By Aubrey Hobart
Curator of Collections
Roswell Museum and
In last month’s column, I told the story of how the United States took control over a huge chunk of land from Mexico in the mid-19th century. The details of this transfer were spelled out in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). Specifically, from east to west, the new border would consist of the Rio Grande River northwest from its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico to the 32nd parallel north, then due west to the 110th meridian, north to the Gila River, west to where it meets the Colorado River, then west to the Pacific Ocean just south of San Diego. Laid out in text like this, it seems fairly straightforward, but this was desolate desert territory and six stone markers are not enough to delineate the fine details of a 2,000-mile border, especially when the border changed again in 1853 after the Gadsden Purchase added more land to Arizona and the boot heel of New Mexico.
All of this is the reason why a team of Mexican and American surveyors spent years walking through the Southwest marking the borderline. They used the stars and mathematical calculations to stay on track since the paths of rivers can shift, or be tricky to follow in places where they branch, dwindle or go underground. On this long journey, the surveyors came across plants and animals they had never seen before: new species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fishes. The surveyors made it their duty to draw and describe these creatures for the people back East, and eventually their findings about the land, its people, and animals were published in a three-volume set called the “Report on the United States and Mexican boundary survey, made under the direction of the secretary of the Interior by William H. Emory” (1857-1859). To date, this report remains one of the foremost publications on the exploration of the American West.
I was introduced to this report last year by a biologist named Alexis Harrison. A reptile and amphibian expert by training, she was working at the Southwestern Native Aquatic Resources & Recovery Center (the ARRC) in Dexter where they breed endangered fish for reintroduction to the wild. Harrison has a collection of reptile prints from the boundary survey and wondered if I would be willing to put together an exhibition at the Roswell Museum and Art Center. After some consideration, I agreed, but I had a few concerns. First, while she had several of the reptile prints, I didn’t believe that she had enough to sustain a whole exhibit. I also wasn’t convinced that a show focusing on the natural history of the 1850s borderlands would be very interesting for the Roswell community. Then she came up with a great idea; we could show the historic prints side-by-side with contemporary works of art featuring the same species. This would allow us to talk about how our understanding of the wildlife described during that early exploration has changed over the last 160 years. It had the additional benefit of making the exhibit more visually exciting.
A few months later, Harrison found a new job in Oregon and needed to leave the project, but her co-worker at the ARRC, a fish biologist named Tracy Diver, stepped in. Diver took on the challenging task of finding collectors who owned prints from the border survey, as well as identifying artists and scientists who make high-quality contemporary art featuring specific and identifiable southwestern species. It was not an easy task, but she was wildly successful. Although Diver later left the project for opportunities elsewhere, she and Harrison remained involved long-distance by providing their scientific perspectives as I wrote the labels and texts for the show.
Around the same time, Larry Bob Phillips, the Director of Roswell’s Artist-in-Residence program (RAiR) put me in touch with 516 Arts, a gallery in Albuquerque. They were assembling a regional collaboration on the subject of threatened animals in the southwestern borderlands. Our show had obvious parallel themes, so we joined the roster of public programs, performances, and exhibits that are happening all along the Rio Grande watershed this fall. Check out their website at 516arts.org to find out more about the “Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande” collaboration. Interested in our exhibit, Phillips also set up a meeting for me to explain the project to the current group of RAiR artists, most of whom agreed to make a work of art specifically for this show. Their creativity and various styles add a lot of pizazz and visual interest to the room, but make unique statements as well.
My most ambitious exhibition to date, “A Line in the Sand: Wildlife of the Borderlands” opens on Nov. 9 with a free preview reception on Friday, Nov. 8 at 5 p.m. Visitors can meet the curators, artists, scientists and others who have supported this collaborative experiment that will reveal not only how much we have learned about the Southwest and the creatures that live here, but how these animals continue to fascinate and inspire us today.