Inside the DAM: Roxanne Swentzell, Mud Woman, and The Whisper of the Land

Sometimes, the most memorable moments for an artist or writer are hidden. Sometimes our work itself is hidden.

Several weeks ago Roxanne Swentzell told me over dinner and a glass of Blue Moon that she had inserted a PVC pipe into Mud Woman’s center to stabilize the 10-foot-tall sculpture. “But now I have this space that runs from her head to her heart,” she said. “I need to put something special in it. Maybe you have a poem about Denver?”

Mud Woman is monumental—certainly not hidden.  The Denver Art Museum commissioned Roxanne to create the piece for their new Native American exhibit and, after months of planning, Mud Woman is coming to life.  The sculpture, officially named Mud Woman Rolls On, is the first thing that greets visitors when they step off the 3rd floor elevator of the DAM, Denver’s world class art museum. 

Roxanne, a world class sculptor, will be working on the piece all spring and summer.  Rox is from the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico.  Her roots go back thousands of years.  She knows intimately the land her ancestors have walked for generations.  But she doesn’t know Denver like I do.  Denver is the land of my birth and as a descendent of this city, like everyone else born here, I have inherited the responsibility of keeping the city’s stories alive.  It’s not a responsibility I take lightly.  And Rox knows that.  
To Rox, Mud Woman isn’t just a Roxanne Swentzell sculpture either. Mud Woman belongs to Denver. She is being birthed here—shaped with sand and mud and straw by Rox’s intuitive, artistic hands (and occasionally with a little help from museum visitors). Rox doesn’t analyze as she sculpts, though, she feels. “When it feels right, I just know it. This piece is telling us a story, a story about generations and our connection to the Earth.”

Credit: RMA U.S. Army historic photos
When Roxanne was telling me about the hollow core running from Mud Woman’s head to her heart, and the need to honor that space, shivers ran down my spine. Mud Woman had a shaft leading to her heart, an empty space that deserved to be filled. Denver, too, had a shaft—a deep injection well built in 1961 at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, once known as the most "polluted square mile on earth." In 1942, the Army purchased over 19,000 acres of prairie and farmland near Denver and the War Board announced the location would be the site of a chemical manufacturing center (toxic nerve and mustard gas production). In 1961, the Army drilled two miles down into the earth and during the next 5 years poured 165 million gallons of toxic waste into the shaft. The well was capped in 1966 after more than 1300 earthquake tremors shook the Denver area.

Even though I grew up in the foothills west of Denver, and near the Platte River south of Denver, I remembered nothing of this incident until doing research for my novel, All the Water Yet to Come (also a work-in-progress).  Maybe, I thought, we could make a small atonement for this grievous injury done to the earth—place a few healing objects inside of Mud Woman. 

Perhaps she could even carry Denver’s history inside her, from the first glacial age that came to the land when the winds and waters formed the gently rolling hills through which the waters of Cherry Creek and the South Platte would someday flow. Even the stories of Sand Creek. Even the stories of “the greening of the Platte” when the entire city worked together to cleanse the river so that ducks could nest along her banks once more, and children could swim in her waters.

“Yes,” I said, “I can give you a poem—a love song to Denver that will honor the stories that lie buried beneath her paved streets and high rises.”  Rox smiled. “That would be good.” And then, simultaneously, we both grinned. “And quartz. Some rose quartz from the mountains.”  That’s how it came to be that a few weeks later, Roxanne and I, and my partner John Gritts and Rox’s husband Tim Star, gathered at the museum for a small ceremony to fill Mud Woman’s center with a few heartfelt objects, including my long prose poem, “Whisper of the Land.”

Heather Nielsen, Master Teacher for Native Arts at the Museum, asked us to explain the significance of each object while a staff member videotaped us.  Then Roxanne climbed the ladder up to Mud Woman and placed each object inside her, including the breast feather from an eagle that John (of the Cherokee Nation) gave her. 

Two weeks later, Roxanne and I taught an all-day teachers' workshop at the DAM, and Rox asked me to read from the poem as we sat gathered by the sculpture. 

The soul of the city is here, in the heartbeat of the people. The land still stirs beneath our feet, beneath the asphalt and concrete and high-rise buildings. Creation’s afterglow is still here, on the faces of all the strangers we meet.  Listen. Mud Woman is talking. She is the whisper of the land, the shout of the people, the sorrow of the city. She is us. 

Read complete poem/essay on News page.

Postscript: Since the 1980s, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal has made great reclamation strides to return the land to health.  Not only have bison been reintroduced to the shortgrass prairie, but the RMA National Wildlife Refuge also has a breeding pair of eagles that have fledged a dozen eaglets.  Learn about the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Refuge


Anonymous said…
Oh Page...such a loving, heartfelt offering to our beleaguered home. I am touched by the intention which you & Roxanne co-created to support and heal place through your art (sculptural,written and symbolic.)We all need to be aware of our opportunities for healing offerings. Sending peace and love... Julie
Julie, your note made me realize that perhaps the real theme of this piece is,as you said, healing through art, more than it is about the hidden nature of our art. Thank you for taking a moment to send a comment. I hope you were able to read the entire prose poem (more of an epic poem, I suppose!). Love to you, Page
Bill said…
Carrying the history of the plains Native Americans, and perhaps the history of some of the shallow mountain tribes like the Nez Perces (as written by Native American elders) would be a fine tribute. I especially would like to hear how they think everything would have turned out if it wasn't for the European annexation.

A wonderful topic. Thanks.
Hi Bill. Having Mud Woman "carry" my love song to the land upon which Denver sits is a humbling thing. Wouldn't a novel written sans European annexation be a fascinating thing to read, and write!
Dear Page,

I love the look of your newsletter. The story about what's under the streets in Denver reminds me of living in Antibes, France. During some construction work to build an apartment building by the port, the mechanical digging was silenced and a silent, careful type began. They'd discovered ruins of the "old city" beneath this already old city. The archeologists pulled out tiny brushes and little shovels to excavate around street stones and the old ruins of houses. I'd felt certain they would protect the place and turn it into a park, but the forces of money prevailed and a huge apartment block for vacationers went up over it.

I'll send you a copy of my book. Shall I mail it to the address at the bottom of the page?

Happy writing,
Debra Moffitt
Awake in the World
Monica Devine said…
I happened upon your blog this evening after a beautiful ride with 8 other women in the Matanuska Valley in Southcentral Alaska. Combining a writing retreat with horses thrills me to the bone, so I hope to meet you in 2012!
Hi Monica, riding the Matanuska Valley in Alaska sounds incredible! I just returned from the Wyoming retreat, and it was incredible too. Next year will be the 5th Anniversary trip, so we'll be planning something special. I'll keep you posted! Meantime, thanks for visiting the blog.

All the best,

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