Green River Art Student Receives AHC’s 2020 Undergraduate Research Award

Each spring semester the UW American Heritage Center awards a cash prize to the best undergraduate project based substantially on materials—manuscripts, archives, rare books, photos, maps, audio, film and video—at the AHC.

Typically, the students’ projects are research papers, but they can take many forms, such as creative writing, artistic productions, websites or even group exhibitions, says AHC Director Paul Flesher.

This year’s award was given to Ben Nathan, a student of Professor Mark Ritchie of UW’s Department of Visual and Literary Arts. Ben is a UW senior pursuing a BFA in visual arts. His project titled “Views of the West-Then and Now” used journals housed at the AHC as inspiration for an artistic project.

Photo of Ben Nathan, a senior in the University of Wyoming's Department of Visual and Literary Arts. He won the 2020 American Heritage Center Undergraduate Research Award.
Ben Nathan is a graduating senior in
UW’s Department of Visual & Literary Art.

Ben describes his process of creating art based on journals found in the AHC’s collections:

For the past two years in my artistic practice I have become increasingly interested in landscapes. Most of my work focuses on creating a visual reflection of the memories I associate with specific places and times of year. Because I am from Wyoming, I find it easiest to focus on particular feelings and experiences as related to the landscapes I know most intimately, namely, Wyoming and surrounding states. Until recently, however, I have only made art that was informed by my own experiences in a given landscape. The work was purely introspective.

“Views of the West: Then and Now” is my first attempt at making art about someone else’s experience in a landscape with which I identify. To conduct the necessary research, I utilized the AHC’s wide-ranging archive to identify collections containing extensive journaling. My plan involved becoming well acquainted with the writings of two people who had spent time in or near Wyoming. Using their journal entries and selecting and focusing on a single day from each, enabled me to make a run of sixteen variable intaglio prints that I felt responded to the landscape seen on a particular day by each person. I sought to use one journal from the nineteenth and one from the twentieth century.

With help from the AHC’s digital catalog and leads from AHC staff, I identified several collections that seemed promising. With additional research online and at the AHC, I was able to narrow down to two collections that I thought would best suite my needs: the Gerhard Luke Luhn papers and the Edith K.O. Clark diaries. Once I had selected the two collections, I began to really dive into who these people were through the lens of their own journal writings.

The G.L. Luhn papers, which include Luhn’s journals and correspondence as he served in the 6th and 4th infantries between 1863 and 1895, held particular interest for me due to their brief and quick descriptions of weather and places he marched through. The entry that most caught my attention was a typewritten account of an elk hunt Luhn went on November 4, 1868, with several other officers near La Prele Creek when stationed at Fort Laramie. Many of the portable leather-bound journals found in the Luhn papers also inspired me to design the format for the leather portfolio that holds my “Views of the West” project.

Edith K.O. Clark was the Wyoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1915 to 1919. A dedicated journal writer, Clark’s journals were of interest to me because of her record-keeping style. Her journals are full of ticket stubs, photographs, postcards, plant specimens, and other such keepsakes glued to the pages alongside descriptive sections of handwritten text. In an entry that spans three days – June 14 to 16, 1916 – Clark describes a motor trip from Cheyenne to Denver. Drawing equally from the content of the entries and the interesting format of the journal, I was able to make an artistic composition that, to my interpretation, visually describes her summer journey.

After selecting the two specific journal entries, collecting the necessary information, and reflecting—with sketches and color selections—I was able to etch and prepare two copper intaglio plates, one for Luhn and one for Clark. To my interpretation, the plates served as a good starting point for visually describing the two unique western experiences. By printing these plates through a printmaking discipline known as “Intaglio,” I was able to pull one black and white print—to illustrate the etched qualities of the individual plates—and fifteen colorful variable prints for each plate. While making the prints, I used pre-selected ink colors and materials for Luhn’s and Clark’s plates respectively. By focusing on what I had learned from their journals, I feel that I was able to produce two small series of intaglio prints that visually represent the crisp air and quiet outdoor environment of an elk hunt (Luhn) and the sunny, dusty, nature-filled drive to Denver (Clark).

Upon completion of the thirty-two historically inspired prints, I reflected on one of my own memorable days in Laramie. It was a wintry February day filled with snow drifts and flurries, freezing temperatures, and beautiful vistas of the Snowy Range Mountains. Following the same pattern I used for the aforementioned works, I produced sixteen prints—fifteen in variable colors and one in straight black and white—to echo the work I had done earlier, but using another plate that I created to specifically represent that February day.

Finally, I arranged the forty-eight prints into three similar portfolio flipbooks. Each book was designed to hold the sixteen prints that were particular to myself, Ms. Clark, and Mr. Luhn. These smaller books make use of a blizzard binding technique which allows for each individual print to be easily removed, handled by a viewer, and replaced. I also made a larger leather-bound portfolio case to fit all three smaller books. When considered all together, I like to think that this large leather portfolio highlights the differences, and similarities, between three individuals’ very specific experiences with the landscape in and around Wyoming during three different centuries.

My time spent making research-based artwork has allowed me to recognize how much of ourselves we can project onto others’ experiences and has piqued my interest and motivated me to continue to use historical resources to inspire my prints.

The AHC congratulates Ben Nathan on his award, which is a $500 check. The AHC’s Undergraduate Research Award is given each spring semester. Every faculty member from every UW department is eligible to submit, on behalf of their students, two projects each semester. Students are welcome to initiate applications so long as the submission is accompanied by a letter from a faculty member. You’ll find more information about the award at a link on the AHC website.

  • Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener. Photographs of artwork by AHC Photographer Hanna Fox.


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