Thom Sawyer

100 Views of Baylor Canyon

The color drawings of this series were completed in the high desert of southern New Mexico at the foot of the Organ and San Andres Mountains. These low mountains form a boundary or barrier between the Rio Grande Valley to the west and the Tularosa Valley to the east. Two passes—Baylor Canyon and San Augustin—connect the activities of the largely civilian Rio Grande Valley to the Tularosa Valley, which contains one of the world's largest weapons testing facilities, White Sands Missile Range, as well as the Trinity Site, the location of the first atomic bomb detonation.

As a result, the drawings encompass many elements of everyday, quiet domestic life that stand in stark contrast to the growing global impact of national defense; the work of the home and studio take place next to a sprawling military-industrial complex, the activities of which regularly overflow the mountain barriers in the form of afterburners, aftershocks and extended periods of circling remote-controlled drones on training runs.

In a 2012 New York Times Magazine article, Mark Mazzetti described the Tularosa Valley's Holloman Air Force Base, which is the U.S. military's prime location for training drone operators:

Holloman sits on almost 60,000 acres of desert badlands, near jagged hills that are frosted with snow for several months of the year—a perfect training ground for pilots who will fly Predators and Reapers over the similarly hostile terrain of Afghanistan.

During his visit to Holloman, Mazzetti, along with several other journalists, observed how civilians unknowingly become part of military training operations:

…[W]e were taken into a command post where a large flat-screen television was broadcasting a video feed from a drone flying overhead. It took a few seconds to figure out exactly what we were looking at. A white S.U.V. traveling along a highway adjacent to the base came into the cross hairs in the center of the screen and was traced as it headed south along the desert road. When the S.U.V. drove out of the picture, the drone began following another car.

"Wait, you guys practice tracking enemies by using civilian cars?" a reporter asked. One Air Force officer responded that this was only a training mission, and then the group was quickly hustled out of the room.

Although the two worlds of the valleys clearly overlap, domestic settings dominate the drawings—no military actions are directly depicted, but rather are alluded to primarily through titles and the proximity of the ever-present mountainous boundaries. As such, the mountains play several important roles as geographic, political, visual and conceptual connectors or barriers between the valleys.

The series' title makes reference to Hokusai's images of Mount Fuji, which functioned as a symbol of national beauty, strength and pride. In the Baylor Canyon series, Mount Fuji has been replaced by a largely unknown, nondescript location and landform that, given the activities of White Sands Missile Range, could be understood as a symbol of national might. But those same activities, in their aggression and destruction, also bring hesitation and doubt that are almost imperceptibly juxtaposed against daily, domestic life.

The graphic qualities of the drawings—flat, largely uninflected lines, shapes and colors—further relate to the woodcuts of Hokusai as well as Hiroshige: a labor-intensive process filled with slow, careful observation used to reveal passing, ephemeral gestures of form, color, experience and thought.