Hack. Arizona 1. Lost Orphan. Pigeon. Canyon.
The names would hardly spark a glimmer of recognition among the millions of people who travel from around the world to visit the beauty and grandeur of the Grand Canyon each year. But if they were told what the names signified, it would more than likely create a response.
The names belong to uranium mines situated on geological formations called breccia pipes in the Grand Canyon region. Uranium is the mineral that, when concentrated and enriched, becomes the fuel for nuclear power plants and atomic bombs.
It is the paradox of the immensity of natural beauty at the Grand Canyon and a radioactive material used to create powerfully violent weapons that is the focus of a new art exhibit at the Museum of Northern Arizona, called “Grand Canyon Uranium – Unseen/Scene." Created by Flagstaff artist and educator Alan Petersen, the exhibit opens Aug. 17.
“Uranium in its natural state, as found in breccia pipes, is not particularly dangerous due to its relatively low level of radioactivity and low levels of concentration,” Petersen stated in an essay on his exhibit’s subject. “However, I can imagine that if the millions of visitors to Grand Canyon each year knew of the presence of the large amounts of uranium located beneath their feet, or a few hundred yards from their vantage of Grand Canyon, their experience would be quite different – colored by anxiety induced by an element with a bad public image.”
Petersen has been an artist for more than four decades, and he’s been on the art faculty at Coconino Community College for more than 20 years.
“I’ve always been interested in nuclear energy and the whole industry since I was a kid,” Petersen said, adding that when he moved to Arizona, he enjoyed hiking and other outdoor sports. As a landscape artist, Petersen delved into the geology of the Grand Canyon to better understand the landscape.
“When I discovered and started reading about the breccia pipes, they really fascinated me,” Petersen added.
According to information from the U.S. Geological Survey, a breccia pipe is “a vertical pipe-like column of broken rock.” Additionally, breccia is defined as “coarse-grained rock composed of large, angular, broken rock fragments that are cemented together in a finer grained matrix.” Within breccia pipes, water running through the pipes over a long period of time deposited large amounts of minerals – like uranium-laden ore. Breccia pipes mostly exist underground and away from the human eye, and often the only indication that a breccia pipe exists is a shallow depression in the surface of the earth.
In his work about the Grand Canyon, a popular subject for artists during last century, Petersen said he seeks the subtle and more nuanced expression of the geology of breccia pipes, which are largely unknown and unseen.
“If their presence were more broadly known, I can imagine they would be a source of anxiety that defies the pleasurable appreciation of the greater landscape they lie within,” Petersen stated. “Breccia pipes are an important aspect of the geological history of the Grand Canyon region – an aspect that presents a paradox of omission and cognition.”
One set of four paintings Petersen created, for example, depict the surface expression of the breccia pipes, which as nothing more than landscapes of rolling grasslands and deserts. While the pipes reach down 1,600 feet or more, Petersen and one of the things that attracts him to the features is the fact that most of them are exceedingly subtle on the landscape, in sharp contrast with the Grand Canyon around which they lie.
The Grand Canyon region contains more than 1,300 known or suspected breccia pipes and, with some exceptions, "most are invisible on the surface," Petersen said.