Vast Views and Small Stones
A Trip to the Eastern Sierras with Artist-in-Residence Ilana Halperin
by Kirstin Bach • July 21, 2015
Halperin at Mono Lake. (Photo by Kirstin Bach/Exploratorium)
Mono Lake is an amazing landscape. The lake has no outlets and has been fed for thousands of years by the mineral-rich precipitation runoff of the surrounding mountains, creating salt-rich and alkaline waters. The waters are slippery to the touch, almost soapy. Most wondrously, calcium rich water from lakebed springs mixes with the carbonate lake water to create intricate and impressive limestone tufa towers.
I recently took a trip to see Mono Lake with Exploratorium Artist-in-Residence Ilana Halperin. Glasgow-based Halperin is interested in geology. Her work relates human time scales to “deep time” scales. For example, she has explored how our bodies can generate hard masses like gallstones and kidney stones over the course of several years. How, she asks, does this process compare with the formation of the rocks and landmasses around us?
Our work with her is part of the Museum as Field Station, a collaborative project of the Center for Art & Inquiry and the Bay Observatory. The Museum as Field Station project pairs artists with scientists working in field contexts and will present their collaborative work in the Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery starting in 2017.
Mono Lake. (Photo by Kirstin Bach/Exploratorium)
Mono Lake was one stop in our trip to the Sierras. We were also headed that way to meet Becca Fenwick of the University of California. Fenwick manages the UC Merced Field Station in Yosemite and is helping to launch an initiative to invite people working in the arts and humanities to collaborate with scientists at the various UC field stations across California. The synergy between Fenwick’s work and the budding Museum as Field Station project was obvious.
Halperin and I planned a trip to meet Fenwick at her field station in mid-May, a normally temperate month for travel in the Sierras. We also planned to visit the Mono Lake area in the Eastern Sierras, a geothermal hot spot and an area of many volcanic and geologic wonders.
Undeterred by the closure of mountain passes because of unseasonably cold weather, we took a circuitous route around the higher mountain roads to reach the Eastern Sierras. This was a long drive through cold and wet weather, but we were determined to visit Mono Lake. Our spirits were lifted when we saw mists rising from a roadside hot spring along Highway 395 in the Eastern Sierras. We would likely have missed it if the steam hadn’t been visible in the cold air.
Roadside hot springs. (Photo by Kirstin Bach/Exploratorium)
Once in the Mono region, the landscape truly delivered inspiration for Halperin and a much needed return to elemental exploration for me. On our excursions, we explored Mono Lake and its three kinds of tufa, limestone, and sand, and the more crystalline-shaped Ice Age tufa. We also walked along a crater rim; scaled a now-above-ground ice-age formerly under-water volcano; discovered pure black obsidian boulders; held feather light volcanic pumice; and wandered through the multicolored rock strewn piles of the Obsidian Dome. We looked up at the vast vistas of mountain, lake and sky, and looked down at our feet to find rock treasures that we could hold in our hands. Somehow each view, both the large vistas and the small rocks, held just as much information and wonder as the other.
Ice Age Tufa. (Photo by Ilana Halperin)