Frontier Fellowship Report: Kirsten Southwell

—A report from the field by Kirsten Southwell, Frontier Fellow.

When asked, “So what are you going to do in Utah?,” my response was, “Something about rocks.”

The vagueness was both a blessing and a curse. This was my first artist residency, and the lack of a plan left me worried that I wouldn’t be able to perform. In reality, I could not have ever premeditated the project that organically grew out of my time in Green River.

1_rocks_and_minesA repeating pattern made from Google Earth images of land use around Utah (left). Rocks I collected, shaped, and polished from the Crystal Geyser (right).

I started my learning about the raw materials native to the area, specifically in the context of the mining history of the region concerning coal, uranium, salt, gypsum, and potash. I was obsessed with how mines and tailing ponds looked from above—open wounds and unnaturally colored geometric ponds. I can’t fully articulate the source of my fantastical interest in mining, but I appreciate how Lucy R. Lippard explains her preoccupation with gravel pits:

“Like archaeology, which is time read backwards, gravel mines are metaphorically cities turned upside down, though urban culture is unaware of its origins and rural birthplaces… Their emptiness, their nakedness, and their rawness suggest an alienation of land and culture, a loss of nothing we care about.”
— Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West

2_archivesInspirational images from the John Wesley Powell Research Center and Archives.

The story of mining is the story of civilization. In modern times, the imagination for what is below continues to encourage the industry to thrive, both shaping and being shaped by the geological constraints and cultural demands of our world. This is especially true in the Colorado Plateau of Utah—where Green River sits—as a region of exceptionally rich natural history and diverse human interest. Here, we can see the triumphs and failures of the impact of mining in both the people and environment.

3_mine_visitsCollecting potash from the Intrepid Potash Ponds (left) and collecting uranium from a mine off Interstate 70 (right).

I visited mines to take pictures and collect specimens. I tried using different natural materials I collected to manipulate textiles: finding rusted metal for shibori, dissolving potash into mordant, applying salt crystals to wet dyed fabrics. While my experimentation veered into abstraction, I grounded myself by visiting the local John Wesley Powell museum archives, the Utah Natural History Museum, and a trip to the Western Railroad and Mining Museum in the neighboring town of Helper to attempt to understand what natural forces make the Colorado Plateau so rich and how what is underneath has shaped life above ground.

4_jarsSpecimens I collected during my fellowship. Left to right: not sego lilies, potash, coal dust, geyser rock, snake corpse, Morrison Formation, and not uranium.

Pulling from my own professional background in the museum world, I decided that my project would be a digital museum exhibit called The Romance of Mining. It blends fact, fiction, and narrative to explore the financial and interpersonal value of natural resources, the lure of the mine, and our thirst to control our surrounding landscapes. All of my experiments and specimens are artifacts in my exhibition, including a quilt, a dress, a portrait series, and select pieces from local’s personal rock collections.

5_quilt_dressAbandon the Grid quilt, which used mined materials to influence the dying of the fabrics (left). Mine pattern dress (right).

The work I made is only half the story. The project was very ambitious for just one month, and I felt endlessly exhausted. My sanity, positive attitude, and do-it-to-it spirit would have been completely impossible if not for the social backbone and community warmth from the people of Green River.

6_portraitsMining portraits. Richard (left) Katie (middle) Armando (right).

The people of Green River, and especially the Epicenter staff, are very generous. It’s one thing to move to a small town for a month, it’s another to move to a small town with an awesome group of thoughtful and hilarious people that will endlessly entertain and engage you. I have a tinge of sadness knowing that I won’t be here to tailgate for the next City Council meeting or scarf the ‘za with you all of you again soon, but am humbled to have met people so incredibly dedicated to their community.

7_mine_friendsEpicenter staff Bryan, Katie, Ryan, and JD with resident barkitect, Rusko, in a gypsum quarry in the San Rafael swell.

On that note, I was also impressed with the respect that Epicenter has garnered here, and that respect seemed to be reflected onto myself by extension. The people that participated in my project were bringing me into their homes without question, sometimes without even meeting me in person. These were some of my favorite moments, watching people light up while talking about the rocks they decided to pick up a rock—out of an endless world of rocks—and bring home.


Life after this residency is a bit of a mystery to me. I have a little peace knowing I will get to continue wrapping up this project from home, and I hope that the emotional and mental effort I put into developing my artistic practice will continue. I look forward to following the work that is continues to happen here in Green River, and am so excited for all of the future fellows to fearlessly dive in and get weird. I’ll be leaving behind some rocks for you, and a cheat sheet of all the best mines.

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016


Crystal Geyser: Past, Present, Future

—Bryan Brooks – AmeriCorps VISTA, Community Development

The Crystal Geyser over the years (photos courtesy of the Green River Archives)

For nearly eighty years, the Crystal Geyser has amazed and entertained Green River locals and tourists alike. A rare cold-water geyser, it remains one of a handful of its kind in the world and draws sightseers for its vigorous eruptions and for the brilliant orange travertine formations the mineral-rich water creates. However, in the last few years, the geyser’s eruptions have troublingly declined in intensity. The history of the geyser suggests such a decline may be inevitable, but non-destructive cleanup of the geyser may produce more vigorous eruptions for a while longer.

The geyser sits just north of the Little Grand Wash fault line, a fault in the earth’s crust running east-west. Water draining from the San Rafael Swell and the Book Cliffs becomes trapped along with CO2 when it hits this fault line, which acts as a giant wall. Though the Geyser itself is a relatively new phenomenon, CO2-rich water has been issuing from the earth along this fault line for several thousands of years in the form of springs. Indeed, John Wesley Powell himself was the first to record evidence of such springs when, on July 13, 1869, he reported that “We stop to examine some interesting rocks, deposited by mineral springs that at one time must have existed here, but which no longer are flowing.”

Map of the Green River area, including the fault line upon which the Crystal Geyser sits

The Geyser simply tapped into this already existing natural phenomenon and provided a direct outlet for the CO2-rich water trapped along the fault line. Between November 1935 and July 1936, Glen Ruby (of Ruby Ranch) and his associates began drilling the No. 1-X well at the spot of the current Crystal Geyser in search of oil. They drilled to a depth of 2,627 feet, but instead of finding oil, inadvertently created one of the few CO2-driven cold-water geysers to exist in the world (there are at least fifteen others—five of which exist in the Utah desert).

In 1936, the geyser erupted in two cycles: a short cycle that saw eruptions as high as 82 feet occur every fifteen minutes, and a long cycle that saw eruptions as high as 148 feet every nine hours. By the 1960s, the geyser erupted fairly regularly every four hours, reaching heights averaging around 82 feet. By 1989, the eruptions were occurring less regularly every 13-16 hours, anywhere from 60 to 130 feet high. Today, eruptions occur every three to four days, and a major eruption will only reach a height of 10 to 15 feet.

The numbers point to a general decline in geyser activity: over the last 79 years the geyser has gone from erupting every 15 minutes, to every 4 hours, to every 13, to every 72, indicating “a constant decrease of vigor in eruption” (Jung et al.). Research by Weon Shik Han of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and others points to an overall decline in groundwater and CO2 being trapped along the Little Grand Wash Fault as a possible reason for this decline.

Table denoting geyser eruption details over the years (source: “Characteristics of CO2-driven cold-water geysers…” (2013) and “Crystal Geyser Eruptions February 25 to March 23, 2015”

However, Dr. Cathy Ryan, a geoscientist at the University of Calgary in Canada has been studying the Crystal Geyser and believes that some non-destructive work on the geyser could result in higher eruptions. In 2011, a camera lowered into the geyser revealed that the casing (the manmade tube inserted into the ground from which the geyser emanates) was filled with rocks and gravel which act as a plug. Proposed steps to improve the geyser include bailing the geyser well to remove any debris blocking the well, lining the casing to repair leaky points, and installing informational signage at the geyser communicating proper visitor etiquette.

Because of natural forces happening below the earth’s surface, Green River may never see the glory days of the Crystal Geyser again, but a little care by the city, citizens, and visitors to the geyser could improve one of Green River’s unique and beloved destinations for a few more decades.


Baer, James L. and J. Keith Rigby. “Geology of the Crystal Geyser and Environmental Implications of its Effluent, Grand County, Utah.” Utah Geology 5.2 (1978): 125-130.

Han, W.S., M. Lu, et al. “Characteristics of CO2-driven cold-water geyser, Crystal Geyser in Utah: experimental observation and mechanism analyses. Geofluids (2013): 1-15.

Jung, Na-Hyun, Weon Shik Han, et al. “Regional-scale advective, diffusive, and eruptive dynamics of CO2 and brine leakage through faults and wellbores.” Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth (2015): 1-23.

Kelsey, Michael R. River Guide to Canyonlands National Park and Vicinity. Brigham City: Brigham Distributing, 2012.

Ryan, Cathy. “Proposed renovation for activities for Crystal Geyser.” 2015.

“Utah’s popular ‘soda-pop geyser’ is fizzling out.” KSL, 2014. 12 Nov. 2015.

Thursday, December 10th, 2015