CHEYENNE, Wyo. — For the next three weeks, British artist Chris Drury will be constructing a outdoor sculpture at the University of Wyoming that connects the burning of fossil fuels to the region’s devastating mountain pine beetle epidemic.
It’s a message that doesn’t sit well with Wyoming’s mineral industry, which dominates the state’s economy and has given millions to the university.
The sculpture, titled “Carbon Sink,” will consist of a flat whirlpool of beetle-killed logs spiraling into a vortex of charred, black wood and studded with large lumps of Wyoming coal. Thirty-six feet in diameter, it will be located just south of Old Main, near the intersection of 10th Street and Ivinson Avenue.
The work will be the latest entry in the UW Art Museum’s ongoing exhibition of large-scale sculptures around campus and throughout Laramie.
Like the other exhibition entries, “Carbon Sink” is only expected to last for a few years, until the wind and elements weather it down.
UW Art Museum Director Susan Molderhauer said the total cost for Drury’s sculpture and a second sculpture by a different artist was $75,000.
The sculpture is funded in part by a public grant through the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, she said. The remainder of the cost is being paid by a private donor.
Molderhauer said she’s been trying to bring Drury to Laramie since 2008, when the museum first launched its outdoor sculpture exhibition.
The sculpture was reviewed by UW’s art committee and approved by UW President Tom Buchanan, said university spokesman Jim Kearns.
Drury, a “land artist” who for 36 years has built sculptures in America and Europe using local materials and the local landscape, said he got the idea for “Carbon Sink” when he visited Laramie in November.
Talking with UW faculty and students, Drury said he learned about how during the past decade or so, mountain pine beetles have infested and killed more than 100 million acres of forest in Wyoming and other mountain states with no effective large-scale way to stop them.
Most scientists believe the dramatic increase in the number of beetles has been caused by warming temperatures and drought. In turn, most of the scientific community believes those trends are primarily human-caused, in large part because burning coal, oil and gas releases carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.
“I just wanted to make that connection between the burning of coal and the dying of trees,” Drury said. “But I also wanted to make a very beautiful object that pulls you in, as it were.”
But Drury’s message could prove controversial in Wyoming, which produces more coal than any other state and is heavily reliant economically on fossil fuel extraction.
Last year, several major UW donors threatened to withhold millions in promised donations after the university invited 1960s radical-turned-academic Bill Ayers to speak on campus. UW banned Ayers from speaking, citing threats of violence, but a federal judge forced the school to allow him to deliver a lecture on education theory.
Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said it’s “really disappointing” that UW decided to build the sculpture. He pointed out that the mining industry has “been a stalwart supporter” of the university for years, giving the school millions of dollars in donations for projects such as the new School of Energy Resources.
“They get millions of dollars in royalties from oil, gas and coal to run the university, and then they put up a monument attacking me, demonizing the industry,” Loomis said. “I understand academic freedom, and we’re very supportive of it, but it’s still disappointing.”
Loomis said it’s “hard to tell” whether the sculpture would affect the mining industry’s donations to UW in the future.
“I’ll have to see what it looks like, I guess,” he said. “And maybe they’ll put up a sculpture commending the affordable, reliable electricity that comes from coal on the other end of Prexy’s Pasture.”
Kearns said UW officials had no comment on potential controversy over the project.