Happenstance seated Dustin Lee Shores and Eric Wilson side by side in a contemporary issues in fine arts course taught by art professor Sama Alshaibi, who then paired the two — merely because they were seated in close proximity — for a course assignment.
It was the first meeting of Shores and Wilson, both new to Tucson and graduate studies in the University of Arizona School of Art. Weeks prior, each had driven hundreds of miles to relocate in Tucson, Shores from North Carolina and Wilson from Illinois.
In their early conversations, each realized they shared eerily similar perceptions and, in some ways, misguided beliefs about the West that, for them, formed a type of mythology. Informed by Western films, media depictions and even the iconic photographic legacy of Ansel Adams, the two imagined the West would be in stark contrast to their hometowns.
"It took me almost four days to drive here. What I started to notice was that the scenery was the same. Lots of McDonald's, Wal-Marts and 7-Elevens," said Shores, a photography student in the Master of Fine Arts program. "I had imagined a revolution. I thought it would be completely different, but that was all an illusion, and I had bought into this illusion."
This led Shores and Wilson to launch a joint investigation into the aesthetics and documented history of the West, questioning westward expansion and exploration and imaginations associated with the West.
Shores studies contemporary manifestations of the West through photography. Wilson collects toys, trinkets and tokens that speak to American history, culture, heritage and geography, incorporating them into his artwork. In doing so, they attempt to reimagine truths associated with Americana and how iconic aesthetics are born and become commercialized.
The two co-presented "West by Wester" at the UA's Lionel Rombach Gallery during the fall semester. This month, they are bound for Monument Valley in the Colorado Plateau. There, they will investigate visual documentation of the region, "the natural icon of the West," said Wilson, a master's student studying printmaking and installation-based art.
An example both presented are the typical, humanless photos of the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam. Though aesthetic, both see such imagery as strangely abstracted, projecting in some ways an incorrect image of the place. Such images, they explained, also sometimes negates the possibility of understanding environmental or economic concerns or ways in which certain people are stereotyped.
"It's like lifting the veil," said Shores, who has photographed rodeo gatherings, parts of downtown Tucson, urban parks and national parks.
"You think of it as an idealized image. People often aren't even in the photos, but for me, stepping back and photographing people in these iconic locations delivers a different message. By looking at these photographs, I am trying to critically analyze something that has been idealized."
Together, their work encourages viewers to construct new and different meaning associated with the West.
"This work is about more than just the Southwest, it is about the construction of America, and that is connected to constructions about the American Dream," Shores said.
While the two have developed a critical perception of how the West is sometimes depicted, each acknowledges that they also have developed a newfound appreciation for the nation's regionality and social, cultural, political and economic nuances found in different places.
"I have learned a lot, and this place has opened my eyes to just how diverse the United States is," Shores said.
This summer, he intends to return home to begin his thesis work: a photographic examination of the Southeast. Wilson plans to explore mythology and iconography associated with Americana through the creation of dioramas "depicting the world's largest things in miniature to play off of the tendency toward extravagance."
"This experience has opened me up to understand the social and economic instability in the Southeast," Shores said. "It is something I did not have the skills to explore, but do now."
Wilson also said his understanding and respect for the West has deepened in ways previously unimaginable.
"I find it to be a very magical place," Wilson said. "There is somehow a collision between what is magical and what is real, and that starts to create new images in my mind."