The Tumamoc Hill Arts Initiative: A Portfolio of Site-Based Art and Writing Inspired by a History of Sonoran Desert Science
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The Tumamoc Hill Arts Initiative
A Portfolio of Site-Based Art and Writing Inspired by a History of Sonoran Desert Science

A Context for Arts on Tumamoc

Paul Mirocha and Eric Magrane

Early on a recent May morning, artist Meredith Milstead set up her easel outside of the historic Desert Lab buildings on Tumamoc Hill and proceeded to paint the scene before her over a twelve-hour period, completing one painting per hour. A study of color and time, the act of making these paintings echoes the historical research on Tumamoc. Much of what is known about deserts comes from Tumamoc Hill, either through research at the site itself or through the impressive list of those—a who’s who of desert ecologists—who have worked at the Hill over the years. It’s not a stretch to claim that the modern field of ecology owes much of its beginning to the Carnegie Desert Botanical Laboratory established on Tumamoc Hill in 1903. Long-term study plots set up by these early ecologists comprise the longest-running vegetation-monitoring program in the world.

That some of the current activity on the Hill is in the form of art or poetry is a reflection of the growing awareness that scientific and artistic ways of knowing are not in opposition but can be, rather, complementary to each other. In a time when climate change has us facing increasing temperatures, drought, and wildfire here in much of the Southwest, and when increased acknowledgment that the disciplinary silos that have built up over the last couple of centuries are not up to facing such big questions alone, it is fitting that Tumamoc Hill is one of the sites that has embraced the role that artists and writers may play in the present, an epoch that many have begun to call the Anthropocene. [End Page 265]

Making distinctions between artistic and scientific practice often brings up questions about the nature of knowledge. One is the dichotomy where science searches for an objective truth that is universal and not dependent on the observer, whereas art is more comfortable in the subjective realm: embodied personal experience, moral and emotional focus. The distinction between the objective and subjective is a useful starting point, to be sure, but we don’t want to replay this framing for too long. Rather, we’d like to present art and poetry as a form of inquiry that is valid in itself as a source of environmental knowledge.

Since 2011, Paul Mirocha has been artist-in-residence at Tumamoc Hill. He describes his role as an on-site ambassador for the Hill, facilitating the work of other artists and writers who are attracted to the site for their own reasons. “I’m inspired by the resulting community of independent, yet like-minded people, and it helps me think out my own work,” Mirocha says. Embodying a kind of bioregional ethics and close engagement with place, the work in this portfolio complements a recent (2013) book, This Piece of Earth: Images and Words from Tumamoc Hill, which gathers poetry and art done on the Hill in the previous two years (

Artists and poets working on Tumamoc have a deep sense of the ecological and human history there. Kathleen Koopman examines a century of artifacts hinting at the everyday lives of Tumamoc’s researchers. She catalogs found objects like a historian, yet is most interested in the ambiguity of these found objects, the stories that will never be known. Painter Meredith Milstead is developing a color palette specific to the light and times of day at the Desert Lab. It’s a form of research into the subjective qualities of light that may play a subliminal role in how people feel about and form an attachment to a particular place. Paul Mirocha is rephotographing the Spalding-Shreve long-term study plots from an artist’s point of view, learning the history of the plots, and keeping a field journal...