American artist Robert Smithson (1938-73) chose Rozel Point on the north shore of Great Salt Lake, Utah, to situate his first large-scale earthwork, Spiral Jetty. Created in April 1970, the work exists in the natural world as an unnatural feature formed through the manipulation of indigenous mud and rock. If lake levels are low enough, the 1,500- foot-long counter-clockwise coil is visible.
Spiral Jetty is surrounded by the variegated topography of the Great Basin and by equally varied land ownership. Immobile in the natural environment, no material markers delineate property lines for the 10 acres of leased land where Spiral Jetty resides. A “double world” (Smithson 1972: 229) exists of earthwork and those who provide its stewardship. Site and stewards come together to reveal the earthwork’s 10 acres to be fixed in a segment of the lake known as the “meandering zone,” as the ever-shifting shoreline continually alters where water meets land. Adjacent to this zone are property owners whose actions on their own land have sometimes been noted within the public sphere of Spiral Jetty.
Investigating the stewards of the double world advances a multi-organizational memory of one of Land art’s most iconic works. Herein, Spiral Jetty’s history unfolds chronologically beginning with Smithson’s request to lease land from the State of Utah to conceptualize then create an earthwork. As the timeline expands, the work’s visibility correlates to human activity at Rozel Point. By 2002 prolonged drought conditions resulted in Spiral Jetty’s extended exposure. Visitation to Rozel Point has increased, as have the number of regional organizations that have worked on behalf of Spiral Jetty.
The earthwork’s presence is sustained during long periods of absence while under the lake’s waters through a variety of mediums. Smithson created Spiral Jetty as earthwork, film (Spiral Jetty), and essay (“The Spiral Jetty”). Preparatory notes reside in the Archives of American Art. Smithson also executed a number of preparatory and finished drawings and maps. Unlike most work from the Land art movement that survives solely in documentary form as the work or performative action has devolved into the ground, Smithson’s earthwork remains intact, showing only moderate signs of erosion. During a radio interview conducted on May 30, 1973, by Dr. Stella Russell, Smithson responded to her inquiry regarding the earthwork’s longevity by saying, “it should be there indefinitely in some form. The basalt rock that makes up 80 percent of the Jetty will remain there. The Jetty hasn’t eroded or lost its shape, but it does go in and out of the water” (Smithson Papers).
The natural elements Smithson used to create his earthwork have independent histories that have merged with Spiral Jetty’s narrative. Great Salt Lake, a remnant of prehistoric Lake Bonneville that slowly receded from approximately 22,400 square miles to today’s 1,700 square miles, is terminal in nature. Diminishing water drew down materials resulting in lake sedimentation with high mineral content, which have been extracted since at least 1847 when Mormon pioneers chose the region to found a new city. Predating Lake Bonneville is Rozel Point’s Tertiary (66-2.58 mya) geology, including black volcanic basalt rocks intermixed with white limestone. Oil seeps located next to Spiral Jettyactively ooze asphalt-grade oil, drilled for eighty years by successive companies unsuccessfully. Extraction has also taken place at Rozel Point by commercial brine shrimp companies, who harvest these creatures for profit.
Today, the lake is a complex of ownership and activity spanning 1,034,000 acres (Utah Geological Survey). Stakeholders range from private to public ownership including business, nonprofit organizations, and the State of Utah. In 2012 it was reported lake use had “an estimated economic impact of $1.3 billion dollars a year on the Utah economy” (Fahys: 2012). Public access to Rozel Point for landowners and for visitors to Spiral Jetty renders it impossible to monitor all human activity at the site. Combining interviews and public documents – divided by dates based upon Spiral Jetty’s visibility – an entry to the double world emerges.
Many artists associated with the Land art movement created work in remote locations with minimal advertisement. Smithson approached the documentation and dissemination of information towards the Spiral Jetty differently. By early 1970 he was a mature artist receiving increased attention with each new work. As his interests led him to create temporary then more permanent art out-of-doors, he gained experience working with public and private entities to secure land for his projects. Working with his wife, American artist Nancy Holt (1938-2014), he negotiated several lease and land ownership transactions before looking for a site in Utah. When asked during a talk at the Art Institute of Chicago on October 19, 1971, about the shifting nature of artistic resources, Smithson replied, “a painting is actually an accepted convention. Art is really a portable commodity as it now stands. If you want to alter that commodity value, then you have to find an alternative. On one level you might say that I’m dealing with real estate rather than commodities…”(Smithson Papers)
In March 1970 the couple leased 10 acres on Great Salt Lake from the State of Utah. A Special Use Lease Application, SULA 222, administered through the Division of State Lands, was granted for a period of twenty years at the cost of $10 per acre. With lease in hand and the financial backing of his gallery director Virginia Dwan, Smithson hired a construction company to build his work, which was accomplished over two weeks in April.
During a 1971 talk at the Art Institute of Chicago, Smithson remarked on obtaining the lease: “They were just amazed that anybody would even want to bother with it, at least the land from the State of Utah. The Lake itself is owned by the federal government, and then the main land is private. The area where I worked is state land and that’s called the Meander Zone” (Smithson Papers). Construction foreman Bob Phillips recounted Smithson’s preparedness for the job, stating “there were permits, and he had a lease on the ground from the state; he had a permit from the Bureau of Reclamation to remove the rock; he had a remediation plan, or a way to put it back together after he was done” (2005: 187).
Commercial maps were amended by Smithson to situate the earthwork, including one created for Hillam Abstracting and Insurance Agency that identified the meandering zone and Rozel Point landowners (Cooke 2005: 187). He also created his own maps, including one drawing detailing the graded road from Golden Spike National Historic Site (GSNHS) to Spiral Jetty complete with abandoned vehicles found on route (Cooke 2005: 117). Smithson provided survey coordinates to his site in essay and film, elevating cartographical information to the status of art: “Township 8 North of Range 7 West of the Salt Lake Base and Meridian: Unsurveyed land on the bed of the Great Salt Lake, if surveyed, would be described as follows. … Containing 10.00 acres, more or less (Special Use Lease Agreement No. 222; witness: Mr. Mark Crystal.)” (1972: 232).
In a letter dated December 30, 1971 (Smithson Papers: 3835/802) Smithson wrote to Crystal requesting his twenty-year lease be extended in perpetuity:
My reason for the request rests on the fact that the “Spiral Jetty” is a work of art made by me at my own expense. A perpetual lease would grant me greater security if I should ever have to invest more capital to repair or restore the jetty in the future, or transfer the lease to an art institution, should they want to own the “Spiral Jetty” and have it as part of their collection to preserve the work for future generations.
Crystal’s January 6, 1972 response informed Smithson his request was denied, but the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) would reconsider it once his active lease had run for fifteen years, delaying the decision to 1985 (Smithson Papers: 3833/442).
Great Salt Lake measured 4195.40 feet in altitude when Spiral Jetty was constructed. By April 1973 the earthwork was submerged under three feet of water. That year the The Salt Lake Tribune published the first local article on the Jetty intended for a broad readership. Few residents knew of the earthwork’s existence due to the site’s inaccessibility:“…Smithson was in Utah for months, studying the geology and history and pre-history of the place, before he began to build, and in all that time nobody in the Utah art world knew what was up” (Beck: 1973). In contrast to the international art world’s knowledge of the work, the article was an uninformed tribute too late. Published on August 5, Smithson’s background and works were discussed in detail but never mentioned was the fact that on July 20, only several weeks earlier, Smithson had died in a plane crash in Texas.
Visually dormant, Spiral Jetty remained under water until 1993. In 1990 Holt became sole owner of the earthwork’s lease after the original twenty-year lease expired. SULA 889 replaced SULA 222 and was issued to Holt for a period of twenty years, to expire in 2010.
Lake levels reached a twenty-year low in 1993, prompting local television station KSL-TV to air a segment on August 25 showcasing the newly emerged earthwork. The broadcast, along with several regional articles on Spiral Jetty, prompted local interest. In a Salt Lake Tribune article visitors unclear where to locate the earthwork, were “told that the rangers at Golden Spike National Historic Site might offer directions to the earth sculpture. . . Surely enough, they reached under the counter and presented us with a map to the jetty” (Van Wagoner: 1993).
National and international interest in Spiral Jetty was also heightened in 1993 with the commencement of two exhibitions of Smithson’s work, both of which featured Spiral Jetty through photographs and the 1970 film. Robert Smithson: Photo Works opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, then traveled to the International Center for Photography in New York City. Robert Smithson: Une Rétrospective: le paysage entropique, 1960 – 1973 opened at the Centre Julio Gonzalez in Valencia, Spain, then traveled to Brussels, Belgium and to Marseilles, France.
Spiral Jetty’s reemergence prompted staff at GSNHS, the nearest public facility to the earthwork, to take an active role in becoming the local clearinghouse for information and maps. The “office compiled a notebook of information regarding the Jetty (as well as on [Holt’s] Sun Tunnels, located west and south of the site near Lucin, close to the Utah-Nevada border)…[Chief Ranger Rick] Wilson began to visit the Spiral Jetty and included photographs of the Jetty taken at differing times of the day. . . ” (Doğu 1996: 50-51).
Smithson’s utilization of mapping and cartography as artistic medium to situate Rozel Point was continued on a utilitarian basis by GSNHS. Another organization, The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) has merged artistic and utilitarian intention through their investigation of how our country’s land is apportioned and used. Founded in 1994, they chose Wendover, Utah, to establish a non-urban interpretive exhibition and residency center in 1995. Structures are filled with maps, providing visitors and artist residents with the means to not only understand the surrounding landscape but to view it as an extension of the artistic process. Their website (www.clui.org) provides a vital source of information through their Land Use Database. When the database was created in 1996, CLUI became the first organization to post information online regarding Spiral Jetty.
The earthwork’s visibility waxed and waned for a few years during the mid-1990s, prompting Holt to consider long-term, institutional stewardship for the work. In a press release issued on September 17, Dia Art Foundation announced their acquisition of Spiral Jetty “as a gift from the Estate of the artist.” Elucidating upon the work they acknowledged, “Smithson considered adding further material to ensure that his artwork would be visible more often. As yet this has not been done” (Dia: 1999).
Stewardship of Spiral Jetty thus became multi-organizational as well as multi-dimensional, extending beyond the boundaries of the lake. Based in New York City, Dia entered into a partnership with DNR in Salt Lake City, which transferred the earthwork’s lease from Holt to the nonprofit. Another partnership was forged as Dia began to work with The Estate of Robert Smithson to assure copyright of the earthwork is properly maintained. Many works of art fall under copyright protection; the Spiral Jetty is no different even though it is situated in the landscape, not secured in a museum. Although copyright lies with both Dia and The Estate, photographic rights for images of the earthwork intended for publication are reserved by The Estate, represented by the James Cohan Gallery in New York City (www.robertsmithson.com).
The same year Spiral Jetty was gifted to Dia, the western United States began to see the effects of a severe drought. Regional articles noted the drastic effects the drought had on Great Salt Lake as dry conditions continued into 2000 and beyond. The Salt Lake Tribune reported “in 1999, according to the USGS report, stream flows in southern Utah were at or below average, but at or above normal for northern Utah. In 2002, stream flows in the north and south were between 35 and 59 percent of normal” (Burton: 2003).
As lake level’s decreased, the Spiral Jetty became increasingly visible for longer periods of time. Established in the 1990s as a regional destination site through the media, photographs of the newly emerged work surrounded by the lake’s occasional blood red waters drew even further publicity. An interpretive ranger from GSNHS stated, “we have absolutely nothing to do with it, but we probably get about three to 10 calls a week from people asking for directions” (Buttars: 2002a).
While some visitors anticipated seeing the markers Smithson mentioned in his directions, others complained about the abandoned artifacts situated near “must see” art. A full-page article in the Salt Lake Tribune entitled “Junkyard at the Jetty” summed up their sentiments: “All kinds of debris, much of it bullet-riddled, litters the approach to the Spiral Jetty earthen sculpture . . . broken-down vehicles and metal scraps dotted the horizon . . . with the Great Salt Lake at its lowest in nearly a decade, the Jetty and the junk have been getting a fair amount of attention in recent weeks” (Buttars: 2002b).
The complaints gave rise to a difficult question: if cleanup of the area were undertaken, who would manage it? Karl Kappe of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands (FFSL), property overseers where the disused materials resided, mentioned “the Environmental Protection Agency came in about 10 years ago and hauled away a lot of the stuff” (Buttars: 2002b). Remaining were debris from thirty oil wells from the 1960s: rusty wellheads, metal tanks and vehicles, tires, and rusted objects. Additional debris was leftover from an abandoned brine shrimper’s camp: according to Kappe, the property owners were not interested in participating in the cleanup.
The ensuing cleanup at Rozel Point occurred in 2005 through the work of Dustin Doucet of Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM). Doucet approached FFSL in 2004 when lake levels were low enough to facilitate the project, turning the cleanup into a joint venture under the umbrella of Utah Geological Survey (UGS). Funding for the project was “secured from the legislature and through a 2-mil levy paid by operators on the production of oil and gas. A portion of that tax is set aside each year for what is known as the ‘orphan well’ program” (Utah: 2006).
The project was completed during December 2005 as “eighteen loads of junk were removed from the lake bottom and causeway, in addition to the plugging of the wells” (Utah: 2006). FFSL determined, due to the historic nature of the region and their interest in its preservation to leave intact “some old wood pilings and historic stone building foundations” (Milligan: 2006). The cleanup was not communicated to Dia’s administrators, nor were they informed of the directional road signs installed by FFSL, situated between GSNHS and Rozel Point, pointing visitors to Spiral Jetty.
The drought led to increased visitors to Rozel Point due to the earthwork’s prolonged visibility, which coincided with the first United States retrospective of Smithson’s work, entitled Robert Smithson. The exhibition opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in the fall of 2004, traveled to The Dallas Museum of Art, then concluded at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in October 2005. This was the same year Dia broadened their stewardship of Spiral Jetty through the publication of their book Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty (Cooke: 2005).
By 2005, the Western drought showed signs of ending, particularly in Utah as “communities across the state recorded precipitation amounts ranging from just above normal for a water year to almost 200 percent above normal, according to the National Weather Service” (Nielson-Stowell: 2005). The next issue regarding stewardship of Spiral Jetty was not triggered by the lake’s fluctuating level but rather by what lay underneath its waters.
The frenzy of oil exploration and production across the West – spurned on during the last few years of George W. Bush’s presidency – aroused concern toward the impact such actions would have regarding several long-term monumental earthworks. During the summer of 2007 Holt appealed to the Bureau of Land Management regarding mineral leases offered for sale within the sightline of her work in Utah’s west desert, Sun Tunnels (1973-1976).
Active oil exploration near Rozel Point had not occurred since the mid-1980s, then in late 2007 a routine drilling application was submitted to the state of Utah. Despite many failed attempts to extract high-grade oil in the region, Pearl Montana Exploration and Production LTD, a Canadian oil company, submitted a request to DNR to establish a drilling program within Gunnison Bay next to Gunnison Island, five miles southwest of Spiral Jetty.
News of the application spread quickly: within four days recommended actions to stop its approval appeared internationally. Art historian Serge Paul developed a blog (www.spiral-jetty.blogspot.com) titled “Spiral Jetty vs Oilzilla” to track documentation and media related to the permit. Inundated with protests to stop the application, DNR changed the January 30, 2008, response date to February 13, giving DOGM more time to collect public comment.
The diverse agencies that voiced their opinion against the application spoke to the wide range of interest regarding the lake. FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake – a nonprofit with expertise across multiple disciplines – was just one group whose membership wrote individually to protest the application. Dia administrators wrote a public letter to stop the application and issued a press release on February 6 asking the public to write their own letters in protest (Dia: 2008). By the end of February, Utah media were in agreement drilling should not take place, voicing opinions similar to the February 17, 2008 Deseret News editorial “Don’t deface Spiral Jetty’s ‘canvas.’” As public support to preserve Spiral Jettycontinued, the discussion took on a new tone leading to broader concern for the lake and the irreparable damage an oil spill would cause to its ecosystem. Gunnison Island became a location of critical importance to the earthwork. Drilling for oil in the area’s shallow water could lead to unknown consequences: many argued an oil leak or spill would forever damage the lake’s habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem.
On August 7, Dia was informed DOGM denied Pearl Montana’s application resulting from noncompliance to requests for additional lease information. This decision came as welcome news to those 3,500 and more who voiced opinion to protect the land near Spiral Jetty as well as the lake’s delicate ecosystem. The process of public input very directly swayed the state’s decision during a time when economic and political factors led stakeholders to look to Great Salt Lake as a resource to be mined, rather than as an attribute to be preserved.
Rozel Point’s history of oil extraction was one reason Smithson chose the location he did for Spiral Jetty. He found in the landscape “pumps coated with black stickiness rusted in the corrosive salt air… A great pleasure arose from seeing all those incoherent structures. This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes” (Smithson 1972: 223). Many wondered how Smithson would have reacted to Pearl Montana’s application and how he would have endeavored to use his art and writing either to support drilling or to protest it. Challengers believed another active oil operation close to the earthwork, which was consciously situated in 1970 next to active oil extraction, would have suited Smithson.
In 2008, mindful of the myriad resources and uses of the lake, Utah’s Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. established a “new panel to help decide how to manage the lake for future generations” (Fahys: 2008). The Great Salt Lake Advisory Council was composed of twelve members with representatives from diverse groups including conservation, politics, and industry. Huntsman’s goal of studying and determining the lake’s management continues today under his successor. In early 2013, FFSL released the “Final Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan and Record of Decision.” Their management of the lake’s sovereign land resources extends to Spiral Jetty, located in the meander zone line.
Despite the removal of debris in 2006, Rozel Point still displays signs of human activity, informing visitors they are not far from civilization. During a trip to Spiral Jetty in February 2008, our group rounded Rozel Point to discover the air pollution across the lake was so thick, it appeared they were standing on the shores of a primordial ocean with the promise of an unobstructed view dead-ended. The reality of humanity’s impact on the natural environment loomed large, even in this remote segment of Utah. New York Times reporter Kirk Johnson was present to write an article (2008) on Spiral Jetty and Pearl Montana’s proposed application. How does one emphasize the importance of the lake and the need to protect Spiral Jetty when Gunnison Island was blocked from view? Johnson raised pertinent issues in his article, from the shifting perceptions of land use since Smithson’s time to the modern-day challenges of protecting Land art in remote areas; however, there was no protection from the dense screen of opaque air surrounding the horizon line that day at Rozel Point.
In late fall of 2010, visitors to Spiral Jetty found the last three miles to the site had been rebuilt. Box Elder County Commission, during a weekly meeting in October learned their Tourism Board had “been petitioned to help with improvements on the Spiral Jetty Road so it could improve access to a tourism point…” The Commission was informed “the Tourism Board approved $18,000 of tourism grant money to go towards the grinding and building up of the Spiral Jetty Road…” (Box Elder County: 2010). The rebuilt road reduced the number of flat tires on route to the Spiral Jetty; yet for some, it not only removed large boulders and gutted terrain, but the notion that the journey was one of hardship won through perseverance.
Once again Dia administrators were not informed of this regional change. During that time, the organization had been focused on photographing Spiral Jetty from a fixed aerial point to systematically document the site. Dia collaborated with The Getty Conservation Institute in 2009 and 2010, photographing the earthwork through a helium-filled weather balloon and customized camera. A New York Times article summarized part of Dia’s concerns regarding the earthwork’s preservation, citing changes due to the drought as well as potential “industrial projects near the site” (Kennedy: 2009). Beginning in 2010 Dia’s registrar increased the documentation process, employing a Utah-based company that specializes in geospatial services to photograph the site twice annually. Dia then catalogs images along with lake levels to observe changes.
Dia’s efforts over the past fourteen years have focused on documentation through photographs, scholarship, and the maintenance of a permanent gallery devoted to Smithson’s works at Dia:Beacon. In 2012 they entered into a partnership with Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah. These organizations, in concert with DNR, work to keep each other informed of changes that may take place on or near the 10 acres where Spiral Jetty resides. Whereas past SULA leases were issued for twenty years, the 2012 “lease was issued for 10 years…the state will review it in five years to ensure Dia has established local collaboration…” (Warchol: 2012).
Spiral Jetty was created during the Land art movement, one of the few works that still exists in physical form. With no material markers denoting the earthwork’s leased land, its physical presence will always remain in a double world of site and its stewards. Smithson may have situated our gaze towards Great Salt Lake with Spiral Jetty in view, but we have no sense of boundaries other than what our eyes can see determined by atmospheric conditions and what our senses and mind can perceive.
The double world of earthwork and its supporting individuals, agencies, and organizations will continue, even if new stewards replace old. While Smithson’s explorations in land reclamation continue among contemporary artists who alert us to climactic changes, Great Salt Lake will continue to be altered through human intervention by multiple stakeholders. The events of the past make way to the next unwritten chapter of how land at Rozel Point will be cared for, utilized, and perceived – and how future events will impact Spiral Jetty.
Box Elder County Commission. 2010. Minutes. October 05. http://siterepository.s3.amazonaws.com/
00065201010131142078652.pdf. Accessed April 17.
Burton, Greg. 2003. “Rains Fail to Quench Drought.” Salt Lake Tribune, May 9.
Buttars, Lori. 2002a. “Back From Sleep in the Deep.” Salt Lake Tribune, August 28.
Buttars, Lori. 2002b. “Junkyard at the Jetty.” Salt Lake Tribune, September 21.
Cooke, Lynne, and Karen Kelly, eds. 2005. Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty: True Fictions, False Realities. Berkeley: University of California Press, in association with Dia Art Foundation.
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http://diaart.org/press_releases/main/26. Accessed April 17.
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/rozeljetty_revisited.htm. Accessed August 8, 2008.
Nielson-Stowell, Amelia and Deborah Bulkeley. 2005. “Drought’s Over: Tallies at end of the water year delight experts.” Deseret News, October 5.
Phillips, Bob. 2005. “Building the Jetty.” In Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty: True Fictions, False Realities, edited by Lynne Cooke and Karen Kelly, 184-197. Berkeley: University of California Press, in association with Dia Art Foundation.
Smithson, Robert and Nancy Holt Papers, 1905-1987. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Smithson, Robert. 1972. “The Spiral Jetty.” In Arts of the Environment, edited by Gyorgy Kepes, 222-232. New York: George Braziller.
Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining and Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. 2006. “Great Salt Lake Eyesore Reclaimed.” January 18. https://fs.ogm.utah.gov/pub/DOGM/Press_Releases/
2006/press_rel_01182006.PDF. Accessed April 17.
Utah Geological Survey. 2011. “Great Salt Lake,” http://geology.utah.gov/online_html/pi/pi-39/pi39pg04.htm. Accessed March 11.
Van Wagoner, Carol. 1993. “Journey to the Jetty.” Salt Lake Tribune, November 30.
Warchol, Glen. 2012. “Agreement reached to protect Utah’s iconic Spiral Jetty.” Salt Lake Tribune, January 12.
Smithson, Robert. (1970). Spiral Jetty, 16mm film, color and sound, 35 minutes. Distributed in video formats by Electronic Arts Intermix, NY.
has taught art history at Westminster College since 2006, and has also taught at the University of Utah and Weber State University. Her extensive exploration of Spiral Jetty was published by The University of Utah Press and the Tanner Trust Fund in a book titled “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo: Exploring Robert Smithson’s Earthwork Through Time and Place” in 2017; it won the 15 Bytes Art Book Award in 2018.
Categories: Visual Arts