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BMOCA’s Tracking Time: The Colorado River and Us

BMOCA’s Tracking Time: The Colorado River and Us


Two Denver-area artists with deep relationships to the Colorado River Basin come together this summer at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art for a lively meditation on our environmental past and future. “Tracking Time,” by Chelsea Kaiah (@chelsea.kaiah) and Noelle Phares, presents several dozen newly commissioned works of contemporary art based on science as well as Indigenous ways.

For millions of years, the Colorado River has carved spectacular scenery and thrilling rapids through what is now the American Southwest and northern Mexico. Today, from its source in northern Colorado near Granby, it passes through seven states and 11 US National Parks, providing water for tens of millions of people.

“Tracking Time” started taking shape back when Pamela Meadows was BMOCA’s curator. When Jane Burke took the reins, she recognized an opportunity “to broaden the conversation about water scarcity and other environmental issues” based on multiple artists’ personal experiences and their ideas on how humanity’s relationship with nature can improve.

Valentino James’s GPS Map of Book Cliff Hunting Area

The word “tracking” in the exhibit’s title, Burke explained, derived from the idea of making art related to current technology and science. Phares’s use of landscape and poetry offers a form of “data mapping, in that she’s translating data through these depictions,” Burke said. Phares holds a degree in environmental science and consulted with her sister, hydrologist Dr. Natalie Collar, in preparing for the show. Analogously, Kaiah’s art, which is based in part on her father Valentino James’s GPS cartography for the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, offers what Burke described as a “contemporary approach to ancestral traditions of Native skillwork, couching her story in the present moment” by incorporating manufactured materials such as video, plastic tarps, and Mylar.

Several of Kaiah’s pieces use the skins of animals she hunted herself. Kaiah, who is Ute,Apache, and Irish, has practiced the respectful and sustainable hunting methods of the Apache people since childhood. Her family hunts in Utah along the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado River.

In addition to Native materials and practices such as beading and leatherwork, Kaiah brings traditional concepts into her art practice. Kaiah prioritizes recycled and reused elements and other sustainable materials, and she honors as art what some might dismiss as “craft.” Kaiah explained that she describes Native practices as “skillwork” to “emphasize the amount of labor, time, and energy that goes into creating a masterful piece. You can’t just pick it up and be fantastic at it.”

Kaiah’s art also works with gender. Recently, she exhibited a series of drums she made that cannot be played, in acknowledgment of her own interest and curiosity but also her people’s prohibition on women drumming. In several pieces for “Tracking Time,” Kaiah evokes the fluid gender identities of her tribes’ Two Spirit people, blending the conventionally male role of hunting with the traditionally female roles of curing hides and processing hunted animals for food and other uses.

Phares’s relationship with the Colorado River Basin began on the water itself during a three-week rafting trip through the Grand Canyon several years ago. Last fall, she returned to the river to conduct the research behind her dozens of paintings in “Tracking Time.” Departing from her 14-month-old daughter and her busy Lakewood studio, which sells 10,000 prints of her work annually, Phares spent almost two weeks and drove 2,500 miles in her camper van to gather photographs and make sketches.

Phares’s paintings often contain a critical element, such as the faint outline of a building that might be built in a pristine natural area unless it is protected, but mainly she uses beauty to inspire and “lets the landscape take the lead.” “I’ll symbolize these things that are happening,” Phares said, “but I also am trying to make it visually appealing, because that’s what makes me want to spend time with it. And I think that’s what makes people want to look at it.”

Phares’ painting of the Grand Canyon

“As a landscape artist,” Phares said, “my relationship with the land is the starting point.” In addition to studying the land, Phares observed how the river gives meaning and wonder to its many visitors: “I wanted people who also had their own relationship with the places I was painting to be able to at least see a shadow of those places in the paintings. It was important to me to look at the other viewers at those landmarks and just watch how their faces changed, overwhelmed with the magnitude of it. I wanted people to get a sense of that feeling that might remind them of their own relationship with that place.”

Tracking Time (Exhibit runs May 23 – September 2)
Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art
1750 13th St., Boulder, CO 80302

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