November 16, 2022 559 PM
BIG BEND — DIG: Notes on Field and Family, a new book by Austin-based photographer Sarah Wilson, is the culmination of 10 years the artist has spent documenting the legacy of her grandfather, paleontologist Dr. John “Jack” Wilson, the lab at the University of Texas at Austin that he founded, and her relationship to the West Texas landscape.
Wilson was among the presenters at last week’s annual Center for Big Bend Studies Conference at Sul Ross State University. She shared her personal family history, which collides with the history of Big Bend National Park, and stunning visuals plucked from the pages of her book — a thorough collection of modernized fossil portraits, enduring desert landscapes, vintage Kodachrome slides and lab ephemera.
Later on in his life, Wilson and her grandfather connected over a love of the Big Bend region, she explained. Jack Wilson frequently visited the area on digs and is credited with several significant findings. In the fifties he was among the first paleontologists to discover mammal fossils from the early Cenozoic Era in the Big Bend; in the sixties he made the “find of a lifetime” in Presidio County by uncovering one of the most complete primate skulls ever found in North America, “Rooneyia viejaensis,” a surprisingly intact 30 million-year-old fossil.
He was also among the authors of The Geology of Big Bend National Park, which he co-authored in 1967 with the first superintendent of Big Bend National Park, Ross Maxwell, among others. Wilson, who now owns her grandfather’s copy of the publication, read aloud a handwritten dedication to the conference audience, which was met with laughter.
“To Jack Wilson, although we didn’t always agree, Jack could find fossils, which put me in my place. Ross Maxwell.”
In 1949, Jack Wilson founded the Texas Vertebrate Paleontology collections at the University of Texas at Austin, today the fifth largest vertebrate fossil collection in North America. “The building was a former World War II magnesium smelting plant, and it is now packed with fossils, endless shells of dinosaur bones, tiny mammal bones and mammoth skeletons,” explained Wilson, the first and only artist in residence at the lab.
Wilson visited the lab growing up, but has done so more frequently as an adult in the wake of her grandfather’s passing in 2009. She recalled how her grandfather brought a cast of an albertosaurus skull to her elementary school show, and described his affinity for bolo ties.
“He would make some of his own bolo ties from rocks and bones, fossils that he found, or he would get coins or trinkets on his trips around the world to visit other paleontologists,” said Wilson.
Shortly before his 94th birthday, Jack Wilson became sick with pneumonia, she went on to say. On a visit to his hospital room she hung up a picture she’d captured of a thriving ocotillo plant in the national park. Her grandfather was able to immediately pinpoint the exact location where the photograph was taken, she said, warning the audience that this is where she gets emotional.
“He sat up kind of tall and he removed his respirator and had this moment of clarity,” she said. “He was right — the rock formation in the background is directly across from Castolon Peak. In that moment, I felt that we were connected more than ever before. He died a few hours later.”
Since his passing, Wilson has stayed connected with her grandfather through routine visits to the lab, where she set her trained eye as a photographer and storyteller to illuminating the collection, which consists of over one million bones, in new ways, with the help of current lab director Matthew Brown, who also wrote an essay for her book. Brown’s words follow a narrative from Jack Wilson himself about his profession, broadcast on the airwaves and printed in the local newspaper in the thirties in Massachusetts, where he was originally from.
Wilson has also been accompanying UT professors on digs in West Texas for the past 10 years, including at the Dalquest research site in Terlingua. She said she exercises similar skills to making art while out on digs — patience and an attention to detail. On her second trip she found a piece of a jawbone with two intact molars, which turned out to be the first known lower jaw of Texadon, a deer-like mammal that lived 43 million years ago. The specimen now sits in its own cardboard box inside of a drawer at the lab alongside some of her grandfather’s finds from the same locality discovered fifty years prior.
In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, Wilson said putting the book together after amassing images for a decade was a challenge, and required her to question why she was making the work and how it connected back to her.
“I think the book itself needed to be a little bit more of a general interest story where you could connect to it if you were a paleontologist or a geologist, and see a similar story. But you could also see it as anyone who recognizes it as a personal journey or a journey to know your family more,” said Wilson.
In the book, landscape collages shot with her grandfather’s Pentax Honeywell film camera take up two-page spreads and showcase the geological diversity of the Big Bend region. Other unique landscapes consist of Wilson holding up Jack Wilson’s old Kodachrome teaching slides in front of the camera, the same magnificent rock formation or view in the background, illustrating the passage of him and their shared visions.
Documenting such a naturally beautiful, heavily-photographed region, Wilson said she spent time pondering landscapes and how she could make scenes more interesting. She often has to go with the flow while out on digs and is unable to wait for the perfect lighting moment but leaned on her intuition as an artist, she said.
“There’s times when I know that I’ve made a picture that’s my style. There are a lot of pictures I took that weren’t,” she said. “But sometimes you’ve got the right lens, you’re standing in the right place, the light is just perfect, there’s enough shadow, where [you go], ‘Oh, that’s me. I’m connecting with that.’”
Wilson has maintained a relationship with the West Texas desert for some time, first coming out to Marathon for a summer in the nineties to assist photographer James Evans in printing his Big Bend Pictures book. But at the time, she said, she didn’t know how to interact with the vast area and felt she had no obvious connection, no land, seemingly no history, until she learned more about her grandfather’s presence in the region and had the experience of combing hillsides looking for bones and interacting with them.
“My connection to this land is not only mine, but it’s also my grandfather’s, and there’s something about being able to go on these digs, where it’s not just like the tourists’ version of the perfect landscape that we’ve seen a million times,” said Wilson. “No, I am in the dirt. It’s part of me, I’m part of it. These hillsides are graveyards for animals from 40 million years ago.”
Wilson’s book thoughtfully echoes the aesthetics of her grandfather’s world. Handwritten cursive titles in pencil are an homage to his field notes — where he documented his finds and activities, like a visit to Study Butte for groceries and mail. The lab’s labels also get a shout out, with her utilizing the same typewriter font. Wilson’s affinity for the lab’s less-renowned collection of old containers like Falstaff beer boxes and cigarette cartons comes through in her photographs that assemble the lab’s fossils, current employees and objects. One photograph in the book showcases a collection of deep time stamps — “jurassic,” “eoscene,” “permian,” and more — used for labeling.
The lab is still furnished with mid-century furniture, dominated by rock, wood and metal materials, which Wilson said she finds comforting. “I miss him and I also miss his lifestyle. I miss that age, that mid-century time period, where things were made really well and beautifully.”
Wilson has borrowed various lab equipment, as opposed to traditional pedestals, to help highlight the lab’s extensive fossil collection, which allows the portraits of fossils to take on more personality than your typical National Geographic-style shot. A screen used to sift sand doubles as a frame for a skull; a ceratopsian skull rests on a cart with wheels surrounded by archival shelving. “[It] takes lighting, takes a lot of time to make it sing,” said Wilson.
At a recent family reunion, while flipping through an old photo album featuring memories of paleontologists she recognized sipping margaritas at her grandparents home on Lake Austin, Wilson was reminded of her role in carrying on her grandfather’s legacy — at the core, she said, they share the same adventurous spirit.
“From the perspective of my family, as someone who is carrying on my grandfather’s life and what he did and reminding everybody that it’s something to think about and to consider special, I love that I get to highlight it and represent it in a way that’s, I don’t know, art,” Wilson laughs.
DIG: Notes on Field and Family, is available for pre-sale through Yoffy Press until November 30. Fine art prints and a private tour of the UT Vertebrate Paleontology lab are also available through Wilson’s publisher. Wilson’s body of work will also be the subject of an exhibition at Do Right Hall in Marfa this summer.
To purchase DIG: Notes on Field and Family, visit yoffypress.com/dig. For more information on Sarah Wilson, visit her website sarahwilsonphotography.com/