Each year, Grand Canyon is visited by millions of travelers seeking its beauty and tranquility. Very few realize that uranium has been mined in Grand Canyon. Far fewer realize that within a very short distance of where they stand and take in the beauty of the Canyon lie richly concentrated deposits of uranium. One has to imagine that if visitors knew of this unseen, toxic element bound up in that wonderous landscape, many would have a far different experience. It is a sublime landscape and one that harbors images of Gotterdammerung.
I've previously addressed the subject of nuclear science in paintings of nuclear facilities associated with the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. When I began work on a new project about uranium mines and facilities in the Grand Canyon region, I learned that uranium is found in geological structures called breccia pipes. I became fascinated with these vertical subterranean structure. It is interesting to note that they are essentially unknown outside of the energy and mining industries and a relatively small number of geologists.
To the general public, uranium represents an intense—but poorly understood—threat. Uranium in its natural state, as found in breccia pipes, emits relatively low levels of radioactivity and is not particularly dangerous. However, news reports of nuclear accidents like the 2011 catastrophe at Fukishima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, the historical photographs of the two atomic weapons dropped on Japan in 1945, and subsequent atomic bomb tests depict apocalyptic scenes of unimaginable power and violence.
I set out to explore the breccia pipes of the Grand Canyon region by bicycle and on foot in order to fully understand the landscape in which they are located. A few are easily accessible. Most are exquisitely remote. To date, I have ridden 230 miles on my mountain bike and hiked many miles to visit 51 pipes and mine sites. I do drawings in the field and photograph the sites. Back in the studio I produce finished drawings. My approach, inspired by Ed Rushe’s photographs of apartment buildings and parking lots in 1960s Los Angeles, is one of neutrality.
Few of the breccia pipes are visible. Their veiled and obscure nature is one of their characteristics that attracts me. In many cases, all that may be visible is a shallow depression caused by the collapsed strata below. The depression may be seen as a large, somewhat barren, circular area that will become a large mud puddle when it rains.It has been extremely rewarding to visit and experience each of these sites within the greater landscape context, knowing that they extend thousands of feet below the surface and harbor a powerful element. In contrast with the dynamic beauty of Grand Canyon as a landscape feature and a popular subject of art for more than 100 years, I have sought the subtle and nuanced expression of geological features that are largely unknown and unseen, yet capable of social and environmental violence of the highest order.