This Old Crater

A volcanic cinder cone near Flagstaff will soon become one of the world's most significant pieces of environmental art

"That's also how light has been worked into the cathedral," says Turrell. "Often the light that fills those spaces engenders more awe than any of the rhetoric from the priesthood."

Turrell says his idea for harnessing the natural awe of a place like Roden Crater began when he was young.

"This is the kind of thing I always wanted to do. As a child, I remember hearing about pyramids." When he was young, he visited the ancient Cambodian city of Ankor Wat, and Mayan and other Native American sites in Mexico and Central America.

He was fascinated, he says, "by the idea of those public spaces emptied of use--the mystery of what they are and were."

He was also drawn to the power of their places--their surroundings. "The people who built those places and others like Abu Simbel, or the great kivas not far from here, or Delphi in Greece, thought enough of those settings to make something happen there."

For the past 30 years, the magic of location and place have lured many artists out of the studio and into the land.

"Environmental art" and "land art" connote some sort of eco-gesture, a submission of human ambition to the facts of nature. But artists like Turrell, Christo, Michael Heizer, Walter DeMaria, Robert Smithson and others have looked to the land as a means to extend the power, scale and reach of their works. Their landworks are efforts to leave a mark, a monument that mediates between human and natural scale.

"You obviously can't compete with nature, but you might insinuate yourself into it," says Michael Govan, director of the Dia Center for the Arts, the resurrected and renamed Dia Art Foundation.

He sees Turrell's Roden Crater continuing the interest American artists have historically had in big light and big space. That continuum began with the Hudson River School of painters, evolved into the large-scale, late-19th-century paintings of the American West and became the large paint-filled canvases of the Abstract Expressionists and color-field painters. Critics have often likened the experience of Turrell's installations to walking into the atmosphere of a Mark Rothko painting.

Yet the beauty of Roden Crater was apparent long before the mustard-colored Caterpillar tractors and concrete batch plant arrived to turn it into a work of art. It was there before Turrell began thinking about enshrining his view of natural phenomena there. And long before the Hopi began referring to the crater and field of volcanoes that stretch from the San Francisco Peaks to the Little Colorado River as the "Testicle Hills."

Few places in the West have as much light on clear afternoons. It fills the air and soaks the surrounding green and tawny shag of rangeland with a brilliance that makes earth and sky appear to go on and on forever.

From the crater's rim, you can see more than 100 miles north across the gorge of the Colorado River and the beginnings of the Grand Canyon into Utah. You can see just as far northeastward beyond the Painted Desert to the Hopi Mesas, and east toward New Mexico. And as day goes down and night rises, the sky carries you millions of light-years back in time.

Before construction began, says Dick Walker, an astronomer who has assisted Turrell with the project since the mid-1980s, Roden had a "pristine beauty that was just awe-inspiring. I've been in deserts all over the world. But there's something about Roden Crater. You go out there, out where you can't hear any tires on the highway, and you feel like you're in another universe. It changes you after a half-hour."

Turrell says it makes you feel like you're on a planet flying through space.

Turrell began looking for the crater in 1974. Like many other artists at the time, he wanted to enlarge the scale of his installations and move them outdoors.

He had taken up flying and renovating antique airplanes in the late 1960s and wanted to create works that captured the light he'd seen at higher altitudes. He especially wanted to re-create an effect known as celestial vaulting.

"The effect," says Walker, "is like that of looking straight up at the sky through a paper-towel tube. It makes the blue look like it's right there, almost as if you could touch it."

The best place to do that was in a crater or other bowl-shaped place elevated above the ground.

Turrell says he needed what amounted to a clear, well-lighted place with few surrounding lights at night. He also needed a land form whose rim was high enough to block out the earth's horizon and the hazy-blue band that sits just above it. He wanted the rim to frame the pure-blue view of the sky you get by looking straight up.

Volcanoes were an ideal form. The West had plenty of them. With $12,500 in gas money from the Guggenheim Foundation, and a helio courier biplane adapted for aerial photography and surveying, he spent more than six months flying from the Rockies to the Pacific, Canada to Mexico.

He located thousands of craters. Yet Roden became his first choice. The high desert outside Flagstaff has about 290 clear days a year. The crater, at an elevation close to 5,000 feet, sat out at the end of the San Francisco Peaks volcanic field, far from urban lights. And it was on private property, a 22,000-acre ranch owned by Robert Chambers, which had been placed in a trust for his three daughters in 1969.

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