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Finding a new outlook in the Mesa Verde

Steve Wolverton and Melinda LevinTwo faculty members from UNT were challenged to gain new perspectives on their work — and got the inspiration for a book and exhibition at UNT on the Square — because of a tough reaction at a 2010 panel discussion.

Steve Wolverton, associate professor of geography, and Melinda Levin, professor of media arts, were speaking about research as storytelling in Victoria, Canada, when an audience member from a First Nations tribe said he wanted practical advice about how scholarship can solve social and environmental problems. He was not interested in pithy anecdotes.

The incident made them think about what they really cared about as university professors. They decided they needed to take an interdisciplinary team of researchers to the field. They chose the Mesa Verde region in Colorado and Utah.

Sushi in CortezThe result is Sushi in Cortez, an exhibition that will feature their films, photographs, poetry and essays May 6-9 at UNT on the Square, with a public presentation at 6 p.m. May 9. The event coincides with the release of the book Sushi in Cortez: Interdisciplinary Essays on Mesa Verde (University of Utah Press), edited by former UNT English lecturer David Taylor, now a visiting assistant professor at Stony Brook University, and Wolverton.

Mesa Verde is known for its archaeology and indigenous population.

“It’s a character,” Levin said. “It’s the stage we kind of danced on.”

The quirky title comes from the fact that the world is so globalized.

“You can go to Cortez — this remote place — and have sushi,” Levin said. “The title really encapsulated that.”

The area inspired poetry by Taylor; an 8-minute film by Levin; photographs by Steve Bardolph, associate professor of design at the University of Minnesota – Duluth; and essays by Wolverton, Rob Figueroa, former UNT associate professor of philosophy, now at Oregon State University and Porter Swentzell, assistant professor of Institute of American Indian Arts.

The trips changed the faculty members’ perspectives.

“It was like I was exposed and vulnerable,” Wolverton said. “Here I was asking myself not to be an expert.”

Wolverton said the experience changed for him what it means to be an archeologist. Particularly, archeological research has impacts on local people, and he has developed more respect for the cultural and environmental heritages of the areas.

“Sometimes, these things need to be left alone,” Wolverton said. 

Levin remembered seeing tourists snapping away at the land, snickering in her head at their voyeurism.

Then she realized, “I’m doing the exact same thing.”

For her 8-minute film, Levin experimented from the usual documentary films that rely on interviews. Instead, she wanted to focus on the area’s diversity — from its touristy parts to its ragged areas — and she drew on the sounds of its animals and nature.

“I was really interested in the issue of memory and how you define home and what does tourism do to a place,” she said. “It’s a very different film for me to make.”

While both agreed the project was challenging, it was always very rewarding.

“This was not a creative process for me,” Wolverton said. “This was a self-reflection process. It was one of the most enriching experiences in my career.”

—Jessica DeLeón, University Relations, Communications and Marketing

Posted on: Wed 08 April 2015

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