An Environment for the Humanities
Director of Marketing and Communications, College of Humanities
As an official extension of the University of Utah campus, the Taft-Nicholson
Center, located in Centennial Valley, Montana, works to bridge the arts and humanities
with the sciences by increasing environmental literacy, boosting environmental awareness,
and inspiring personal connection to nature and the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Each summer since 2014, students, teachers, artists, scientists, and community members
have been participating in the center’s diverse educational programming—sharing their
perspectives on the natural world and preparing themselves to create change in positive
and meaningful ways.
“A humanities perspective provides a variety of tools that allow us to reflect
on and make sense of complex environmental issues that cross disciplinary boundaries
while also providing tools that allow us to work collaboratively with other disciplines,”
said Mark Bergstrom, director of the Taft-Nicholson Environmental Humanities Education
Center. “The center provides a space to train ourselves and our students to make sense
of the world from a variety of perspectives, to do so in a critical and informed way,
recognizing different positions and perspectives, considering the moral and ethical
implications and outcomes of not only our actions but our thoughts as well. We train
ourselves and our students to clearly communicate our understandings in collaborative
and effective means.”
We stood quietly as a group and appreciated the moment. The cold air, lighting, and
peacefulness of the morning while taking in that rare sight is something I will never
The center serves to examine and explore the environment from a humanities perspective,
learning about a sense of place, of more fully inhabiting a specific place by knowing
its ecology, its human and nonhuman histories, its cultural traditions and its environmental
challenges. The programs are designed to provide visitors with a broad-based understanding
of social, cultural, ethical, historical, communication, and literary perspectives
and with a focus on how they intersect with and influence public policy, scientific,
legal, industrial, and corporate concerns.
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Expanding a Visual Dialogue
During the summer, visitors of the Taft-Nicholson Center will often find at least
a dozen undergraduate students scattered amongst the marsh, lake, and open fields
with their easels and paints as they immerse themselves in the views, sounds, and
sky of the landscape. This rugged and diverse setting is the very reason Kim Martinez,
professor of painting and drawing, continues to bring art students to the area in
hopes it will impact their conceptual and formal processes.
The residency experience is ideal for artists to learn, share thoughts on creativity,
solve problems, and experience multiple remote natural environments to expand their
visual dialogue,” said Martinez. “Through engagement in traditional and alternative
painting processes, interdisciplinary environmental literacy study, and seclusion
from the distractions of everyday life, students discover unanticipated research topics
that have an impact on their studio practices.”
Nature, Martinez believes, engages students through sight, smell, sound, and touch
acting as a catalyst to internal thoughts and emotions in a way that cannot be replicated
in a studio. With the intact ecological systems, expansive wetlands, diverse native
fauna and flora, and concentrations of rare species, the Taft-Nicholson Center provides
a landscape that is well-suited to stimulate and create an expansive mindset that
can impact students’ creative expression. Martinez notes that the artwork developed
by students’ sensory responses from the environment often results in compelling pictorial
space that demonstrates the supremacy and vulnerability of the natural world.
Connecting the arts with humanities, Martinez’s students not only study the landscape,
but they explore what it means to be part of it. Their approaches to materials and
ideas are augmented by in-depth discussions of issues in historical and contemporary
painting and sustainability, affecting how they see the Centennial Valley and the
materials they use to create and the impact of those materials on life. Each student
completes a series of paintings and site-specific investigations through the lens
of language, history, and philosophy.
Wanting to be part of a residency in an inspiring landscape, Victoria Attwood
took Martinez’s course in 2017. Her days were filled with plein air paining, sketching,
journaling, experimenting with new techniques while also exploring and learning about
area to gain a deeper appreciation of the center and the surrounding valley.
“On a 6 a.m. bird watching hike, we happened to see a moose and her calf run across
the plains as the sun rose behind them,” recalled Attwood. “We stood quietly as a
group and appreciated the moment. The cold air, lighting, and peacefulness of the
morning while taking in that rare sight is something I will never forget.”
The multidimensional field experience, Attwood claimed, expanded her horizons
when it came to who she is as an artist, and how she wanted to express herself.
“The course happened to be the last class that I took to complete my BFA. I could
not have imagined a better class to complete my undergraduate experience. This class
not only taught me so much, but allowed me to exercise everything that I had learned
in art school, and to be able to apply that knowledge during this trip was truly special.
It’s classes like these that are the most enriching and memorable.”
There’s time to read, time to write, time to draw, time to walk, and it takes a couple
of days to get into the groove and timescale of the landscape. Carve out two hours
to just sit on your porch and stare out into the red rocks, wildlife, and wilderness
and when they ask you to go bird watching or canoeing the answer is always ‘yes.’
Edgar Archer took the same two-week art residency in 2019 when it came highly
recommended to him from previous students. His love for the outdoors and desire to
become a better plein air and landscape artist drew him to the Taft-Nicholson Center.
Although the experience was challenging due to the busy days— which even included
a cattle drive—and required workload, he learned an incredible amount in the short
time he was there—how to approach plein air painting, color mixing, maintaining a
reference notebook, and participating in critiques.
“The center allowed me to get out of the traditional classroom setting and provided
me a venue to enjoy a truly remarkable landscape—important to a landscape painter,”
said Archer. “The center offered an environment that allowed me to grow as an artist
and gave me the opportunity to study the ecology of a unique area.”
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On her most recent trip to the center, Brenda Bowen, professor of geology and geophysics
and director of the Global Change and Sustainability Center, created a small but impressive
band with her colleagues—her on the drum, fellow professors on the guitar and electric
bass—and they would jam every night around the campfire. Although no platinum records
were made, Bowen and her colleagues formed a connection that would surpass their time
at the center.
“I will forever have a bond with them because of those types of experiences that you
just don’t get on campus in Salt Lake,” said Bowen. “I think people at the center
really appreciate the chance to connect and anytime I see someone on campus that I
met at the center, it’s like we’re old friends. You really get to know people and
feel like a part of a community.”
It’s not only the bond with colleagues that has continued to bring her back to the
center—Bowen has attended various retreats and most recently completed a faculty fellowship—but
the greater appreciation and understanding of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and
a richer connection to the humanities.
“At the center, we talk about the link between the humanities and sciences and sustainability
and we think about the intersections and the struggle between science and art. We
also explore place and human’s place within that. That’s a core part of the center
and being in that environment, you can’t help but think about things like ecosystem
and places, management, changes and landscapes over time, and the role of humans in
shaping that. It’s a natural link between the disciplines."
As a faculty fellow last summer, Bowen’s research focused on how changing environmental
conditions influence the composition of sediments, authigenic minerals and fluids
in both modern dynamic systems and ancient lithified strata. She collaborated with
Wendy Wischer, an assistant professor of art and art history, and prepared for an
exhibition of Wischer’s sculptural work that was inspired by Bowen’s research, which
focused on the landscape of the Bonneville Salt Flats.
The Taft Nicholson Summer Fellow Residencies are available to tenure-line faculty
in all disciplines for one to three weeks of dedicated writing time for scholarly
pursuits of research or creative projects. Fellowships are designed to provide intensive,
dedicated, writing time for faculty to work on their research and creative agendas.
"I really appreciate the culture of the College of Humanities in being inclusive and
welcoming people from other disciplines but within the context of how you engage with
the humanities,” said Bowen.
After frequent visits, Bowen has wise advice for visitors of the center: “Be prepared
to have focused time where you can really get into a project. There’s time to read,
time to write, time to draw, time to walk, and it takes a couple of days to get into the groove and timescale of the
landscape. Carve out two hours to just sit on your porch and stare out into the red
rocks, wildlife, and wilderness and when they ask you to go bird watching or canoeing
the answer is always ‘yes.’ Also, be prepared to make new friends.”
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Sustaining the Future
The center was made possible the generous and visionary work of John and Melody
Taft, and Bill and Sandi Nicholson. These two couples invested their time and resources
to purchase Lakeview and lovingly restore its unique and historic buildings. Accommodations
include charming and elegant guest cabins, a student dormitory (soon to be refurbished),
a large conference room, and a dining hall where guests can engage in lively conversation
while sharing a meal and the unlimited vistas of the Centennial Valley.
Recently, Melody Taft established a $1 million arts endowment at the University of
Utah’s Taft-Nicholson Center. She has donated her 160-acre ranch in Centennial Valley
to the university. The endowment will be funded with proceeds from the sale of the
property and will be administered by the director of Taft-Nicholson Center. Earnings
on endowment will be used to support the arts programming at the Taft-Nicholson Center,
including expenses associated with the Artists-InResidence program and arts programming.