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  • Standing Witness, Site:Sage Creek

note: As Great Plains Quarterly begins its thirty-fifth year of publication, we continue to highlight scholarship and art distinctive to the Great Plains. Our Notes and News section will now include short accounts of creative activities we hope will be of interest to our readers. Our first entry comes from Amanda Breitbach and calls attention to a unique art exhibit created by Catherine Meier.

Artist Catherine Meier invited viewers during the summer of 2014 to appreciate drawings that represent the landscape of Badlands National Park, and also to appreciate the landscape itself—in person. Rather than confining her work to the gallery or museum setting, Meier projected it on site at the Sage Creek campground within the park.

By staging Standing Witness, Site: Sage Creek in the very place where the drawings were made, Meier allowed the work to “play,” she explained. Physically embedding the work in the landscape that it records creates opportunities for serendipitous interactions between the drawn place and the place itself. Prairie grasses, gently waving in the evening breeze, cast shadows on the projection screen. The sound of cicadas, passing planes, and birdsong become the soundtrack to silent images of the badlands.

A native of the Nebraska Sandhills, Meier investigates how humans comprehend and interact with a vast, open landscape, and aims to translate the state of mind and the state of being found in openness into visual terms. The drawings emphasize long horizons, layers of highly textured grasses, and rough, pockmarked earth. Occasionally, human and animal figures appear, but they are fleeting and soft, quickly covered up by land.

Equally important, the act of sitting before the screen, set in a position below the horizon line, successfully creates an expectant mindset different from the busy, active attitude we usually bring camping. As the sun begins to set, campers go about their evening business, cleaning up after dinners cooked on propane stoves, pitching tents, and considering whether to start a campfire. In one corner of the campground, a small crew of people assembles a large reflective screen and turns on a projector. A black and white drawing of a badlands landscape appears, and grasses made of graphite wave and nod in an invisible wind before the image slides to the left, replaced by the next drawing. Onlookers half approach the bright screen, stopping to watch the work unfold. People who traveled specifically to see the exhibit set up portable chairs, making a sort of impromptu theater. As the silent images move past, the crowd is hushed.

As the loop of images repeats, the crowd recognizes the starting place and our gaze moves outward, taking in the whole of the place as though it were the show. Silent and thoughtful, we see and hear the night as though it were theater staged especially for us. This heightened awareness is part of the goal of the work, which Meier describes as “an act of ritual, paying homage and attention.” [End Page 126]

Catherine Meier earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska—Lincoln and her master of fine arts from the University of Michigan. Her honors and awards include a 2013–14 McKnight Artist Fellowship, the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship for Graduate Study in 2006–9, and a Rackham Thesis Research Grant for travel and research in Mongolia in 2007. An upcoming exhibit at the Minnesota Institute of Arts will include work from Standing Witness, Site: Sage Creek. Her work can also be viewed on her website, http://catherinemeier.com.

Submitted by Amanda Breitbach, Graduate Fellow, Center for Great Plains Studies, and Instructor in Photography, Department of Art and Art History, University of Nebraska— Lincoln.

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