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What once was: Vanished art project, on display at Cuesta, connects to former California icons

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How do you take a photo of something that doesn’t exist anymore?

What sounds like a batty Mad Hatter-esque riddle is one of the challenges photographer Byron Wolfe set for himself in his collaborative art project, Vanished: A Chronicle of Discovery and Loss Across Half a Million Years. Shared between a team of six artists, the project tackles four vanished California icons and the legends they left behind. This series of photographs, drawings, sculptures, essays, and poetry is currently on display at Cuesta College’s Harold J. Miossi Gallery.

JUST AROUND THE RIVER:  Byron Wolfe layers old photos (courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California) from 1914 of Ishi—the last member of the Yahi, a group of the Yana of California—fishing at Deer Creek in Northern California against newer photos of the river from 2012 in 'Perched atop 15 million-year-old Lovejoy Basalt.' - IMAGE COURTESY OF BYRON WOLFE
  • IMAGE COURTESY OF BYRON WOLFE
  • JUST AROUND THE RIVER: Byron Wolfe layers old photos (courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California) from 1914 of Ishi—the last member of the Yahi, a group of the Yana of California—fishing at Deer Creek in Northern California against newer photos of the river from 2012 in 'Perched atop 15 million-year-old Lovejoy Basalt.'

“It was just a matter of chance,” Wolfe said. “In general, I make photographs that respond to earlier photographs. I try to create a dialogue between the two.”

For most of the 20-plus years of his creative career, Wolfe’s focused on collaborative projects. Vanished came about as a result of his desire to focus his artistic endeavors on California and work with his colleagues at Chico State University in 2010. The team settled on four icons: The missing Mount Tehama (an eroded andesitic strato volcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc and Cascade Range in Northern California), Ishi, the last member of the Yahi tribe (he lived most of his life completely outside modern culture and at 50 years old, in 1911, he emerged near the foothills of Lassen Peak, Calif.), the fallen Hooker oak tree (a nearly 1,000-year-old large valley oak tree in Chico that fell in 1977), and a long lost Columbian Mammoth tooth (found in Bidwell Park in Chico in 2001, but later lost during a cleaning).

“I was interested in doing something that gave me a chance to explore places and things where I lived,” Wolfe said. 

One large image from the show is made up of a collection of older black and white photos in which Ishi demonstrates how to hunt salmon in Deer Creek in Northern California in 1914. The pictures are juxtaposed against recent photos Wolfe took of the same river in 2012. This piece, along with the rest of the Vanished show, aims to play with our relationship to and memory of the past. And while Wolfe never saw the Hooker oak tree in person, he fell in love with it through old photos.

GO BEFORE IT’S GONE :  The Vanished: A Chronicle of Discovery and Loss Across Half a Million Years exhibit will display at Cuesta College’s Harold J. Miossi gallery through Feb. 16, with an opening reception on Jan. 19 from 4 to 7 p.m. and an artist panel at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free and the gallery is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the first and third Saturday of the month from noon to 4 p.m. Visit cuesta.edu for more information.
  • GO BEFORE IT’S GONE : The Vanished: A Chronicle of Discovery and Loss Across Half a Million Years exhibit will display at Cuesta College’s Harold J. Miossi gallery through Feb. 16, with an opening reception on Jan. 19 from 4 to 7 p.m. and an artist panel at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free and the gallery is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the first and third Saturday of the month from noon to 4 p.m. Visit cuesta.edu for more information.

“I found 10 living offspring of the tree, so in slowly peeling away, I found it very much still exists in story and in its offspring,” Wolfe said. “All of these things no longer exist, but they exist in stories and in the imaginations of people who remember them.”

The work being done for Vanished is still ongoing (the Mount Tehama portion is currently underway), but the group lost some momentum in 2013 when Wolfe moved to Philadelphia for a job as an art professor at Temple University. However, things have picked back up in anticipation of the group’s first ever showing, which opened at Cuesta Jan. 19. Emma Saperstein, gallery coordinator at Cuesta, said this research-based art exhibit is a good fit for the college.

“It’s unique in that it’s really multi-disciplinary and that’s not always the case with art shows,” Saperstein said. “It touches on a lot of things verses art for art’s sake.” 

Ryah Cooley is gone, baby, gone at rcooley@newtimesslo.com. 

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