::    ::    ::

Winter 2002
Volume 39, No. 2
Issue Home

::    ::    ::


PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar


By Michael Balchunas

On a bright autumn morning, a golden eagle rides a thermal in the cup of sky above Roden Crater. The dark raptor floats on the air, primary feathers pointing like long black fingers from each sweeping wing. Then the bird glides away over the crater’s red cinder rim.

In its brief flight, the eagle has painted itself onto the canvas of James Turrell ’65, who is turning an extinct Arizona volcano and the sky above it into perhaps the world’s most ambitious work of contemporary art.


“I’m learning a lot as I go,” laughs Turrell, 59. He began the Roden Crater project as a young man with red-brown hair. Now, three decades after he began flying a small plane around the western United States in search of a malleable bowl of earth, his beard is gray and white.

His daughter was born, grew up and became a physician while he worked on the crater. And during that time, he also built a legacy as an artist who engages viewers by way of perceptions of light and space.

Roden Crater, meanwhile, is still at least five years from a public opening, and funding remains a serious concern. Turrell says that despite having had irregular access to the needed resources, he has not had to compromise.

“In some ways, it’s turning out better than I first had intended. In other ways, it’s just as I thought it would be,” he says. “There have been moments of desperation about things, times when you’re not sure you’re going forward. But the course continues.”


When Roden Crater does open, and if the northeastern Arizona range land around it can be protected, many, if not all, of its visitors will be staggered.

The views from the crater’s rim—of the Painted Desert, Arizona’s highest peaks, the Little Colorado River’s Grand Falls, and vast swaths of grassland once roamed by bison—rival the vistas that draw millions of visitors to the nation’s national parks.

Turrell has moved cinder from high to low spots in the crater’s small bowl, making it more uniform. This accentuates a perceptual phenomenon in which the sky can appear to be a dome. Four concrete plinths set like compass points in the center of the bowl allow viewers to lie down, look up and experience the dome effect, known as celestial vaulting.

Under the volcano, the artist is building interconnected tunnels and chambers that direct a viewer’s attention toward perceptions of light, color, space and time.

The interior spaces, keyed in varying ways to the sky and celestial events, are being constructed with attention to auditory qualities as well. Sounds echo in the unseen distance. A light-catching cistern is to be linked to radiotelescopic equipment aimed at the sky, so viewers who wish can immerse themselves and hear and feel electromagnetic waves emitted by the sun, moon and stars, or by distant quasars that may be the oldest observable objects in the universe.


Turrell’s art has always encouraged introspection and recognized the viewer’s interaction with the work. “I think about artists as exploring the content and the aesthetics of thought, but also of sending you back to your own exploration of this territory,” he says.

At Roden Crater, befitting its monumental scale, there is no shortage of things to think about. The project involves astronomy, geology, archaeology, anthropology, ecology, engineering, history, even the business of ranching. Turrell has been assisted along the way by experts in these fields, among them Edwin C. Krupp ’66, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

“We had a number of mutual friends and a network of contacts that persisted after we left Pomona,” says Krupp. “Jim was aware that I had some knowledge of prehistoric astronomy and indicated that he wanted to nose around regarding things that were on his mind, so we talked about that.

“At one point he went to Britain, and I remember that the Old Sarum Iron Age hill fort really attracted his interest because it’s essentially a crater. And I remember Jim talking afterward about the things that light did in the sky as a result of the visual effect created by this elevated bowl—the gradations of light and its changing qualities, things that for most of us are very visible and yet unnoticed. Not that they’re hard to see, but most of us don’t ever bother looking.

“Jim bothers to look.”


In late afternoon in a dim chamber beneath the eastern flank of the volcano, a circle of light the size of a dessert plate slowly traces a path across the wall. The beam is too diffuse to warm a hand. In a few minutes, the disk’s top and bottom melt away and it narrows to a pencil-like shape. Finally, with a strange, brief shudder, the sliver of light disappears.

From the chamber an 874-foot tunnel angles up through the volcano toward an opening to the sky. As it is approached, the portal grows, changes shape and gains color. From one point in the tunnel it resembles a giant, translucent robin’s egg, lit from within.

A bronze stairway rises steeply to the elliptical opening high above. The stairs taper narrowly near the top, with no railings. At the crest there is an explosion of light from the westering sun. To stumble, blinking in the white light, out into the crater’s bowl, pulse and respiration elevated, is to experience a vivid sensation, like rebirth.

“At times the only difference between hallucination and reality is consensus,” says Turrell. “How we respond to light and space, the feeling and sense of space, and how reality is put into question—these sorts of things, and the emotions attached to them, are not much talked about, but I think are worth exploring.”


Turrell is sometimes depicted as patriarch of a 156-square-mile ranch, but the image and reality are different. Although Turrell and the project’s nonprofit Skystone Foundation own most of the crater itself, the state also owns a portion, and has granted the artist a 99-year lease. The outlying land is like a checkerboard, with a variety of owners.

Turrell does hold grazing rights to a 156-square-mile area around the crater. Those rights provide leverage over other uses of the land. The history of overgrazing in the West is a significant concern to Turrell and his supporters. They hope to show that grazing can be accomplished in an environmentally sustainable way.

“People need to understand that ranching is the only effective way for James to protect the land,” says Michael Bond, Turrell’s assistant. “We are trying to avoid a situation in which a theme park or hotel or shooting range is built nearby.”

Publicity about the project has presented a dilemma. Visiting writers have concluded that one of the world’s great works is in the making. Their reports have made it clear that the crater project is not just another desert visionary’s improbable dream. Turrell already has been described as the “artist of the century.” But the result, Turrell says, has been a fueling of land speculation, rather than a mobilization of support that could help safeguard the ecologically sensitive grassland.

At night, except for distant lights on the south horizon, the land appears dark from the crater rim. The view evokes the primordial West. But there is no guarantee that what Turrell calls the “viewshed” around the crater can be protected.

“What will ultimately happen to the land is a big concern,” says Bond.


The Roden Crater project, which entails moving earth, digging tunnels and pouring concrete in a remote location, has cost about $9.5 million so far. Most of the money has come from the Lannan Foundation, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The foundation says that it “recognizes the profound and often unquantifiable value of the creative process and is willing to take risks and make substantial investments in ambitious and experimental thinking.”

“If James Turrell is the soul of the Roden Crater Project, the Lannan Foundation is its heart,” Michael Bond says.

It is estimated that the crater project, about one-third complete, will require $12 million to $15 million to finish. In addition, an endowment will be needed for maintenance. Two other key supporters have been the Dia Art Foundation of New York, now known as the Dia Center for the Arts, and a well-known collector and patron of contemporary art, Giuseppe Panza di Biumo of Italy. Dia will help manage the site when it opens.

The project’s cost has raised eyebrows, although it pales in the context of an art market in which a single Peter Paul Rubens painting, “The Massacre of the Innocents,” recently fetched $76.7 million from a private collector.

Turrell is concerned about the state of arts funding in our society. “This is a period where we’ve never been richer, never had greater individual worth, and yet we are continually removing funding from the arts,” he says. “I thought we were making a culture here. I am trying to help make a culture.”


One of the next tasks at the crater will be the installation of a massive marble slab in a chamber under the volcano. It is believed that the monolith, 13 feet wide and 15.5 feet tall, will be the largest single piece of marble ever quarried in the United States, and perhaps the world.

Every 18.61 years, when the moon reaches its most southerly orbital declination, it will cast a beam of light through a precisely aligned tunnel, projecting, as a huge camera obscura, an 8-foot-diameter lunar image on the marble monolith for about two minutes. The first such moonstrike will be in spring 2006; the next in 2024.


Some who have read or heard about the project have surmised that Turrell is an ecological plunderer. There is irony in such criticism, considering Turrell’s artistic interest in perception and reality, and personal interest in preservation.

The disturbance to the mountainous volcano is on the order of work done to accommodate visitors at a state or national park, with the exception that most of the structures at the crater are underground. Disturbed earth is to be replanted with native vegetation when construction ends.

The five-room, partly buried South Lodge, the most visible structure outside the cone, is designed to be aesthetically and environmentally unobtrusive. Each sunrise fills the museum-like lodge’s window wall with light and color. Whatever impressions visitors will gain from the completed Roden Crater project, a sense of environmental despoliation may be the least likely.

The surrounding land, much of it not under Turrell’s protection, is another story. One of the volcanic cones nearest to Roden is gradually being dismantled, the cinder used in construction, and that could have been Roden’s fate as well.

Art may be its saving grace for generations to come. “I think it will last longer than our society,” Turrell says of the installation at the crater.


Visitors are expected to be limited to 14 a day when the crater opens. Eight of them will be able to stay overnight: Some of the most striking effects occur around sunset and in twilight, at night, and just before and during the break of dawn.

No one is sure what the demand will be. If necessary, a waiting list or lottery is envisioned. One day a week, visitation will be restricted to schoolchildren.

The Roden Crater experience is so directed toward the individual viewer’s perceptions and thoughts that in spite of the volcano’s enormity, two people can seem a crowd there.

“The sense of being alone in the vastness—care has to be taken about that,” says Turrell. “Yes, visitation will be limited, but the work is not elite in the sense that collected artwork often is. Rather than being elite, the intent is to be protective of the experience.”


Turrell grew up in Pasadena, the son of Quakers. He has said that he once was a Quaker, then he wasn’t, and now he is again.

“There’s a very pure, spare quality about his work that does seem consistent with a Quaker background,” says Marjorie Harth, director of the Pomona College Museum of Art and professor of art history.

The young Turrell, who had been a conscientious objector, counseled others to avoid the military draft during the Vietnam War. He was arrested, convicted and spent time in solitary confinement. “Everything I was accused of I had done and more,” he says. “I kind of stewed in my own self-righteousness. I love those bumper stickers that say ‘Question Authority,’ but you know, authority’s going to answer. And self-righteousness does not carry the day. All of that has to do with my own spiritual journey, which has had its ups and downs, to say the least.”

So did his time at Pomona. At one point, he says, he was asked to live off campus. His interests were varied and his eclectic course selections were shaped into a major in perceptual psychology. He rattles off the names of the many professors, administrators and peers he says influenced his undergraduate education. “I value greatly my time there,” he says of the College. “That kind of education is tailored to people, and was at that time and I think today very responsible to the individual and to each student, and I’m grateful for that.”

Turrell will speak Feb. 22 at Pomona at the invitation of Arden Reed and Paul Saint-Amour, faculty members in English. They are planning a gathering called “See Here: A Colloquium on Attention and the Arts,” Feb. 21 to 23.

One of his most memorable experiences at Pomona, Turrell says, was a trip to see the Watts Towers, built over many years by folk artist Simon Rodia in Los Angeles. “I love those kinds of quirky statements by individuals,” he says. “In a way, it’s where I was directed in terms of where I chose to live and how I wanted to go about this life in art.”


It is a misconception, Turrell says, that the Roden Crater project is his life’s work. It is more a culmination. As Harth says, “Roden Crater is a much larger, much more complicated version of the kinds of work he has been doing on a smaller scale for years. It is extraordinary to have had a concept 30 years ago that still intrigues people.”

Why it intrigues people cannot be his concern as an artist, Turrell says.

“Some would like to know what it is that I want people to feel or experience,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t care what people think or feel or see. I certainly am in every way trying to deal with those issues. But that’s a world for you to explore, and I would hope that you would find it interesting and find it something that could perhaps be a bit changing. Rather than try to satisfy your sense of taste, I think most artists would be happier to challenge it, and perhaps to move it from one place to another.”

Krupp, the Griffith Observatory director, is convinced Turrell’s Roden Crater project will succeed at that, spectacularly. “I think that he is very focused on precipitating an experience in people that is very profound,” Krupp says. “If you visit an ancient site with astronomical features, there is a sense of wonder and a feeling of excitement and enthusiasm about being in the right place at the right time, and it is a kind of process of rediscovery. But I think Jim is going beyond that sense. Jim seems to be after something that is much deeper, more complex and richer than we are used to experiencing. I think he wishes to impart a different sense of alertness to what goes on around us, who we are, and how we fit into things.

“I think he is going to be regarded as one of the most extraordinary visionaries of this era.”

—Michael Balchunas is a freelance writer and journalist living in Claremont.