Threading the canyon
USC Lancaster professor, artist leaves mark in New Mexico desert
By Craig Brandhorst, CRAIGB1@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3681
This summer, University of South Carolina Lancaster art and art history professor Fran Gardner completed a three-week artist-in-residence program at Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northwest New Mexico visited by 40,000 people annually. The residency, which Gardner calls “one of the most important artistic experiences of (her) life,” was funded by a creative and performing arts grant from USC’s Office of the Provost and by her home campus. The park provided lodging in exchange for a piece of artwork, which will go on permanent display at the park’s visitor center.
“The intention from the very beginning was to complete the piece at the park and to leave it,” Gardner said. “I guess my one regret would be that I didn’t get to live with the piece as long as I would have liked. When I left it I felt a little sense of loss, but I was very pleased that everyone at the park was so excited about the work.”
Gardner had visited Chaco Canyon briefly several years ago while working on another project. She was drawn back by the rugged desert landscape and its sharp contrast to the lusher, more familiar terrain of the Palmetto State.
“There is just a drastic difference between the landscape here and the landscape there,” Gardner said. “I’m not a landscape artist by any means, but the influence of the landscape comes into my work pretty heavily—its color; its organic forms, shapes, lines.”
Gardner was equally inspired by the pre-Columbian ruins of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon’s largest Great House, built by the Ancient Pueblo people between the 9th and 13th centuries.
“You get some very definite shapes in the doorways and windows, but where the walls are crumbling you get some beautiful organic shapes, too,” she said. “The compositions are there. All you have to do is decide which part you want to focus on.”
To beat the heat, Gardner departed early each morning for the Pueblo Bonito ruins, where she drew and painted details of the architecture onto heavy watercolor paper. Upon returning to a makeshift studio at the visitor center, she sewed colorful threads directly into the paper. Ultimately, large swaths of the images are heavily sewn, though the stitching is not immediately evident.
“I’m an artist, not necessarily a stitchery artist,” Gardner said. “I applaud the form, and I love the form—I embrace it, or else I wouldn’t do it—but do I want that to be my label? Not necessarily, no.”
Once completed, the images were mounted onto 30 6-by-6 inch collaged wooden boxes then arranged into a horizontal mosaic to complement the view of the canyon wall as seen through the visitor center window. The finished piece is a series of subtly textured images that are paradoxically figurative yet abstract, soft yet substantial—the semi-permanence of stone translated into fabric.
“The thread is so delicate, so ephemeral,” she explained. “It doesn’t last a thousand years. It’s going to go away—it’s going to fray, it’s going to decay over time—but the more you sew, the more substantial it becomes. And when you layer and layer and layer you get something pretty doggone tough. While it still isn’t going to last forever, there’s something in that concept that appeals to me.”
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