HOOPER — It took three years, 52 experts, 160 acres of land, three interns, two studio workers and two very determined museum directors to produce Marguerite Humeau’s earthwork, “Orisons.”
But two days before it opened to the public, the artist still wasn’t sure it was finished.
Humeau wrung her hands and picked her fingernails on a Thursday outside of the Frontier Drive-inn in Center, anxious to get back to her work, which since early July has started at 5 a.m. and almost always lasted until sunset each day. Bright orange and blue paint had settled into the cracks in her skin, evidence of a last-minute decision to coat her sculptures in farm equipment paint.
Humeau and her studio team are based in London. They flew out in early July to get ready for the installation’s July 28 opening. For three weeks they’ve been staying at the Frontier — about a 20 minute drive from the site of the artwork — putting finishing touches on her 84 sculptures built from steel, stone and rope. Then re-finishing those finishing touches. “I think my team was a bit like ‘what is she doing?’ you know, when the artist goes a bit crazy,” Humeau said.
Going “a bit crazy” is the modus operandi of Black Cube, the Denver-based nomadic art museum that helped support, research and produce “Orisons.” When Cortney Stell, executive director of Black Cube, helped establish the museum in 2015, she and the co-founders wanted to turn the idea of a traditional “white cube” museum on its head.
Stell took all of the limitations and negative perceptions about museums — that they’re sedentary, stuffy and devoid of context — and ran in the opposite direction. Black Cube supports projects that engage the community, interact with the site and are free and open to the public. Importantly, projects also have to challenge the artist. “If an artist paints clouds, we’re not going to take on the artist and do another cloud painting,” Stell said. “We’re going to stretch them.”
“Orisons” is Humeau’s most ambitious project to date — a collection of 84 sculptures inspired by the region’s flora and fauna that vary in size and shape. From giant sandhill crane sculptures with netted wings that visitors are invited to use like hammocks, down to tiny, spinning spurges that blend into the nearby sage and thistle. The sculptures dot a fallow tract of farmland in the San Luis Valley pocked with kangaroo rat burrows and red ant mounds. The full site takes roughly 30 minutes to cross on foot.
The land sits against a backdrop of the Great Sand Dunes. It belongs to Jones Farms Organics, a fifth-generation potato farming family with tracts all over the valley. They bought the land with the intention of farming it, but the soil wasn’t fertile enough. Then they tried cattle, which didn’t last long in the hostile environment, either. Finally they let it go fallow but kept the tract for its water rights, which they apply to their more lucrative farms.
Humeau immediately fell in love with the land — and the farmers, whom she calls avant-garde for their sustainable farming techniques — and an agreement was made to leave the art pieces up until summer 2025, or until the sun weakens them and the winds whip them away, whichever comes first.
Over the past three years, as Black Cube’s Artist Fellow, Humeau and her studio team sent numerous proposals over to Black Cube. Too expensive, too fragile, too much environmental impact. Each submission and revision informed the next.
Early iterations more closely resembled traditional earthworks of the 1970s — Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” or Michael Heizer’s “City” — grand gestures that can be seen from the sky. The team consulted soil scientists, agronomists, and public art fabricators, and learned moving huge tracts of earth would release carbon dioxide and further loosen the eroding soil. The artist went back to the drawing board. It is typical of Humeau’s work to involve long research periods and grand narratives, but she’s never had to drive a forklift into soil so loose it’s almost sand.
“One morning it clicked — why am I trying to transform this landscape?” Humeau said. She started thinking more gently. More “Wheatfield” by Agnes Denes or “The Lightening Field” by Walter De Maria. One proposal involved glass. That one was too delicate, Stell said.
Stell worried Humeau would burn out before they even started the project. “When you’re in the public realm there can be permits, there can be engineering, there can be community awareness and connection, all kinds of things are factored in that can really draw the process out,” she said. “Sometimes that amount of time can take the steam out of the engine.”
But Humeau continued to absorb research. She continued to find new experts, to elicit new input. Over the course of three years, Humeau and the Black Cube team spoke with ceramicists, percussionists, engineers, architects, agronomists, adobe experts and mythologies researchers. They consulted with the Southern Ute Tribe and held a private land blessing ceremony. They learned about the sandhill crane migration from local ornithologists. They met with a psychic who told them to “bring the heart back to the land.” They Zoomed with geomancers who used Google Maps to locate energy knots and wandering spirits.
By the time Humeau and her two-person studio team landed at Denver International Airport in early July, the project had consulted more than 50 experts at every level from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service to a local Facebook group. Its budget ran more than twice as large as Black Cube’s entire annual budget, and was supplemented by donations and other works that Humeau and her studio were simultaneously creating and selling to fund “Orisons.”
The work was always about finding the edge. The land it’s installed on is part of the last row of farms before the valley turns into the Great Sand Dunes. “The fact that it’s in a dead end, I like it conceptually,” Humeau said. “It’s kind of like, where are we going? How do we exist on Earth? It’s really about being on this edge, and understanding the fragility of life and how we care for it.”
Back at the Frontier Drive-inn, Humeau dug her bare heels into the gravel. “Recently I was out at the site and found myself in a huge dust storm — huge, huge, huge clouds that invaded everything,” she said, waving her hands around to suggest the scale. “It gave me a great sense of admiration for all of the forms of life out here. You feel really exposed, you are in the open sky, there is nothing to protect you.”
CORRECTION: This file was corrected Aug. 2 at 9:45 a.m. to clarify the proposal process. Humeau’s studio team worked collaboratively with Black Cube to research earlier versions of “Orisons.”