a single topic at a time.

As moderator, I (Erin K Drew) introduced the concept by acknowledging Thomas Jefferson's fucked legacy as imperialist slave owner, and stating an intention to downplay his contributions to the evening. I conducted the night dressed as a more benign Jefferson-- a Jefferson Airplane. Operating under the maxim that If You're Not Uncomfortable You're Not Doing Performance Art, I attempted to enjoy a slaw dog prepared by guest chef, artist Tre Reising, and multiple glasses of wine.

Presentations were given by:
Matthew Batty on Transcendence
Lisa Berlin Jackson on Problematic
A Bowden on Actuality
Bryn Jackson on Institutional Critique
Anna Martinez on Built Environment
Ben Martinkus on Appropriation
Breanne Trammel on Casual Institutions

Performance mediums ran the gamut from slideshow to sound performance, publication + Q&A (Martinez) to play (Martinkus).
Trammel distributed certificates of casual authenticity, inviting participants to forge credentials for their own areas of expertise.

Bryn Jackson, an IMA employee, acknowledged the tension of his role in absentia; a tv set stand-in sped through his selfies taken with the contemporary collection. While Berlin Jackson recited a nursery rhyme recounting fraught dynamics at the 2018 Whitney Biennial ("Dana Schutz for solemn thrill/appropriating Mamie Till") and beyond, Bowden confronted BBQLA's own problematic past, performing a text that referenced artistic intruders with "good intentions."

"I like to take a walk after dinner," Matthew Batty stated before leading participants on a meandering walk around the neighborhood. Strapped with a small amplifier which blasted mysterious audio into the dark, Batty tested a trio of places to lean an aluminum ladder before resting it in a patch of the Sugar Space garden bed.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


I regret to inform you that Putty, a live art talk show hosted by the author of this blog, staged monthly at State Street Pub, is THRIVING in its second season.
Beware of your talents, freakos!

It's been an eventful last several months, but I'll let the pictures do the talking:

In April I compared notes with conceptual taxonomist Mark Dion. It was my distinct pleasure to interrogate his professional practices and philosophies, engage him in a game of Over/Under/Correctly-Rated and listen to him read his itemized receipt from Midland Antique Mall like a Sunday devotional.

May marked the official Season 2 premier of the program, where First Season Erin and Second Season Erin clashed in a half-drag power struggle, ultimately retiring to make gentle love to one another (presumably)...

But not before exploring the motivations of sound sculptor John Collins McCormick--fan and friend of boredom and brooms--swaying to the gentle drones of ontological terrorist Gwendolyn.Dot, or taking in some of the scenic vistas of Marc Fischer's Hardcore Architecture!
The prolific Fischer hosted me as a Joong Boo Resident in September 2016. The show offered an opportunity to turn the table and spotlight his discursive practice.
All of this was flatteringly profiled by Charles Fox in the local alt weekly.

This month Art Assignment host and creator Sarah Urist Green applied her extensive knowledge of art history to name a racing horse made out of pool noodles, author Bella Bravo led us through one way to write subjectively, design duo Carlson Garcia provided some deep fried dialogue and St. Louis musician Miss Lady parsed her own love of putty.

Next episode, August 4, will feature photographer Jedediah Johnson, Indianapolis-born/Boston-based Caleb Cole and artist April Knauber.
More to come!