By Published: Dec. 6, 2017

Traveling east of Denver, as the landscape flattened, and trees and houses became scarce, George Perez (BFA ’14) stared out the car window and wondered where in the world he was going.

Perez, who graduated with a degree in fine arts, was headed to Byers, Colorado, where the 2017 Art and Rural Environment Field School was being held. The intensive three-week field course is designed for students interested in exploring the unique relationship between art and the Western American environment.

His reaction to the unfamiliar landscape became a transformative experience for Perez, who had never seen the sparsely populated grasslands of the High Plains of eastern Colorado.

“The landscape was like a culture shock,” Perez said. “It was such a different type of environment. I didn’t even know a landscape like that existed in Colorado.”

Perez is an artist in Denver and an artist-in-residence at the Denver Children’s Museum that will wrap up next month. Recently, he participated in a group show titled, Archives As Muse, an eight-person show with the nonprofit ArtHyve. He conducted research with the help of the archivist/librarian in the Western history and genealogy collections in the Denver Public Archives as inspiration for art.

The pace of life in the rural areas was much slower than what Perez was used to in Boulder and Denver. Not finding inspiration for a photography project, his usual medium, Perez became antsy and eager to get started on a project. But what?

“It felt like I should be doing something, like digging a hole for a couple of hours,” said Perez, whose primary medium was photography. “My ‘aha’ moment happened that day when I realized artwork could be less 2-D-based and parallel more a performance or a conversation.”

Realizing that digging a hole could be a potential, Perez started making art.

The revelation led to an art project that showed his field school experience from a different perspective. To do that, he attached a cell phone to his belt and made a video of his trips to the hardware store and the laundromat while pushing a wheelbarrow that held his items. The waist-high viewpoint shows his hands on the wheelbarrow handles and the scene in front of him as he walks along and talks with the friendly townsfolk who stopped to offer him rides.

“There were no restrictions on the art I chose to do at the field school,” he said. “I felt like I could make artwork in a different environment and learn from that. You have a surge of energy. You’re radiating to be productive.”

Richard Saxton, associate professor of sculpture and post-studio practice, is founder and director of the Art and Rural Environments Field School.

“More and more, I’m seeing students with no experience of being in unfamiliar territory, of knowing how to encounter things that are different from what they know,” Saxton said. “The field school gives them a sense of how big the world is and how many different things there are to make artwork about. They internalize their rural experiences and make art that tries to represent those experiences.”

 Man working in an open field

While living and working together in rural environments, students create artwork specific to the landscape using a variety of mediums, from sculpture and printmaking to photography and ephemeral assemblages. The field school is designed to expand students’ definition of what a studio practice can be while exposing them to new vistas.

Although the focus is art, the field school is open to students in any major, as well as non-CU students.

Two weeks of the three-week course are spent in Colorado making art in any medium. One week of the field school takes place on the road. Last year the group visited parts of Kansas and Oklahoma. During long hours on the road, students conducted readings and discussed wide-ranging topics, such as deep looking, local history, sociology, environmental issues and poetry.

Professional artists who work in the rural milieu were invited to give workshops and talks. At the end of the field school, they held an open reception, art show and barbecue for the residents in the Byers area.

“The students create a community with 12, 14 people they’ve never met before,” Saxton said. “You’re on a journey and there’s a lot of transformation that takes place during that time. Artists have moved beyond a time when they’re being defined by being in a studio.

“The field school is an experiential course,” he said. “I’ve had students who were terrified to travel to small towns turn around and focus on that the next semester. I’ve had students not know what they were going to do after they graduate and decide to go to graduate school and study this type of work.”

Sam Arcara, who’s from New York City, is drawn to wide open spaces. What brought him to CU Boulder was the physics department. Growing up in a household of artists, he wanted to continue taking art classes while studying physics. Eventually, he realized art called to him in a way that physics did not. This May, Arcara will graduate with a bachelor’s of fine art in sculpture and post-studio practices, with minors in art history and philosophy.

“Much of my artwork pertains to rural environments and the natural landscape,” Arcara said, “which are often overlooked by mainstream culture. The field school’s interdisciplinary and immersive experience allowed me to go so much deeper in my work.”

One of his projects was a piece that addressed the water shortage on the Great Plains. Lying beneath the land is the Ogallala Aquifer—one of the world’s largest. Water to irrigate crops is being pumped out faster than it can be replenished, which inspired Arcara to weld a small-scale version of a center-pivot irrigation sprinkler. He then froze his sprinkler in a block of ice and placed it on a bed of native grasses he had gathered and left it to melt.

“The premise was, we have this delicate balance of life supported by water in a warming global climate,” Arcara said. “It’s not something that can be supported indefinitely. Eventually you are left with this relic sitting in a dry field. That was the end result of my project.”

The field school is a partnership between CU Boulder Art and Art History and the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design in Washington, D.C. Students can earn 6 credits toward completing a degree. The field school is also supported in part by the Office for Outreach and Engagement’s arts and humanities initiative and Continuing Education

The 2018 Art and Rural Environments Field School will be held in Conejos County, Colorado. Learn more.