Where the Desert Meets the Sea: 6 & 6

Scientists and artists team up on works about the Sonoran Desert and the Gulf of California

“Cottonwoods” by Benjamin M. Johnson, 2018, oil on canvas, is on exhibit as part of 6 &  6, continuing through March 31 at the UA Museum of Art
“Cottonwoods” by Benjamin M. Johnson, 2018, oil on canvas, is on exhibit as part of 6 & 6, continuing through March 31 at the UA Museum of Art

Once upon a time, 10 million years ago, there was no Baja California.

No Sea of Cortez.

The land that would one day break away to become the Baja peninsula was part of what's now called the Sonoran Desert. No water, no sea, ran between them.

Eight million years ago, under the force of tectonic shifts, a small portion of that land broke away from the mainland; water rushed into the breach. By six million years ago, the narrow fissure had lengthened considerably.

By the time four more million years passed, two million years ago, the sea and the Baja looked roughly what they look like today: Baja California stretching some 760 miles north to south, and the Sea of Cortez—also called the Gulf of California—distant from the mainland by 30 miles in its narrowest parts and 150 miles away at the widest.

Artist Tom Baumgartner and geologist Scott Bennett chart this fascinating geologic history in six illuminated maps now on view at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in the exhibition 6 & 6.

In this group show six artists and six scientists worked in teams of two, investigating the extraordinary ecology of a land where a desert meets the sea.

Organized by Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers—a group founded in part to highlight the threats to the fragile borderlands by aggressive border enforcement—the members recruited photographers, a painter, science-artists and even a poet to pair off with scientist partners.

Like the others, Baumgartner and Bennett each used their own specialties to create their project. Bennet provided technical paleo-tectonic maps that revealed the slow changes over time, of mountain ranges tilting, valleys being carved out, and the "long narrow trough" of the Gulf of California forming and flooding, according to the gallery text.

Baumgartner in turn used his experience in data visualization and illustration to make the brightly colored maps that tell this origin story. Covering the entire region, the pair's new maps serve as a broad "canvas" for the five other installations investigating the territory today. These projects inspect the desert's hearty plants, peculiar creatures and waterways, among them the Rillito River in Tucson, the mysterious pozo wells in northwest Mexico and the Gulf of California itself.

That sea, Baumgartner and Bennett write, has the "richest estuary on the planet, marine diversity comparable to the rainforest and a magical paradoxical intersection of a teeming ocean life and a harsh desert."

A wild boat ride across that teeming sea, caught in a visceral video projected large on a gallery wall, is the highlight of "Bycatch," the show's most gripping project,

Maria Johnson, an artist-scientist—who researches the gulf's shrimping industry—and poet Eric Magrane climbed aboard the trawlers and sped across the waters with local shrimpers. Their bracing video captures the blue waters of the sea splashed into the air, birds flying overhead and, on the bottom of the boat, piles of writhing fish, some of them already dying.

As shiny and colorful as fish in a Dutch still life painting, these creatures, routinely caught and discarded, are shrimping's collateral damage. Johnson and Magrane enlighten us with the numbers: no fewer than 13 species of fish and other marine animals regularly die on shrimping runs. Besides various species of fish, the dead among them include charismatic fauna of the likes of loggerhead sea turtles and the Pacific sea horse.

Johnson's ink drawings of these casualties also hang on the walls and Magrane's recorded poems, playing on a continuous loop, provide a funeral dirge.

The pair has also set up a restaurant table right in front of the video, where putative diners can see the dead fish. The table is laden with faux shrimp in cocktail glasses and a menu book with poems by Magrane. A few lines: "it is snowy white/already ghost-like, the edge/of three generations/what was twenty fish is now one."

Nearby, an installation by artist Heather Green and herpetologist Taylor Edwards, explores Punta la Cholla, on the gulf coast. In an earlier project, Green made poetic dioramas about the ghost nets left behind by fishermen; floating through the sea they strangle untold numbers of marine creatures.

This time, she and Edwards were on the lookout for the reclusive chuckwalla, a lizard native to these parts. A series of artist books chronicling their quest line the walls; below, delicate engravings on translucent mica record the chuckwalla's DNA sequences.

Even more interesting is a delicate table display of things natural and human-made that the duo found as they roamed: the whitened bones of desert tortoises; smashed and rusted sardine cans; and pale-green sherds of jadeite pottery mugs.

Closer to home, photographer Kathleen Velo and Michael Bogan, an aquatic ecologist, created an engrossing wall work that tracks the water flow of Tucson's own Rillito River. (It mirrors Velo's previous inventive project testing the waters of the Colorado River.)

Working in 2017, in a winter of heavy rains, when the water ran for weeks through the normally dry riverbed, Velo made underwater photos of the river overhead. The images of the turquoise waters, some soiled, some not, are placed alongside informative text in a giant schematic map of the Rillito.

Photographer Chip Hedgcock, noted for his black-and-white images of bugs writ large, here switches to beautiful color in photos of the desert's diaphanous plants. To ward off the desert's burning sun, these plants have sparse stems and few leaves, allowing old sol's rays to go safely through them. Hedgcock joined forces with botanist Mark Dimmitt to document these plants in text and image.

Ben Johnson, a talented semi-realist painter, and botanist Ben Wilder, who directs the Tumamoc Hill desert lab, traveled to the Gran Desierto of northwest Mexico to puzzle over the pozo wells that act as oases in this parched landscape.

They made a wall installation of elegant paintings and video that show the austere beauty of this stark place, where water is unexpectedly found and thriving trees spring up in the driest of deserts.