It looked like just another Persian rug, patterned with a symmetrical array of flowers and curlicues. Yet it was oddly monochromatic, its color a red ochre not common in Middle Eastern carpets. Nor was its material common. This 8-by-15-foot rug was made of red Oklahoma dirt. Red Dirt Rug was the ninth such work produced by Rena Detrixhe. Many viewers think her rugs resemble Buddhist mandalas or Navajo sand paintings; there are few similarities though, with the exception of temporary existence and a somewhat comparable medium. Detrixhe’s dirt rugs are no less intricate, however.
The high clay content of Oklahoma’s red earth provides the stability required to accommodate three-dimensionality. Detrixhe begins with a drawing, then incises her relief-like design into the soil with hand-carved stamps made from discarded shoe soles. Sometimes she carves the soles, and sometimes she doesn’t, using, for instance, the designs on the bottom of sneakers to create repetitive textures. The shape of a woman’s pump creates patterns of leaves and flower petals.
The physical process is laborious. Detrixhe grinds and sifts the dirt—250 pounds, in this case—through silk to refine it and eliminate pebbles and other extraneous material. Then she starts in the middle, smoothing the dirt out in a perfect layer with a tool something like a mason’s trowel. She does not use water. Working from her plan, she creates a central medallion, followed by subsidiary symmetrical patterns, borders, and flowers echoing one another on either side. There are also subtle references to oil wells and other human interventions in the land. Detrixhe has said that she finds the repetitious nature of the work meditative. A graduate of the University of Kansas now living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she calls herself a hunter-gatherer. She orients her work toward landscape and found objects, using seeds, dried wild fruit, ice, and resin raindrops.
Interesting ideas spring from Detrixhe’s sculptural trompe l’œil. In her rugs, dirt masquerades as a desirable material object and thing of beauty. Paradoxically, this is dirt you can’t walk on, or even touch—which can be a matter of some frustration. In this show, the white silk cloths through which Detrixhe filtered the soil (a process that turns them a muted orange color) hung on the wall. It would have been nice to have a sample of the dirt itself for viewers to handle and perhaps smooth into a mini-rug, even alter with a Detrixhe stamp in order to prove how the eyes can be deceived and to learn something of this fascinating process. At the end of the exhibition, Detrixhe’s dirt was ceremonially swept up—but, unlike the sand of mandala paintings, it wasn’t thrown into the sea. It will be recycled into the next Red Dirt Rug.