NORMAN — Fifty years ago, pre-eminent modern artist Ed Ruscha’s journey from his home in Los Angeles to his childhood home, Oklahoma City, was immortalized in his book “Twentysix Gasoline Stations.”
In May, 20 University of Oklahoma students of multiple disciplines recreated the journey in reverse, integrating modern technology to document changes to the landscape and experience an in-depth look at evolving culture, geography and travel.
“I was inspired to create this trip when I was contemplating the difference between Ruscha’s journey in 1962 and the journey today,” said Todd Stewart, associate professor of photography. “All our technology now, even the interstate system has changed — Ruscha was on old Route 66 — today it’s a very different experience.”
Participating students stopped at each of the 26 gas stations’ locations, discovering everything from abandoned structures, to parking lots and even a hair salon.
“I loved seeing how creative and energetic the students were in documenting and interacting with the sites,” said Jessica Farling, curator of Academic Programs. “Our first stop in Shamrock, Texas, led us to the gas station repurposed as a hair salon, and a student who had long hair got it cut there.”
Since the 3,000-mile trip was much more about documenting a journey and taking stock of various locations, the group took 10 days to travel from Oklahoma to California, spending time at appropriate locations to interview local residents, collect artifacts and map the site.
“Part of what Ruscha was dealing with was the burgeoning ‘geography of nowhere;’ it was just before every gas station looked the same. Then, it still had character and you could see different things going from Oklahoma to Albuquerque and see different things, but you get on the highway now and you don’t know where you are, based on your surroundings,” Stewart said. “The way we travel now involves posting photos/videos online and being told where to go via a GPS.”
Part of the Road to Ruscha experience involved an opportunity to meet the artist, and the group was welcomed into Ruscha’s studio.
“It’s very rare for an artist like Ed Ruscha to welcome visitors, especially a group of 23 people,” Farling said. “It was an extremely rare and special opportunity, and everyone there was so hospitable and glad to have us. They even did five door prizes, which included books and a pencil Ed had kept in his studio since 1963 when the book was published.”
Now that the trip has been completed and information on the students’ experiences has been published online, visitors to the museum’s website can take away a glimpse of a changing landscape and an unchanging reward in a journey not taken for granted.
“I hope it inspires people to take a road trip — you can’t experience it through photos or apps. Usually when you drive, you’re on a set schedule and you don’t make a lot of stops, but it’s so good to stop and see the places between destinations,” Farling said.