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Travel Back in Time to the Atomic Badlands of the American West

Yucca Fountain event flier

September 5, 2019

Founded at the turn of the 20th century, the mysterious “Yucca Fountain” filled a void in the Nevada desert for travelers looking to beat the heat. It was considered the hub of the Amargosa Valley community as a gathering place to exchange news and gossip as well as to beat the heat with ice cream; however, it had vanished into obscurity. That is, until two Boston-based artists took the initiative to restore it in the University of Northern Colorado’s Campus Commons Gallery.

Google Maps image of the area where the Yucca Fountain functioned.
Above: Google Maps image of the Amargosa Valley area where the Yucca Fountain originally functioned. View the area in Google Maps.

Artists Andrew Bablo, creator at Steez Design, and Helen Popinchalk, gallery director and an assistant professor at Simmons University, learned of “Yucca Fountain” while on a road trip several years ago where the building was damaged by fire in the late 1950s. As installation art practitioners, they were interested in creating experiences for people that engage as many senses as possible while transporting the viewer back in time to the fountain set in the 1950s in the desert gloaming: Sand and gravel crunching under foot, licking an ice-cream cone or sipping a soda, exploring the Fountain and surrounds, coyotes howling in the distance and the rumbling of a freight train on the horizon.

Q&A with “Yucca Fountain” artists, Bablo and Popinchalk

Andrew Bablo and Helen Popinchalk pose in front of the gallery
Above: 
“Yucca Fountain” artist installers Andrew Bablo and Helen Popinchalk stand in front of the gallery that where they worked on the exhibit over the summer.

  • What’s your vision with this piece? Is it interactive?
    Our vision is immersive place-making and, yes, it will be interactive! Like most interesting stories, you can engage with our installation on multiple levels. Those looking for a cold drink or a hot snack will be satiated. And those looking to snoop around in someone’s travel trailer to uncover a conspiracy theory will not be disappointed! 

    There are deeper ideas for those who appreciate the profound: what does the parable of “Yucca Fountain” tell us about the vanishing of small town, community gathering places

    For us, “Yucca Fountain” has emerged as a tantalizing but incomplete puzzle, a myth of epic proportions. Our installation strives to shine a light on this strange place that could only have existed in the atomic badlands of the American west. What does the story of “Yucca Fountain” tell us about our nuclear past? How does it relate to our current relationship with atomic power in all of its forms? We think that this examination of the past may help inform our future.

  • Why UNC?
    We approached UNC Director of Galleries, Pam Campanaro, last year with this absolutely crazy idea: “How about you let us blow up your gallery?” Not literally, of course! But “Yucca Fountain” will astonish those familiar with the Campus Commons Gallery. It is a space totally transformed.

    Pam took a chance on us and has supported us at every step. We couldn’t ask for a better collaborator!

  • How long will this exhibit be at UNC? How will people be able to interact with it?
    Yucca Fountain event flier“Yucca Fountain” will open on Sept. 19 and will be on exhibit through March 14, 2020. We hope the UNC and Greeley communities will join us for an opening reception from 4-9 p.m. on Sept. 19.

    Visitors to the installation on opening night will be served cool licks and hot snacks – at 1950s prices! All of the proceeds from this event will be donated to the UNC Bear Food Pantry. The Fountain will serve food during other special events, as well.

    In the gallery, people can explore the Fountain itself, sit at the booths or the counter, wander through the Yucca gift shop, explore our desert-scape and uncover the strange story of “Yucca Fountain”, just as we found it, in a small travel trailer. There will be lots to see, mysteries to investigate and much to discover.

  • How do you think UNC students will react to it?
    We hope they’ll enjoy the novelty of the show, the transformation of Campus Commons Gallery and the ideas, themes and experiences we are presenting. This show is a microcosm of so many small towns and cities that are rapidly changing as old and historic community gathering spots, businesses and shops are being torn down to make way for condos and parking lots. We hope UNC students will take a moment to reflect on their own town, Greeley, and how it is changing.

    UNC Campus Commons Gallery windows covered with images related to Yucca Fountain
    Above: The UNC Campus Commons Gallery windows are covered with Yucca Fountain images as well as relevant 1950s news headlines of atomic bomb tests, the American west and more.

    From a programmatic standpoint, the gallery is looking forward to presenting six months of innovative, interdisciplinary events in conjunction with “Yucca Fountain.” Each program will approach, question and interpret the exhibition from a variety of perspectives. The gallery staff also encourages class visits and private tours.

    UNC faculty will have opportunities to incorporate “Yucca Fountain” into their curriculum this academic year where intimate visits, gallery interpretation talks, and curatorial tours can all be arranged.

  • Is this your first installation with UNC?
    This is Helen’s first project at UNC; however, for the past two summers, Andrew has collaborated with artist Pat Milbery on mural projects inside Crabbe Hall.

    The first year they painted one wing of the hall that they coined “In A New Light.”  Last year, they painted the other wing, appropriately titled “In A New Light 2.”  Crabbe Hall is 100 years old this summer, and the colorful murals inside are a refreshing addition to this beautiful, historic building.

    View videos of the mural projects:
  • What are your backgrounds and art interests?
    Andrew is a graphic designer by trade, but he prefers to loosely use the term “design”. As much as he enjoys designing a project, he’d just as soon paint it on a wall or in his shop building and fabricating to bring the designs to life.

    Helen is a printmaker who fell down the rabbit hole of installation art when she collaborated on a blacklight poster show with two other Boston-area screen printers. From there, squeegee in hand, she never looked back. She has been working on creating immersive installations with Andrew for the past three years.

How to Support the "Yucca Fountain"

UNC Galleries is looking to raise $5,000 to schedule six months of innovative events in conjunction with "Yucca Fountain." Each program will approach, question and interpret the exhibition from a variety of perspectives. Your financial support will make it possible for things like the Visiting Artist Program, guest speakers, film screenings in partnership with the UNC Department of Film Studies and more.

Whether you’re a Performing/Visual Arts Major or you’re at UNC for History, Biology — you name it! — there will be programs to entice you to visit the Gallery and keep you coming back. 

Learn more about this crowdfunding project that will run from September 9-October 14.

More Info:

—Produced by Katie-Leigh Corder.

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