Message from the Dean – September 10, 2018

First some good news:

Onstage Blog recently placed UCO in the “Top 10 B.M. Musical Theater Programs 2018-19”. The blog cited the availability of scholarships and the fact that in 2018, the University of Central Oklahoma was identified as one of the Great Value Colleges for undergraduate music majors.

Now a story:

As the son of a contractor during the housing boom of the 1970’s, my family built, moved into and sold houses at a rapid clip. By my 19th birthday, my childhood CV included 18 addresses. We would live in an apartment while building a house, move into the new home, immediately put the house for sale, then move into another rental when the new house sold. These cycles of uprooting and re-rooting occurred among the black loam fields of the upper Midwest. I remember standing in the freshly dug basement of one of these homesites outside Hutchinson, Minnesota. The striated walls of earth loomed over my head; 6 feet of ruddy clay topped by jet-black dirt. The new Judson Woods subdivision was carved into a virgin section of near-boreal forest. After clearing the trees, the rusted yellow bulldozer sliced into the soil of the lot, exposing more than 24 inches of rich, dark, peaty loam. The smell in the trench was rich with the fecund musk of decomposing leaves, plants and organic matter. The soil itself seemed to hum with the possibility of growth. Growing up in Iowa and Minnesota, the scent of black earth being plowed in spring was part of the progression of the seasons. The aroma of freshly turned, northern fields still has the compass-like power to direct my mind to childhood memories.

The exhibition in the Melton Gallery this month includes a “Red Dirt Rug” by Rena Detrixhe. This temporary piece presents a complex tapestry of soil, domestic decoration and the history of human interaction on the plains. The meditative, mandala-like creation of the work referenced both Eastern introspective practices and Native-American sand painting. I was reminded of dance faculty member Jill Priest, who’s work, “Born in Red Dirt” uses the emotive power of movement to explore the relationship of generations of her family to the Oklahoma landscape. We are all composites of behavioral patterns woven from nature and nurture. Self-concept often incorporates both “who” and “where” we are. Artworks like “Red Dirt Rug” pay homage to the power of place to produce attitudes and actions. Like Dr. Suess’ Lorax, Detrixhe’s art gives voice to the mute elements of the landscape.

One of the most effective earth-based artworks I have witnessed is Walter de Maria’s “The New York Earth Room”, on permanent display at 141 Wooster Street in New York City. In this piece, 250 cubic yards (greater than 280,000 pounds) of rich black dirt are spread at a uniform depth of 22 inches across the entire floor of a city apartment. When I stepped into the room, the initial sensory experience was the loamy fragrance of the soil. That smell, so ubiquitous in rural Minnesota was startlingly incongruous in SoHo. The second sensory perception was the power of the earth to absorb the sounds of the city. The metaphor of displacement, and the amazing juxtaposition of the organic and the man-made was a powerful provocation for thought. As professors at UCO, we primarily encounter students who have “roots in red dirt”. More than 70% of our students are native to Oklahoma. It is our responsibility to nurture them in a way that maximizes the self-reliant, tenacious individualism of that inheritance, while opening their minds to the broader possibilities of the world. Like the peaty soil of Minnesota, these offspring of the plains are buzzing with the possibility of growth. If we are up to the challenge, our graduates will bloom wherever they are planted.