Uncoiling into the Sea: The Spiral Jetty


This week, like every single post before it, I am going to write about a large, awe-inspiring piece of art, built in a remote location. Yet, the piece in question is not considered an “art environment”, instead it is a significant example of an art movement associated with the beret wearing city mouse cousin of the poor neglected folk art environment – Land Art. This week I am going to talk about Utah’s Spiral Jetty, created by Robert Smithson (1938 –  1973).

Sometimes known as land art, earthworks, or environmental art, this is art built in nature with the artist using a backhoe instead of a paintbrush. Although they share certain characteristics with my true love, folk art environments, these are a different beast altogether. This is another reason I dislike the generic term “art environment“, for the type of place I generally deal with. They sound indistinguishable yet, they have a very different feel to them (think porn vs. erotica). Land art receives far more appreciation in the art world and gets a lot more commendations in books and movies. And just because land art is more refined and self-consciously artsy, does not mean it is not also pretty great.

Anyways, the land art movement started in the late 1960s by artists trying to escape the confines of the museum. They were going to build in nature, using nature. And they were willing to let the environment,  temperature and the passage of time play its part, to change the art as time goes by.


One of the most distinguished pieces of land art is the Spiral Jetty, located a few hours from Salt Lake City. It is a spiral of rocks that shoots out into the Great Salt Lake. Smithson created the Jetty in 1970 with the help of a construction crew. When it was originally built the Salt Lake was at a lower than usual water level. Two years later the Lake filled in and Spiral Jetty was completely underwater for three decades until 2002.


Unlike a folk art environment, which is typically built by one or two people, often in their own back yards over many years, if not decades, Spiral Jetty was put in place by hired hands in less than a week. It is minimal in design and it really is pretty spectacular. Smithson built it with nature in mind, meaning he realized that it probably won’t last forever, it is not hermetically sealed behind glass in a museum where light, temperature and vandals can be controlled. I have seen dozens of photos of the place from over the years, and it always looks different, the color and depth of the lake the amount of salt buildup. While the Dia Foundation owns it, they have gladly left  it to rot in a corrosive body of water. Although, not as offbeat and idiosyncratic as my beloved art environments, it is a lot more self aware, it is beautiful and a lot of fun to visit.

Down the Rabbit Hole:

It is not hard to find websites, documentaries, museum exhibits and books that deal with place based art. Here are a few sources I really enjoyed that dealt exclusively with land art.

Erin Hogan wrote a travelogue of her experience  leaving the hustle of Chicago to drive her Volkswagen Jetta across America’s West looking for some (and not always finding) the more famous land art pieces , including the Sun Tunnels, the Lightning Field, Double Negative and Spiral Jetty. The book, Spiral Jetta, details her travels. I can’t remember whether or not she bought a Jetta just so she would have a catchy book title or not. That is a $15K commitment to a pun – commendable, I guess. Either way, this is a really quick and fun read and it is a good way to learn about several sites. She writes really nice descriptions, and unlike me she has a decent handle with adjectives and does not simply call everything “awesome.”

There are some good documentaries that are easy to find on Netflix, Amazon, etc. The first, The Gates, details all the hoops that the artists Christos and Jeanne-Claude had to jump through to create a temporary art piece covering New York’s Central Park.

Another great documentary is Levitated Mass, which showcases the artist Michael Heizer, a notorious hard-ass curmudgeon who for decades has been building a giant art piece in the middle of the Nevada desert, simply called City. No one has really seen it yet and it is supposed to be massive. However, the film, Levitated Mass, is about Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and Heizer transporting a giant boulder over several days to create the exhibit at the museum.

If you are interested in Utah’s weird geological terrain, the book Basin and Range, by beloved journalist/ essayist John McPhee, details the geology of the area. McPhee has taken a super boring topic and made it interesting.

How to Visit:

A pair of aliens on the road to the Jetty

The Spiral Jetty is located on the north/ east side of the Great Salt Lake, about 100 miles north of Salt Lake City. The drive takes around 2.5 hours. First, you drive to the Golden Spike National Historic Site. You really should take a pit stop here as this is your last chance to use the bathroom (besides a lake), get cell reception, or to buy bottled water, a snack, or a book about trains. From the Golden Spike you drive around nine miles over unpaved ranch roads. The DIA Art Foundation, who own/ maintain the Spiral Jetty have the best directions on their site here. The directions on the site seem pretty complicated (it has you counting the cattle guard fences) when in reality it is pretty easy to navigate and the signage is fine. Back in the day, part of the charm was not only was the Spiral Jetty remote, it was a pain in the ass to get to.

I had originally heard that the road leading to the Jetty was rough, so when I went I paid the extra expense to rent a 4 wheel drive Jeep. Well that was unnecessary, as the roads were fine for any old car. With that being said, rumor has it that the road can still be trouble just after a snowstorm or a big rainfall.

The Jetty is only as visible as the water level is high, as the site was covered over for about 30 years. When I visited in April 2013, it was, as seen in the above photos, mostly above water.  You can check water levels here, for best results to see the Jetty you want the water levels to be around 4195, probably a little lower if you want to walk all over it. Hooray for drought!

In the Area:

golden spike
The Golden Spike has been replaced by a less dramatic yellow piece of wood

Since you have to pass it anyways, unless you come to the Jetty by canoe, you should stop and see the Golden Spike National Historic Site. This is a very important place in the history of America. This is where the Central Pacific Railroad coming from the west met up with the Union Pacific Railroad coming from the east, making a lot of ruthless assholes millionaires and connecting the country in the process. Well you can see the spot where a golden railroad spike was ceremoniously hammered in to connect the two railroads in 1869, a staggering achievement for the era. The trains no longer go through here as they changed up the route. At the site, there is a nice museum, with a short film, bathrooms and a gift shop.

“Creative Common Sun Tunnel” by Calvin Chu is licensed under CC by 2.0

About 120 miles west, located in a barren part of Utah’s remote landscape, is another major land art piece, the Sun Tunnels, created by Robert Smithson’s wife, Nancy Holt. The Sun Tunnels are comprised of 4 concrete tubes with holes strategically bored into the sides. They look very industrial to me, almost like something you would find in an industrial junkyard. However, they are reportedly very beautiful, the way light hits them and filters through the holes, mixed in with the isolated nature of their location are supposed to make for quite a remarkable experience. I never made it to the Sun Tunnels, but they are on my to see list. As remote as Spiral Jetty is, the Sun Tunnels are even more way out of the way, regardless of where you are headed you will never be near the Sun Tunnels. The Utah Museum of Fine Arts has some nice tips for visiting the Sun Tunnels here.

This photo was taken in April, when the Salt Flats are still just a murky salt swamp

Like Spiral Jetty the Tunnels are located several miles away from any official roads. The estimate I can gather they are around four hours from SLC and about 1.5- 2 hour drive from Wendover, UT, home of the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Salt Flats are where annually in the tail end of summer,  car enthusiasts and speed nerds gather to watch experimental cars race against the clock trying to set land speed records. This is supposed to be a ton of fun and a very cool experience (not including the fact that you spend the whole day totally exposed on a blindingly white salt desert during the height of the summer). There is a great Anthony Hopkins movie about the Bonneville time trials, called The World’s Fastest Indian.

Time to start your downward spiral into madness, or Utah.



This is the Other Place: Gilgal Sculpture Gardens


Not to beat a dead horse, over and over and over and over again, but I always say that  most art environments are either found in sticks, or if they are in a biggish city they are in skid row. The areas that condo developers and Burger King don’t want. That is why the story and perseverance of Gilgal Gardens is so remarkable, it is a visionary art environment, loaded with religious symbolism, tucked away in a neighborhood only a mile or two from downtown Salt Lake City and a few blocks from highly sought after mix-use space.

Gilgal Gardens, named after a stone garden found in the bible, was created between 1945 and 1963 by Thomas Battersby Child Jr. (1888-1963), in his back yard with some assistance from his son-in-law Bryant Higgs and sculptor Maurice Edmund Brooks. It was called by locals the Secret Garden for many years, and today, while no not secret anymore, is safely tucked away back from the sidewalk, easy to miss.

Joseph Sphinx

Child was a prominent member of the community, working as a contractor and stonemason and a bishop of the Mormon Church. This is an example of why the blanket term “outsider art environment” often doesn’t cut it. Child while very creative and perhaps a bit obsessive, but he was a total insider and prominent member of his community. This visionary garden was basically his retirement project. One of the things I love in general about art environments is how unique each one is. The overall craftsmanship at different sites ranges significantly. At many environments, while still amazing, the sculptures are pretty rough or rudimentary. That is why many of these sites are lumped under the category of “self taught” or “naive” artists. On the other hand, Child’s work at Gilgal, while unconventional, is very exacting. He used an acetylene torch to achieve these results and was able to create a tranquil garden with surreal and almost otherworldly sculptures.

The sculptures littering the garden stem mainly from Child’s imaginative interpretation of the bible and the Book of Mormon. The most famous piece, which looks like it escaped from the world’s greatest putt-putt course, is the above Joseph Smith face carved onto an Egyptian sphinx. The Sphinx represents mystery and the need for faith. The other pieces have amazing names and include Captain of The Lord’s Host (guy with rock head, as seen below), Daniel II: Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream and Elijah’s Cave. Besides the dozen or so statues are around 70 engraved rocks with inscriptions from various poems, books and other missives.

In the art environment world Gilgal Gardens is one of the greatest examples of a community rallying together to save an environment. After Child passed away in 1963, the site was purchased by a neighbor, Grant Fetzer and was not really touted as either a tourist attraction or public park. For the handful of people who knew this place even existed, called it the Secret Garden. But it was also a late-night teenager hangout who realized its potential as nice place to smoke grass and drink beer – they called it Stoner Park. You really can’t blame ’em, right? During this time It really wasn’t being well kept and over the decades it started becoming overgrown with weeds and suffering from vandalism.

Gilgal6In 1993, the current owner’s eight children took control of the property but did not have much interest in it. By 1997, one of the Fetzer children was attempting to sell the prime real estate to condominium developers. After many passionate ad hoc preservation grassroots campaigns organized and then imploded, the group the Friends of Gilgal Gardens (FOGG) was formed. FOGG consisted of professors, State representatives and others, including former potheads from the Stoner Park days. The Friends went into overdrive realizing that they had to raise money to purchase the property before the developers took control. They were able to collaborate with the Mormon Church, local government and a San Francisco based organization, the Trust for Public Land. FOGG was able to build up Gilgal Garden’s brand and the City of Salt Lake was interested in making it a public park. The process took over three years from plan inception to purchase, but FOGG, in collaboration with the city, the county, the Church and a trust group were finally able to turn the Gilgal Gardens into a public park. Because of their amazing efforts you can (and should) go see one of America’s most unique visionary environments.


The thing I love about Gilgal Gardens, besides its inherent the fact that the statues are so creative and beautiful, is it was the only place I saw (and I may be way off here) that readily appreciated the more unusual iconography and folklore from the Mormon religion.

Quick and probably spotty history lesson: The genesis of the church and of its founder Joseph Smith originated in the Burned-over District in New York. Central New York in the 1800s was filled with the Holy Ghost and everyone was caught up in ribald religious fervor. Revivals were the rage and people were either converting or starting their own church. 1800s New York was ripe with prophets. This, not Utah, is where Joseph Smith hatched his big Mormon egg in 1830. Other religions, or branches of religions started in the burned over district, including the Spiritualism movement (talking to ghosts, etc. there is still a town full of mediums in Central New York, named Lilly Dale that you can visit and have your fortune read), the Shakers, the 7 day Adventist, Jehovah’s witnesses and the Utopian society the Oneida Community. The Burned Over District is where the old, weird America met that old time religion.

Captain of the Lord’s Host

Off the top of my head, maybe outside of Puritan New England, I can’t  think of an American town of this size, whose roots are so squarely tied into a particular religion. I personally was really hoping that Salt Lake City had more of an arcane or magical vibe, filled with religious symbols. But it doesn’t, on the surface, SLC is totally squaresville. It is a clean, austere and very, very conventional. Expect to see a lot of smiling well groomed white people. Yet LDS doctrine is full of some, how do I say this without being a dick – unconventional folklore and rituals…. (OK, sidebar – I really don’t want to be disrespectful to anyone’s beliefs. All religions are full of supernatural stories. Think about the burning bush, people turning into salt, talking snakes, etc. These stories don’t seem crazy because they have the benefit of being thousands of years old and we are simply used to them. With that being said, the LDS church is less than 200 years old and their dogma is pretty far out when seen by us outsiders). You get the feeling that the mainstream Mormon elders really do not want to flaunt the more unusual parts of the Church. Even Temple Square, the big tourist attraction is very nice, but not at all mystical. In fairness, non Mormons, or “gentiles”, in the local vernacular, are not allowed inside the main temple, which may very well be a sorcerer’s lair, covered floor to ceiling  in hermetic images, forgotten alphabets and the petrified remains of Cthulhu. Well, actually the part about the forgotten alphabets is true. That makes Gilgal Gardens so spectacular, it is filled with large, wonderfully constructed, visionary statues. It is exactly what I wanted to see in Utah, all nicely preserved in a fantastic art environment.



Down the Rabbit Hole:

Utah filmmaker Trent Harris, who has made such offbeat cult classics like the Beaver Trilogy and the road-trip movie Rubin & Ed, both starring genius/ madman Crispin Glover, includes Gilgal Gardens in a few scenes in his movie Plan 10 From Outer Space. Plan 10 is a super low budget sci-fi, conspiracy movie where the hero is trying to discover the “secret of the bees.” The movie is filled with Mormon folklore and symbolism, as well as panty sniffing, aliens, secret clubs where everyone dresses up like martians and weird dance moves. Harris has a keen eye for all the oddness trapped under the thin veneer of Utah’s ultra-normalcy. He also wrote a quirky slim travel guide to his home state, called Mondo Utah. All his books and movies can be purchased at his website.

If you want to learn more about the LDS religion, I highly recommended two books. The newer of the two, Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, is a fantastic read that covers many topics. Included in the book you will read about a murder, the formation and history of the LDS church (who no longer support polygamy), a deep dive into the folklore of the religion. A large focus of the story is on the offshoot polygamist cults like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), who are no longer located in Salt Lake City. I can’t speak on whether the Mormon Church is happy with this book or not, it does appear to air the LDS’ dirty long-underwear in public. I loved this book, it is fascinating.

The other book, more gentle in tone, a bit older, but still interesting is Wallace Stegner’s  Mormon Country. Here Stegner has different essays about Mormon history and culture and explains things like the deseret alphabet and why the streets in SLC are so wide.

For a funny intro to the LDS church I recommend the hilarious and profane yet informative episode of South Park, entitled All About Mormons (season 7, episode 12). You can watch it on Hulu, or buy the DVDs or however, you watch old TV episodes.

Gilgal7How to Visit:

Gilgal Gardens is located at 749 E 500 S, Salt Lake City, UT. it is open to the public as a park daily, April – September 8 AM to 8 PM and October – March 9 AM to 5 PM (closed Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving). Check out their website for more info. There is no admission charge; it is operated as a public park, so come wander about.

In the Area:

The Mormons notoriously don’t drink alcohol or coffee, nor smoke cigarettes, so instead they eat a fuck-ton of sweets. Which means there are some killer bakeries in the area.

I have two recommendations that you cannot ignore if you are in Salt Lake. First off, there is a cafe name Les Madeleines that makes a fancy European croissant type pastry called a Kouing Aman (pronounced queen a-mahn). Only a few of bakeries in the States even try to make these things purportedly they are a complete chore. Since having one in SLC I have tried a few here in the San Francisco Bay area and they pale in comparison. Whatever nonsense that goes into these things is well worth it, they are delicious.

Another place for sweets is Bruges Waffles and Frites, with two locations. They make killer Belgian waffles (with big bites full of special  Belgian sugar) and french fries. I thought their fries were fine, but their waffles are the best I have ever had.

Church History Museum

If you are in the area you might as well visit Temple Square, where you will find the world famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Mormon Temple.  Across the street from Temple Square is the Church History Museum, and regardless of your feelings about the church it is pretty interesting, with some cool objects.

To me there were two prevalent themes for the state of Utah, themes that dictated why the state is so unique – the first being religion, which I have already touched on and the other theme being geography. There is quite a bit to say on the subject of the Utah’s physical and salty makeup. I am going to break this blog post up into a two-parter.

Stay tuned, travel nerds. Coming soon, I am going to talk about a large outdoor sculpture that isn’t an art environment, but rather its fancy snootier cousin – land art.

Next time – see you in nine miles