Wrangell Mountains-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, McCarthy, Alaska, 2016
In the fall of 2016, I was an artist-in-resident at the Wrangell Mountains Center in McCarthy, Alaska. My application proposal was to remove myself from the daily obligations of my home economy in Flagstaff and use my skills as a draftsman to create a series of beautiful drawings using historical mining artifacts in situ and juxtapose them with a pertinent natural object from the land. These drawings would explore and document the history of copper mining and its impact on the landscape, similar to the glove drawings I have composed for thirty years.
When my proposal was reviewed and then accepted, the residency committee realized that I was a place-based installation artist and they quickly invited me to come up and spend my two weeks "collaborating with the place" by researching the area's cultural, ecological and economic history, and then design a site-specific installation signifying that place. So, instead of drawing, I soaked in and immersed myself in the majestic landscape of the Wrangell Mountains. I took a tour of the Kennecott Mine processing and concentration mill and spent time at the McCarthy Museum digging deeper into the history of the area. And I hiked into and climbed up to three of the five mines that were part of the Kennecott Copper Mine: Bonanza, Jumbo and Erie. While climbing out of the last mine, Erie, which sits on the edge of the mountain like an eagle's nest, I found myself falling headfirst into negative space over a cliff. Through some miracle, I landed on my feet, and then continued hiking the four miles back to Kennecott.
Because of the discovery of high-grade copper ore in the Wrangell Mountains in 1900, the Alaska Syndicate was born. Made up of wealthy families, Havemayer, J.P. Morgan and Guggenheim, they formed the Kennecott Copper Corporation to develop several mining claims in the area. Seeing an opportunity, John Barrett homesteaded land at the mouth of McCarthy Creek in 1906. In 1907, construction of the Copper River & Northwest Railway began, stretching from the shipping docks of Cordova to the mill at Kennecott some 200 miles away. Barrett then leased his land to the railway for a train depot and locomotive turn table. McCarthy soon became the support town for Kennecott miners and mill workers, its culture the hub of prostitution and alcohol, which were strictly forbidden in the company town of Kennecott five miles up the side of Root Glacier.
Near the end of my residency, I explored the woods across the road from the McCarthy Museum and came upon the locomotive turn table. The 65' diameter circular rail was now overgrown with organic growth of lichens and forbes. I imagined a pure circular ring made of copper reflecting in the sun. I would scrape and clean the lichen and plant life off the top of the rail and burnish and polish it smooth. I then would size and gild the rail with copper leaf to create a circle of copper that would glisten on the forest floor.
Excited about my idea, I procured permission from the Barrett family who owned the property the rail sits on, but I was unable to receive consent from the conservation board to make my idea a reality.
On August 27, 2016, I hiked into the Bonanza Mine, which sits just below the ridge on a steep talus field. The bunkhouse had collapsed, so I entered into the tramway house with its thick and massive 12" x 12" Douglas fir timbers. As I explored inside the structure, I came upon a leather glove sitting on a window shelf. I had the distinct feeling that there might be more gloves stashed away in other parts of the building. I thought, if there is one glove, there must be more, so I began hunting. My instincts were correct. High above my head on a darkened shelf, I discovered a midden of nearly three dozen gloves covered in grease and debris. I imagined they had been used to lubricate the thick cable and pulley and then tossed up into that niche and left behind in 1938 when the mine was closed and the town of Kennecott vacated - never to be discovered until I serendipitously discovered them. I removed the gloves from the shelf and spread them out onto the floor to photograph and document. I then found some rusty nails and attached them to the vertical beams. I knew that someday I would return and reclaim them for my work.