Monoliths materialize from time to time. That’s what monoliths do. Last month, one showed up in Crystal Peak Park, 10 miles outside of Reno. Tall, blocky, minimalistic, and with the requisite amount of mystery surrounding it, the U-shaped brutalist object is the first of two flanking sculptures that will mark the endpoints of the Washoe ArTrail—a 200-mile-long county trail project that is planned to stretch from Verdi to Gerlach, passing through towns and tribal lands, displaying yet-to-be commissioned artworks along the way.
Designed by ROAM—an art collective made up of father and son architect and artist team Jack and Davey Hawkins, geographer Kerry Rohrmeier, and photographer Scott Hinton—the sculpture is a naturalistic take on the kind of bizarro open-air mausoleum you might expect in the high desert. It is made of rammed earth taken from Nevada soils. It marks a resting place that is more commemorative of the land than it is of any one person—although it does make reference to the Washoe with an inscription that reads, “umšáša deťeɁyi” translated to mean “land of your mother’s sister.”
Inside, the walls of the monument almost (but don’t quite) close in on the viewer, leaving a gap for peering out at a sliver of the Sierras to the west. A polished steel mirror that doubles as the floor reflects the sky. Both elements, coupled with layers upon layers of compressed, multi-colored soil, soften the rigid geometry and looming stature of the sculpture and invite the visitor to consider themselves to be a part of the landscape, too.
It’s beautiful, basic in a literal sense, and—of course—very mysterious. Last month, I met with one of its creators, ROAM artist Davey Hawkins, to get a better idea of what the sculpture is all about.
Can you talk about how this project got started?
Washoe County got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a big community development grant [Our Town]. Their proposal is to create a nearly 200-mile-long bike trail, and our commission is to mark the ends. So we consider these portals to the trail, and we chose to construct them as kind of open, architectural spaces made entirely of rammed earth. We thought it would be interesting and significant to use native Nevada soil because it is what is shared and common among all people here.
Did you use soil from this site?
Not on this exact site, but nearby.
How do you create a rammed earth structure?
What you see here was a system of formwork—hollow walls that tie together with special ties. It’s similar to making a concrete wall. So we built the formwork incrementally, going upwards. We fill the forms with earth and a little bit of Portland Cement and water. Mix it in a pile, dump it in with a tractor, and we have these big hammers that compress the earth to a compression strength that is sufficient for a building. Everything is done to specific building codes for earthquakes, and it has rebar in it, too. It’s a permanent work and should be around for a long time. It’s one of the most ancient ways of building a wall, actually. There are rammed earth walls all over the world that go back to the beginnings of built dwellings. And you can see that it’s a natural process because you can’t get perfectly straight lines. … So this is a layer, this is a layer, this is a layer. You do it a layer at a time.
How long did this project take from beginning to end?
The rammed earth structure took 10 strenuous days. Before that it took a couple of days preparing the site with a foundation, and before that about two years of design and planning.
How was your collective, ROAM, selected for this commission?
There was an RFP—a request for proposals—from the county, and so we applied for it. It was a design competition and I don’t remember how many teams applied, but we made the shortlist, and we made the commission.
What can you tell me about the inscription on the front of the sculpture?
“Umšáša DeťeɁYi” is the Washoe place name for this area. This was given to us from a friend from the Washoe tribe who thought it would be nice to have it inscribed here. It was one request from the tribe when we were going through reviews and public hearings.
Were there other changes that you made after hearing input from the public?
The design is pretty true to what we started off with. Besides the addition of the text, we got a great grant from The Nature Conservancy—through the county—to landscape this entire burned area out here. It will be really nice, just a planting of all native plants. Sage and rabbitbrush, horsetails.
Looking at the sculpture from the path, it’s clear that it is supposed to be entered. Why was it important that the design allow visitors to walk into the structure?
I think that it’s important because this is an active trail, and this kind of sculpture—for me—is about experiencing your body and space. In a couple weeks there will be a mirrored, polished piece of stainless steel that will reflect the sky, that frames the peak. It’s just about feeling the weight of the earth around you and feeling your own body in the space.
So, this sculpture and the one that will go up in Gerlach in the spring—they will bookend a destination trail for people wanting to travel from one end to the other?
I think that’s the idea. I’m sure some people will do the entire 200 miles. And then the trail stops at historic markers, places of interest, and in the long term there will be more works of art commissioned along it.
It is called the Washoe ArTrail, so…
Yeah, there should be. I would think so. We felt it was important with these pieces to commemorate what’s unique to this place, this geography. Not any one specific history or group of people, though, so that it can be—in a way—universal to this place. Same in Gerlach. The one out in Gerlach will be much larger. Just two parallel walls that you can walk through.
You said this was the first project you did with ROAM. Are you planning on doing more together in the future?
Not at the moment. We still have Part Two of this project. Maybe in the future we’ll go after more public art projects but, yeah, it’s really nice to collaborate with people. I think one of the reasons we got the commission was our ability, because we didn’t hire a contractor to build this. It was just my dad and I and Scott and Kerry and a few really good friends who volunteered their time. We couldn’t have done it without the know-how of friends and the know-how of my dad [an architect]. We had to get a full set of instructional and civil engineering drawings all done and passed through the building department as if we were building a building, so it was a pretty lengthy process.
I guess that is part of the artistic process when you’re making public art.
Yeah, there’s all sorts of stuff I didn’t know about. There’s insurance policies that you have to carry, and just being liable for this thing for a long time. It took a good solid two years from the time we got the commission to actually building it. There’s lots of reviews it had to go through from different government agencies and it was tied into this other development project to build this other road here. But [Washoe] county was great and very accommodating and did the road here which was huge.
How much did this project cost?
I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say that or not.*
OK. How does this piece fit in with your larger body of work?
With my own body of work I’ve always been interested in geology, deep time, land, the relationship between nature and culture, and environmental change. I think all of those things are always on my mind as an artist, and in some ways this work is an exploration of those themes, just in a building project. We wanted to think of a way to make a space and a monument of sorts in an environmentally friendly way. [Using rammed earth] is a way of building that is fairly sustainable and long-lasting and minimalist in its use of material. It takes a lot of labor, but produces hardly any waste—which is usually not the case with construction projects. That felt important.
*Hawkins followed up that he is unable to disclose the project cost at this time. Initial press releases from 2017 indicate a grant amount of $75,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, but this may have changed since the initial reward.
The ribbon cutting for the Washoe ArTrail is Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 3 p.m. in Crystal Peak Park in Verdi, followed by a reception at the Jesse Hotel in Reno at 4:30.
Cover image: The ROAM collective includes architect Jack Hawkins, photographer Scott Hinton, geographer Kerry Rohrmeier, and artist Davey Hawkins. Photo: Courtesy of ROAM.