Some landscapes are celebrated as sacred sites because of the stories that are told about them, whereas others are marked as horrific sites of tragedy, humiliation, and cultural shame. To the uninformed eye, both places look the same—expansive, hilly, idyllic—which attests to the notion that every landscape is not just a physical place, but is also what theologian Belden Lane calls a “storied place.”
For American Tragedy Sites, first I research the historic place, and then I sketch, take photographs, and paint it. I finish the composition in my studio by mixing the rendered landscape with a totem of other symbols and nonobjective spaces.
Through the languages of realist landscape painting and religious icon-painting, I aim to honor these shadowed lands as holy lands, and to disturb conventional distinctions between what is sacred and what is shameful.
I believe certain landscapes offer insight into how we grapple with tragedy. Some sites of cultural shame are hidden away, avoided, or “obliterated,” to use geographer Kenneth Foote’s term. These sorrow-filled sites can get lost often by hiding in plain sight. For example, guests can pass through the old Hyatt Hotel lobby in Kansas City, drink coffee and mingle, and never know about the event that happened there in 1981—”the worst structural disaster in American history!” There is no plaque, no memorial, no spot to lay flowers or light candles. The historic event, then, is more easily forgotten.
This intentional oversight or forgetting happens all the time. If the memory attached to the site is too painful, or too shaming, the culture will attempt to erase it by re-landscaping or by destroying records. Salem, for example, kept no official record of the small hill where nineteen victims of the witchcraft scare were executed, so today its exact location is unknown. Likewise, the fence where Matthew Shepard was killed in Laramie, Wyoming, was promptly removed and the street names were changed to confuse tourists (“Out of sight, out of mind”). In both cases, the true location of the historic event lives on only in hearsay.
But now we have GPS, and landscapes push back, and people get behind them and lobby to have them preserved. The Minidoka Japanese Internment Camp site in south central Idaho, a true national shame site, was converted into farmland and torn down as quickly as it was constructed. But activists got funding and rebuilt its barbed-wire fence and ominous watchtower, two important communicators of the daily psychological experience of the Japanese-Americans imprisoned there during WWII. A few other elements of the Minidoka landscape remain: Fujitaro Kubota’s eerie rock garden, dusty labyrinthian pathways, the scorching sun, rushing river, and desert indifference.
If for some reason the actual tragedy site is truly lost or inaccessible, a culture will construct a miniature version, a memorial across the street. In the case of Matthew Shepard’s memorial, it is a bench at the university miles away. But there are also memorial gardens, parks, museums, and trees! There are memorial trees, like the prayer tree in the center of the killing fields of the Bear River Massacre site, probably the greatest forgotten Indian massacre in American military history. “The first and the worst,” and it’s also easily one of the most beautiful landscapes and memorials I have ever seen. The place is woven into a wide river valley in the foothills of the Rockies, swarming with wildlife, flowers, and hot springs (the Shoshoni vacationed there every winter). The tree is somewhat hidden next to others behind the official, unimpressive, monolithic memorial standing in a gravel parking lot next to a trash can. The tree’s lower half is covered in freshly made dream catchers, medicine bundles, stuffed animals, beaded necklaces, colored flags, and gem stones. Buckets full of toys and chewing tobacco hang from branches near the trunk.
Every January the surviving Shoshoni and others gather at the tree, refresh the offerings, and pray that the Warm Dance will happen again one day.