The Permian Basin lies in Southwest Texas and the bottom right corner of New Mexico. Sitting a bit north of it is a small ranch that my Great Grandfather pieced together for grazing his cattle. Today, my father and his sister lease this property out to a rancher, a hunter and an oil company. While our ranch produces a relatively small amount of crude, great pride in the oil industry runs through the area. There is a thriving economy surrounding it and everyone is happier when there are more jobs and more money.
I became particularly interested in the oil industry after reading a New Yorker article claiming that the Permian Basin was arguably, “the hottest oil and gas play in the world”. The oil boom that this part of the country is experiencing is due to the “fracking revolution”, which is coinciding with the Trump administration’s loosening of regulations.
My paintings began with a trip to this part of Texas and New Mexico. I did not look at the oil and gas industry exclusively. From there, I visited sacred places for my family, like my Grandfather’s ranch and the small town of Spur, Texas where my Grandmother Betty grew up. I went to Marfa and visited the Chinati Foundation. I went to two National Parks and saw friends in Las Cruces and Carrizozo. In my diary, I wrote “some of the nicest and friendliest people that I have met. Charming small towns and hardworking people.”
The paintings that resulted from this trip are not a scientific investigation in any sense. They reflect my subjective experience of looking at a landscape and a region that I love. I made paintings that attempt to tell a complicated story, one that both honors the place and the people, while revealing my own concerns and anxieties. The US’s border with Mexico lies just to the south and it looms heavy, behind everything. These paintings are not only about a place, they are about complicated emotions and fractured perception.
Rather than oil on canvas, I am painting in watercolor on paper. Traditionally, watercolor has been taken less seriously, sometimes considered a “hobbyist’s” medium best left to women at home rather than the men in their studios. The workers in the oil patch are predominantly male, and as a female and a tourist, I did not feel welcome to explore any of the heavy industrial sites. The machinery is immense. The scale is non-human. I wanted to depict powerful industry by using a light and delicate medium, as well as a very human scale. Water itself is a huge and contentious issue in hydraulic fracturing. The process uses tons of it, in a desert that has very little. Conservationists worry that the process risks damaging the water table. Skies and clouds, which reflect the moisture content in the air were particularly fun to paint in watercolor, which compared to oil has little body or weight to it. I spread paper out on the floor of my studio and worked from above where I could control the pooling of the paint. I often started by taping out the horizon line because in the wide open spaces of the Southwest, everything rests on the horizon. Beginning from there, I might go on to depict a car window, a frack waste pond, a leaky pipe.
When I wanted to paint something that seemed more complicated or dense, I used gouache, which unlike watercolor is opaque. I painted one of the many towers of cases of plastic water bottles that were for sale in a gas station in Pecos. At the center of the oil patch, Pecos is surrounded by fields of RVs that house the oil field workers. The men working in the field need to stay hydrated, as summer temperatures are typically well above 100 degrees. As one oil field worker told me on my flight back to Houston, he often goes through a case of bottled water a day. I used gouache to paint one of the many billboards in the Midland airport that advertised something related to the oil and gas industry. Passengers wait in front of a billboard that advertises “SmartSand” from Wisconsin, for all your hydraulic fracturing needs.
In this series of paintings, there is a focus on trucks and the experience of driving. Trucks, windows and windshield became a major part of my paintings because they were the vehicles (or lens) through which I saw everything on this trip. 285, which is one of the main roads used to carry supplies to the oil fields is called Death Highway by the locals. In 2017, 93 people died from accidents involving trucks on the highway, on the Texas side alone. In order to travel in that area and see what I wanted to see, I had to drive, relying on gas whose production I was investigating. I used washes of sumi ink to depict the interior of the vehicles. The inked windows often become the frames through which one views the landscape. I also used ink to paint glazes and washes in areas that seemed dirty or smoggy from heavy production. I connected these landscapes to my own interests in art history and display, which is why I attempted making paintings using a long vertical format. I layered and stacked images of the area, using ink washes like strata. The stripes started to look like rocks, mines, geological maps or diagrams. Rather than depict the horizontality of the place, I wanted to show a sense of time and history going down deep like roots.
Halliburton’s logo was a common site in the Permian. However, I believe that there are other connections between the oil industry and America’s military efforts. Like our recent efforts in the Middle East, groups of predominately male workers travel to remote sites, living and working together amidst heavy and dangerous machinery. The process of hydraulic fracturing itself is violent, as literally tons of water, sand and chemicals are shot down deep into the earth, and the landscape itself is similar to the Middle East. Traditionally, Texas has symbolized a lot of what we imagine America to be: the independent spirit of the frontier. But so much of the old west is a myth that has been passed down from Hollywood. The great Texan author Larry McMurtry explores the connection between mind and landscape, and he often writes of depression with intermittent highs, mimicking the boom and bust cycles of Texas’ oil industry. In the movie based on his book The Last Picture Show, Cybill Shepard plays Jacy. She is young and beautiful. But, not unlike oil, beauty will not last forever, and America’s obsession with both is perhaps shortsighted.