Since his first installation, A Line, Issued Out of the Ground (1994), which traced the ties connecting dam construction and Chinook salmon deaths in the Columbia River Basin, Flagstaff-based Shawn Skabelund has been creating large-scale, site-specific, socio-political works that explore what Wendell Berry calls the “unsettling of America,” namely, the effects, marks, and changes that humans make on the land and cultures of a specific locale. Skabelund’s installations give viewers the time and space to think about the local communities, economies, and ecosystems that they inhabit and to initiate questions about their responsibilities and their place on earth and in the order of things.
An essential component in all of his work is a collaboration with place: as Skabelund prepares each installation, he researches local history to learn how interactions between the wild and the human have determined the direction and cultural make-up of a community.
For example, A Toll on Earth (1998) explored the slaughter of bison on the great plains, while Land of Exploitation (1999) presented ideas about the purchase of Alaska, or Seward’s Folly, as a way to siphon natural resources, specifically oil, for the lower 48 states. Pioneer Spirit (2004), which was exhibited in Mankato, questioned the largest mass execution in U.S. history—the hanging of 38 Dakota Indians convicted of terrorist activities in Minnesota—and tied it to events in Iraq. When Burrowing into the Earth (2007) was exhibited at the Central School Project, Inc., in Bisbee, Arizona, the nearly contemporaneous coal mining tragedy at Crandall Canyon Mine in Huntington, Utah, offered a disconcerting echo of its central themes.
Gregory Byard: First, why Bisbee?
Shawn Skabelund: I really enjoy researching, learning about, and creating art that explores small communities outside mainstream culture. We live in such a diverse country, each community with its own unique culture and full of its own vivid history. It is this history that interests me, as well as what we as a society have or haven’t learned from it. In its heyday, because of the copper mining industry, Bisbee was one of the biggest cities in the West. But since the mine closed in the 1970s, it has been transformed into a small arts community, where serious artists and writers live, work, and share their craft with others. I was blessed to be one of those artists who got to visit and create something for the community.