The Search for Roswellian Art
-an Encounter of the Art Kind
by Pygoya Rodney Chang
July 7, 2006
street lights have alien faces
Every Fourth of July is the anniversary of not just our country's independence but the hypothetical crash of a flying disc near a desert town in New Mexico. This event did not just put this small American town on the map but gave it a special global identity. For decades what happened outside of town in the desert was "classified" - top secret - by the military. Books document how the townspeople were forced to take oaths of silence - for the patriotic sake of insuring the nation's security against its Cold War enemies - OR ELSE! The X-files TV series popularized the incident as one cloaked in secrecy and mired with conspiracy. Over fifty years later the lips of surviving old timers are still sealed. Like other WWII veterans, they are rapidly dying off. So there is now an urgent global appetite for the truth, a swelling curiosity as to just what actually happened on that faithful night in 1947. The answers could lead to an expanded understanding as to who WE are. Aging Baby Boomers want to know as life gets shorter.
With The International UFO Museum & Research Center now celebrating its tenth anniversary, and with apparent financial success - it has bought a whole city block on Main Street for its upcoming new building complex - just what is the visual arts culture there today? To answer this question for Absolutearts.com, I booked myself for Roswell. The excitement was similar to if I had scheduled myself to enter Dracula's castle in Transylvania. My spooked nieces warned me not to go and risk being abducted by aliens. A retired airline pilot dating my sister told me, "Roswell? I don't know about that...better to stay away. They can get weird there." Somebody warned me how time warps there and one's body goes through physiological changes due to the peculiar electro-magnetic forces of the area. Then there is the ever threatening situation of entering the space where aliens are said to roam, looking for subjects to kidnap and experiment on in their spacecraft.
Not to fear - I needed to know just what is it like to be a working artist living in Roswell. So I set out from Honolulu to find out, especially since I consider relocating there in the not so distant future. The airlines check-in counter staff laughed out loudly (LOL) when I mentioned this desire. The pretty lady assisting me yelled to her co-workers, "Hey this guy wants to move from Hawaii to Roswell!" Of course this wasn't at the Mesa Airlines counter in Roswell where people demonstrate pride in their town. It was in big sister, big city Albuquerque, yet still New Mexico with its 100+F degree desert. No blue surf, rainbowed mist, and swaying palm trees here!
So why would I give up the tropical paradise for the hot Southwestern desert, with its scorpions, rattlesnakes, coyotes, and vultures? Because after my visit to relocation candidate Santa Fe, I realized how competitive it is there and how Southwestern art is the major draw for art collecting tourists. I do digital abstracts.
Here in Roswell it's not art that attracts outsiders but the mystery and wonder about just what happened out there in the desert in 1947. Did lightening really hit a UFO and were dead and live alien creatures really transported by the military down Main Street while the town still slept during that early morning in July? My realtor said 1 million visitors come now every year to their little town of 50,000, considered by the world to be the Mecca of "ufology." What does this do to the local art scene? Does this influence artists' subject matter, their imagination, their effort to make a living imprisoned within this town's imposing identity? These are questions I harbored as my 19 seat, propeller driven little plane noisily - and bumpily - touched down at Roswell Airport.
This was the same airfield of the Air Force back in the '40s, also renown for the tarmac from which the Enola Gay took off to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Evidently not everything has changed at the airfield. Oh, there is the added Southwestern designed terminal that is fitted with a "Welcome to Roswell" sign, visible to tourists as the plane groaned to a halt. But Duane Irvin, president of the Art League (who was kind enough to pick me up), mentioned as we passed an old hangar, "That's Number 84, where they kept the alien bodies, in transit to a secret military installation where the autopsies would later be undertaken." I clicked my digital camera from the passenger window as we passed, totally in awe and with my imagination running wild. That hanger was my first impression as I set foot in infamous Roswell, in search of its art scene as well as the crash site. It could inspire, along with other attractions of Roswell, a new art series after I return to my Honolulu art studio. Inspiration for the artist knows no barriers!
display at the UFO museum
I did time my visit for this year's "UFO Festival" that is organized by the UFO museum and tourist industry. This way I would review the peak tourist traffic and note the kinds of tourists, what they visit, what they buy. Yes, I was here to do market research as a potentially future resident artist.
As a visitor to Roswell I was not alone! My guess is that over 40,000 made the pilgrimage during the four-day event. When I booked my flight online I noted that in selecting a package deal with hotel, every accommodation stated their distance from the UFO museum, making it the obvious main attraction for visitors from out of town.
flying saucer sculpture
at the UFO museum
If you visit Roswell in search of an outer space environment you won't be disappointed! Saucers and alien figures are everywhere. McDonald's is shaped like a flying saucer! You can buy chocolate aliens. A music store's window display sports a band with alien rockers. Gift shops in proximity of the UFO museum hawk alien souvenirs up and down Main Street. The museum itself secures major funding from its own lucrative gift shop.
window display of things for sale
The large model flying disc on the UFO museum's exterior hovers like the sacred icon of some place of worship. UFO fever reaches its peak every year for the town people and tourists alike with the Saturday night "Alien Parade" that strolls down Main Street and ends at its shining light, the UFO museum. There it is situated at the start of Main Street, seemingly existing outside the realm of human reality, glowing there with its surreal lights and not-of-this-world saucer on the rooftop, out-of-sync with this otherwise remote cow town in the New Mexican southeastern desert.
aliens on parade
If you believe and confess to belief in UFO sightings, aliens, abductions, contactees, cattle mutilations, hybrid humanoids, and the alien origin of crop fields, you wouldn't be considered a "kook" here. Actually quite normal. One can see the young ones are conditioned to this daily reality of life. I looked into the young and impressionable faces of families, all waiting with excitement on both sides of Main for the annual night parade of folks in alien costumes and floats as flying saucers to commence. Standing among them, I felt I was part of the town. I couldn't help but imagine what it must be like to grow up here immersed in a UFO and alien subculture, accepted as it helps provide jobs for the town folks. Here it's more than the worldwide 60+% polled who claim belief in the existence of intelligent life from the stars and the latter's interest in our planet. And hey, where else can you order a "saucer burger with flying fries?"
So on this most important weekend for the flying saucer phenomenon and business, how were the arts doing? I remained a busy investigator during my short weekend visit. I managed, by foot, to visit not just The International UFO Museum & Research Center but the following other attractions scattered over 25 city blocks on and off Main Street. The Roswell Museum and Art Center, the Robert H. Goddard Planetarium, the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, the Goddard Rocket Museum, The Little Theater, and The Gallery, a coop gallery for local artists. (Next time I will get a rented car! Be forewarned- with no taxi service and minimal bus service, you have to have wheels here.)
The Roswell Museum is the art center of Chavez County, located in the southeastern part of the state of New Mexico. Its collection includes diverse southeastern artists work, traditional as well as modern.
sculpture in museum courtyard
At The Little Theater I enjoyed "Jocelyn's World," a play about a teenager attempting to be admitted into a galactic school somewhere in deep space. (She was rejected due to belonging to a culture judged too primitive and with minimal understanding of science.) I fell asleep once the lights went out in the Goddard Planetarium. "ETs - Where are they?" was interesting enough but I hadn't slept for two days and was jet lagged in a time zone distant from that which I had departed. Don't buy the green inflatable alien doll there. It leaks. I was most impressed with the exhibits at the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art. Through the vision and patronage of Donald Anderson, successful artist and businessman, the long time artist-in-residence program insures a growing permanent collection of exceptional artworks of acclaimed as well as emerging artists from around the world. The residents of Roswell are indeed fortunate to encounter, first hand, international contemporary art movements and present day trends. Not bad for a small and remote desert town!
I also managed to participate in "The Alien Chase" and proudly report that I received 2nd Place in the 3K race, for the age division of 60-69. The little flying saucer trophy, with a large alien head protruding from its top, now sits proudly among my children's sports trophies.
But what of the local artists? What do they create? Is their inspiration skewed towards the extra-terrestrial or can they choose to limit their vision to the usual beautiful desert environment with its rich Indian, Western, and Spanish heritage? Is it Santa Fean too?
Apparently there is this schism in the community of Roswell between the arts and the followers and researchers of ufology. At the Anderson museum, which I shall do another blog later this month, I counted only one space-oriented artwork! "Sporty Satellite" hung alone, alien from the other 300-plus works in over 17,000 square feet of exhibition space. As an exhibited item it visually crashes from clash. At the Roswell Museum and Art Center (art classes!), Southwestern art - desert Pueblo dwelling scenes, Indian crafts and artifacts, Spanish Christian imagery, Mexican pottery, and contemporary work of regional artists such as the late Georgia O' Keefe and Luis Jimenez, anchor the exhibitions. No outer space stuff. The museum did house a fantastic display whereby one visits what appears to be pioneer rocketry scientist Robert H. Goddard's workshop, seemingly frozen in the 20s-30s, the time of early rocket research and development. But again, no UFOs, no aliens; strictly rocket science.
And what might the locals who merit wall space in the coop gallery display to both represent their aesthetic interests and attempt to make a living as artists? Surprisingly, hardly any evidence of the subject matter for which tourists trek to Roswell. Most is again traditional New Mexican art. The artists might as well live in Santa Fe, Taos or Albuquerque. My friend Duane Irvin, one of the artists who displays in the gallery and is the current president of the local Art League, said "We show what sells." Evidently at this time it's not UFO related artwork. Yet Irvin, who combines photography with digital art, is daring enough to risk his art reputation by supplementing his staple of Southwestern art offerings with some dabbling in ET material, apparently shunned within the arts community sector. Making alien and flying saucer artwork is apparently not the way to earn respect for one's serious art efforts.
Duane Irvin with the writer
Yet even "The Gallery" cannot shield itself from the major promotional branding of the local culture that harvests visitors from around the world. Here I sit next to the token mascot of the gallery, outside on the street, frying in the summer's inhospitable 100F degree scorching heat.
Pygoya with ET wecome you
to The Gallery
But the disconnect between the fine arts offerings and UFO tourism remains evident. An invisible line is drawn in the sand between the two subcultures of Roswell. On the busiest days of the UFO Festival the art museums where also open, but the visitors were sparse. I overheard "Only seven came in all day on Saturday" at The Gallery. "That's terrible," was the member artist's reply. I counted less than 25 visitors for Sunday afternoon at Anderson's museum. I was there, intrigued with the wonderful works, for three and a half hours, gathering information for another blog about this undiscovered yet fantastic museum of Roswell. Tourists here for the festival did not go out of their way - like me - to check out the local art. Sad indeed...
But on the last day something happened to elucidate what I hadn't expected. There does exist fantastic UFO and alien theme artwork, but most of it is not exhibited! I accidentally(?) bumped into the director of the UFO museum and our conversation ended with her leading me to a room storing fantastic art done by folks obsessed or affected - some claiming to be past abductees. The art skill level varied but all exhibited an intense personal connection to the works. Here was art created for some other reason than as we know it in its framed conventional, cultural perspective. Works not made to be sold but because the creators had to "get it out." Art thick with obsession, commitment, and the paranormal. Gut level art, serious effort to communicate personal experience and vision.
Of course some work is in the museum's public space. After all, every museum needs pictures-
crash scene, mural exhibited
in the UFO museum
Noting the need to do justice for this under wraps art collection below the radar screen of the public's eye, I am offering to do volunteer work for the museum. I desire to curate, catalog, and publish a book of the best works, balancing artistic merit with the intriguing stories behind the works. What a fascinating book that would be - artwork that depict and/or share the artists' personal experiences and visions with the extra-terrestrial. Build formal exhibition space for the body of works and Roswell could become the art capital of UFO art, yet an unidentified niche of fine arts. Judging from the abundance of ET art available online at personal Web sites, I believe a center that features such works, provides support and respect for artists that commit to this extraordinary subject matter, could financially survive, but only in a place like Roswell. In the middle of the remote desert, under ultra-clear night skies where the latest UFO sighting is regularly discussed over coffee at McDonald's, at the place where we might have captured five of Them and confiscated a craft that we could try "reverse engineering" to develop new technologies... Hey, maybe, through art, ETs are communicating with us in yet another way. Through their designated "contactees" turned artists, they may yet enlighten us on how to save the planet - from ourselves.
Postscript: this art news article just in, July 8th