Artist Heather Green spent many childhood days and nights in La Cholla, a headland along the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Her family had a one-room cabin built there by her grandfather in the early 1960s. The cabin was built up against a hill overlooking the rocky reef and featured jalousie windows all around. With no electricity in the place until the 1980s, many of her childhood memories, as she writes, "are rooted in this simpler existence with gas lamps, a gas refrigerator, and magical star-filled nights. We would explore the tide pools when the tide was out, swim when the tide was in, wander through the canals of the estuary, climb the fantastical granite boulders, and walk aimlessly around the unnamed labyrinthine dirt streets . . ."
Green's work is rooted in this personal connection. She is an artist eager to dig through the archives, paw through a professor's collection, and include historical veracity in her work.
"Vermilion Remains," on view at Mesa Contemporary Arts in the Mesa Arts Center through August 7, uses scientific and cultural archives from midcentury to document the disappearing biodiversity and fishing-camp culture of La Cholla.
An adjunct professor at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College, Green's show succeeds by presenting a juxtaposition of archival research with artistic interpretations, and by its scavenger hunt-like arrangement.
The exhibit mixes 31 oil paintings of varying size and dimensions with 15 glass vitrines filled with debris from an old dump site, and includes evocative bits of narrative captured like clues on numbered manila cards.
When you walk into the exhibition space, there is an archive card-dispensing mechanism. It is a spool of 3-by-5 letterpress cards made by the artist. Each visitor is invited to remove one perforated card. A sign reads: "Flip your card over to find the painting or vitrine that corresponds to your number."
You could end up with one of three categories of cards: fish specimen label, fishing shack location, or historical anecdote.
Some of the cards show a letterpress map of the La Cholla area with a building's location circled on it, like one saying, "White corrugated house, #38." These are arranged next to species specimen cards: "Paralichthys aestuarius, mex: Golfo de Calif; Sonora," or "Strongylura exilis," which may be next to a recollection like this one:
1943, Mrs. Roh: "Soon there was a sort of winding sand road through the cholla cactus to the slough at the end of the bay. When the wind blew and you could not fish — which was often — you took a shovel, some old rugs, boards, and lots of friends to push the truck when it got stuck and headed for Cholla Bay to dig clams. It took only a few dozen shovels full of the blue gumbo to fill a gunny sack of mussels and clams. No one ventured further toward the ocean, and Cholla Bay was reached only by going around Pelican Point by boat."
There is a lot of underlying conflict in Green's work. "Vermilion Remains" is interested in a way of life that is on the verge of collapse, for humans and for sea life.
14 April 1972, Dr. Joseph F. Schreiber: "Slopes are covered with the dark grey wx pelecypods but cannot find any in place. THEY APPEAR TO BE OLD!"
According to Green, "The biodiversity has been greatly compromised by over-fishing and irresponsible development. Not all development is harmful, but projects that destroy key habitats such as an estuary can do a lot of damage."
Her research was galvanized by interactions with CEDO Intercultural (Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans) located in Puerto Peñasco, a 20-minute drive from La Cholla. The center has been active in protecting these environments and working along with fishermen and the community to try to develop sustainable habitats.
She also had the opportunity to look at dive logs (in some cases illustrated and salt-stained) and photograph fish and marine specimens at Dr. Donald Thomson's office at the UofA's Fish & Invertebrate Collections.
What ties the show together is the bits of information revealed on the cards.
Dr. Donald A. Thomson a.k.a. DAT: "The sand flats were magical at night. I remember wading in the shallow waters of low tide with Coleman lanterns, flashlights, buckets & dip nets as the shovelnose guitarfish, a ray that resembles a shark and known to locals as 'shovelnose sharks,' swam by hugging the bottom searching for emerging burrowing invertebrates."
The paintings consist of marine life in jars, simple dwellings, a screen door, or a gate. The largest painting is of an empty building: ceiling fans still, windowpanes here and there broken, blinds haphazardly drawn or missing. We learn it is #22, "Old Boy's Social Club."