Forces that shaped Yosemite are more than geologic, scholars say

10/16/2007 7:00:00 AM

Once upon a time, setting a landscape aside to preserve its natural beauty was a novel idea. Today, after the blossoming of endless calendars, coffee-table books and photo albums celebrating America's physical beauty, it seems difficult to believe that the concept that created Yosemite National Park, the first wilderness park in the United States, was once a radical one.

"Yosemite was the first landscape set aside for aesthetic reasons," said Jen Huntleysmith, a published Yosemite scholar and associate director for academics and outreach of the University of Nevada, Reno's Academy for the Environment. "The context of the California Gold Rush in 1849 and the aftermath of the Civil War help us understand why people first began to feel that it was important to set Yosemite aside."

A new exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art, Yosemite: Art of an American Icon, explores the rich artistic and cultural traditions that have helped to shape America's understanding of this celebrated national park. Huntleysmith, along with colleagues from the University, will provide commentary and context to help students and visitors understand the exhibit and the various social, political and geologic forces that shaped Yosemite along with the national park system.

Yosemite: Art of an American Icon features iconic paintings and photographs by artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Ansel Adams. The exhibit looks at Yosemite's changing visual identity and cultural role as a national and international destination. It also examines the artistic response to Yosemite's transition from a wilderness ideal to an often-congested commercial tourist site.

"From our end, what's exciting about this particular show is it has so many angles it can be accessed from -- geology, tourism, issues facing Native Americans," said Rachel Hartsough, NMA's curator of education. "It has so much teaching potential through the artwork. This art speaks to so many issues faculty members are teaching at the university right now, and it can help students think about human impact and our role in our environment."

Much of Huntleysmith's work has focused on the cultural history of landscape perception and how perceptions about what was beautiful in the landscape helped make the creation of Yosemite possible. Huntleysmith is the author of a book on Yosemite in the 19th century, Making a Scene: Yosemite, James Mason Hutchings, and the Creation of California Landscapes, 1855-1902, which will be published in 2008. Another renowned Yosemite scholar at the University is the English's department's Michael Branch, who has written extensively on John Muir.

Huntleysmith notes that Yosemite was the first time consumer tourism and ideas about conservation melded, which creates ongoing struggles for national parks today. "Consumer tourism and a sustainable environment can be contradictory at times, and that creates problems," Huntleysmith said. "For example, tourists to Yosemite Valley generate 1,500 tons of waste a year. That goes into landfills."

Her evening lecture about the exhibit, Yosemite: The Tipping Point, will look at the work of James Mason Hutchings, who organized the first tourist party to visit Yosemite in 1855. For the next half-century, Hutchings dedicated his life to interpreting, defining and packaging Yosemite Valley for the public. His efforts quickly spread through California and to the nation beyond -- bringing the wondrous landscapes of Yosemite to the wider public and fueling appreciation for the place that continues to this day. Huntleysmith's lecture is Nov. 29 at 7 p.m.

Other University faculty will add depth to the public's perceptions of Yosemite: Art of an American Icon through the Art Bites series, which takes place at noon on Fridays. These half-hour dialogues broaden perspectives about the art on display, and provide greater context. Speakers are:

Richard Schweickert on the Geologic History of Yosemite, Oct. 19: Schweickert, geology professor at the University, will discuss the geologic history of Yosemite and the Eastern Sierra Nevada range.

Bill Rowley on National Park Conservation, Nov. 16: Rowley, history professor, will address the environmental history of Yosemite National Park. Based on his own research, Rowley will discuss the role of public lands in the West and their various designations as National Forests, National Parks, and lands consigned to the administration of the Bureau of Land Management.

Howard Goldbaum on Seeing Double, Dec. 14: Stereoscopic photography was the virtual reality of the 19th century. This parlor entertainment, the precursor to today's 3D games, promoted the establishment of Yosemite National Park. (The University Libraries' Special Collections department is loaning a collection of stereoscopic views of Yosemite, mostly by Carleton Watkins, an early California photographer, to include alongside the exhibit.) Goldbaum is on the faculty of the Reynolds School of Journalism.

Tickets for Huntleysmith's talk and the Art Bites lectures are $5 each or $4 for NMA members. Tickets are available online or at the NMA admissions desk, 160 West Liberty Street, Reno.

Yosemite: Art of an American Icon is on exhibit until Jan. 13, 2008. The free Sierra Spirit bus service goes directly from campus to the Museum's door.


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