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Of the earth

Rena Detrixhe layers history and gesture in a monumental meditation

Rena Detrixhe working on her “Red Dirt Rug” at Philbrook Downtown in April

These days, with bare walls warmed by a low vibration of sound from an installation in an adjacent room, Philbrook Downtown’s Meinig Gallery feels like a minimalist chapel in the desert. It’s a space where you can exhale. In a mindless time, it’s a place of reminding.

During three weeks in April, Rena Detrixhe created “Red Dirt Rug” in the gallery while the public watched her work. For six hours a day, on hands and knees and in a simple white shirt and pants, she poured hand-dug Oklahoma soil onto the floor, notched it around the columns, smoothed it with a trowel, and stamped it with intricate patterns (Oklahoma flora and fauna, oil wells and pump jacks, Art Deco tiles) cut from the soles of old shoes.

It’s massive but delicate, a jaw-dropping expanse only about an inch high.

“The best thing to hear when people come in,” she said as we stood beside the installation, “is they get really quiet. I’ve tried to create a space for quiet and contemplation. I’ve had lots of interesting conversations and people bring up a lot of thoughts about the work, but it’s nice to see people come in and this hush come over them for a moment.”

Detrixhe is a soft-spoken, dark-eyed, no-frills young woman from just outside Russell, Kansas. She graduated with an art degree from the University of Kansas in 2013 and made her way to the Tulsa Artist Fellowship in January 2016. She comes from a family that values creativity: Her grandmother was a knitter and crotcheter, her mother is a ceramicist, and her father is a musician who—for real—used to work in soil conservation for the Department of Agriculture.

She’s in her final year in the fellowship, which provides visual and literary artists with housing, work space, a stipend, and an open-ended invitation to tend to their art however they wish. Her projects contemplate time, handcrafts, natural materials, history, science, and spaces of living and laboring. Living and working downtown the past two years, she found herself meditating on the land that lay literally beneath her feet.

“There’s a lot packed into what this place is,” she said. “It all feels very present here and close to the surface. For a lot of my first year I was just reading and researching and asking how I could respond. I was thinking about all that’s happened to this land, and so much of it is about value, labor, ownership.

“And I started thinking about red dirt. It’s this gorgeous, rich material that has a name here. The dirt has a name.”  

“Red Dirt Rug” hits like a poem, a gentle presentation with striking resonances. There are the repetitive patterns, arranged in precise configurations like an expensive handmade carpet. There’s the labor involved, moving and stamping the millions of particles of iron-rich dust. There’s its ephemerality: At the installation’s end, the dirt will be swept up—“reclaimed” is Detrixhe’s word—and eventually returned to the landscape. (Don’t miss the evocative essay Rilla Askew wrote about the work, available on Detrixhe’s website, renadetrixhe.com.)

“I’m not sure that one piece can be about the Dust Bowl and the Trail of Tears and the history of textiles, and, and, and,” she laughed. “I’m not really trying to do that. I don’t want to be didactic. I’m just trying to respond using my own language and gesture to those histories and this landscape.”

“One of the strengths of Rena’s work is that she’s able to take some really heavy, meaty topics and approach them in a way that is subtle,” said Scott Stulen, Philbrook’s director, who has followed the iterations of this piece from a small gallery in Oklahoma City to the prestigious 2017 ArtPrize festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “It sneaks up on you.”

Letting the installation be performative added unexpected depth to its already rich layers of meaning. “Having the process be open to the public led her to approach the piece differently,” Stulen said. “Every single aspect has been thought about, from the buckets the dirt is carried in to what she’s wearing.

“I give her a lot of credit,” he continued. “Not every artist is comfortable with that. You’re really exposing yourself. I can’t tell you how many people who were there during the installation have come up to me after the fact and said it completely changed some of the ways they feel like they can enter into the piece.”

A timelapse video of the process plays just outside the gallery.

Detrixhe said this installation, on view until August 26, has led her to be more patient, more generous with her art.

“There were a handful of people who came in again and again and again,” she remembered, clearly moved. “Some people stayed and sat for an hour, just watching me work. I had this feeling: ‘I’m making it for you.’”

Red Dirt Rug” at Philbrook Downtown
Through August 26

116 E. M.B. Brady St.
Wed.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Sat.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.

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