Why Is the University of Wyoming President So Upset About a Sculpture?

The state of the universe.
Oct. 31 2012 2:39 PM

The Artwork That Infuriated Big Coal

Academic and artistic freedom, Wyoming-style.

Chris Drury's "Carbon Sink: What Goes Around, Comes Around"
Chris Drury's "Carbon Sink: What Goes Around, Comes Around"

Still from film produced by Ali Grossman.

We’ve got a lot of dead trees in the Rockies. More than usual. As the region has warmed, bark beetle populations have exploded, and they’ve been killing off massive swaths of pine and spruce. It’s hard to miss the damage, and when British landscape artist Chris Drury visited the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie, he proposed to tell the forests’ story in an outdoor sculpture.

Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around” was installed on the U.W. campus in late 2011. Funded by an anonymous donor and by the state Cultural Trust Fund, it consisted of a 36-foot-wide circle of logs from beetle-killed trees, arranged in a whirlpool pattern around a pile of coal. Drury hoped the sculpture would be left in place until it disintegrated, and the director of the campus art museum said there were “no plans to uninstall it.” It was, Drury said, intended to inspire a conversation.

In May 2012, however, just after most students left campus, Carbon Sink quietly disappeared.

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When University of Wyoming graduate Joe Riis inquired about the fate of Carbon Sink, a university vice-president told him that it had been removed due to water damage. But emails recently obtained by Irina Zhorov, an enterprising reporter at Wyoming Public Media, tell a different story. After the university announced the installation of Carbon Sink, Marion Loomis, the president of the Wyoming Mining Association, wrote to a university official and asked: “What kind of crap is this?” Both industry representatives and state legislators weighed in on the sculpture, some threatening the university’s funding in no uncertain terms.

In April, university president Tom Buchanan wrote to the director of the art museum: “Given the controversy that it has generated, it would be best for UW if the fire pit (I’ve forgotten the name of the work) could be considered part of the [removal of other campus artworks] during the summer of 2012.” It was, and today, no trace of it remains.

Buchanan and others have tried to walk back their statements, here and here. But since the installation of Carbon Sink, the Wyoming legislature has passed legislation requiring that art on parts of the university campus must be approved by the state governor and the U.W. School of Energy Resources governing board.

Public art is notoriously controversial. But controversy, in a way, is its very purpose. As Drury suggested, memorials and murals and outdoor sculptures—even, say, creepy 32-foot-high electric-blue horses—are meant to start conversations, even if the conversation is sometimes about how awful they are. A campus- or city-wide conversation without at least a little controversy is clearly leaving somebody out. In the case of Carbon Sink, the conversation barely got started—and almost everyone was left out.

Thomas Hart Benton
Mural by Thomas Hart Benton

Courtesy of Indiana University Archives.

Last week, the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s statewide paper, opined that “The only way the University of Wyoming could have handled the removal of controversial public art piece ‘Carbon Sink’ any worse is if they would have used the coal and wood from the artwork as a pyre to roast the artist.” (The coal, by the way, was burned for heat.)

Could it have been handled any better?

Consider the case of Thomas Hart Benton’s Indiana murals, which have been displayed at Indiana University in Bloomington since 1940. The 22 panels tell the history of the state, from the Mound Builders to the early 1900s, and they include the bad and the good, for instance placing members of the Ku Klux Klan—which briefly dominated state politics in 1924—in the same panel as a reporter and a printer from the Indianapolis Times, which broke the Klan’s hold on the state (and won a Pulitzer Prize) through its dogged coverage of KKK corruption.

The Klan panel has long been controversial, discomfiting first white viewers and then, when it was displayed on the I.U. campus, drawing complaints from the Black Student Union. In 2002, the union asked that the panel be covered.