wes sam bruce
Photo courtesy of Mass MoCA

Colorado artist Wes Sam-Bruce’s new installation at Mass MoCA takes its inspiration from a local engineering marvel with a rich and sometimes dark history: the Hoosac Tunnel.

The railroad tunnel, whose perfectly straight bore stretches nearly five miles through the mountains of the Hoosac Range, allowed trains to connect between the Deerfield and Hoosic river valleys on their way between Boston and upstate New York. Extending from the town of Florida to the city of North Adams, the Hoosac was the second-longest tunnel in the world at the time it was completed in 1875 — after nearly 25 years of effort.

The tunnel has captured the public imagination ever since, but not just as a triumph of technology. A total of 193 railroad workers died in its construction, so the tunnel’s local legend includes strains of the ghostly and macabre.

Starting June 17, Sam-Bruce’s new work, “Cavernous: The Inner Life of Courage,” will inhabit the gallery at KidSpace at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

The artist’s fabricated structure mimics the actual tunnel while also referencing other elements of North Adams history. And the work reflects Sam-Bruce’s own psychological landscape of exploration, something he’s been developing since childhood.

The Hoosac Tunnel is still used by freight trains, though passenger trains, barring some special excursions, have not regularly traveled through it since 1958. But it remains inescapable to anyone trying to understand North Adams’ history.

“Jumping into North Adams, you immediately find out a lot about the Hoosac Tunnel,” Sam-Bruce explained, describing the inspiration for his work.

“I like quiet subterranean spaces, and I like the metaphor of things that you bring to light down in those areas,” he continued. “Diving into all of those stories and all the ideas and metaphors that come with building a tunnel for a quarter of a century through a mountain is already really loaded and laden with art in there, so it ties itself really nicely together.”

Absorbing local history
Sam-Bruce spent the late winter and early spring visiting the tunnel up close, getting a feel for it. He also dug into the history of the Mass MoCA complex and covered as much of the area as he could on foot. His observations ended up as poems, sketches, and collages in his notebook that became the fuel for “Cavernous.”

“I’m inhaling the things that I’m reading and researching, then trying to exhale that into a notebook and seeing what piques my interest,” he explained. “I’ll send that stuff to friends or put a little snippet into my social media channels and then see what piques people’s interest, see what piques my interest, and develop the ideas from there.”

The artist spent the month of April on the Mass MoCA campus, fashioning his ideas into an actual structure that he describes as “a cross between something that’s architectural and something that’s this experimental exploratory landscape that’s immersive.”

Sam-Bruce attempts to replicate the experience of entering the Hoosac Tunnel within the gallery itself by bringing together wood as wall panels, wood tiles as the top of the mountain, thousands of wood crystals to make it seem as though you’ve stepped into a giant geode, with an entrance at each end and six chambers within that are a nod to the six alignment towers built into the tunnel that were used to keep it true to course as it was built.

The artist also includes details that reference such things as Sprague Electric, which formerly occupied the campus that now houses Mass MoCA, and the local company’s involvement in Gemini and Apollo moon missions through components manufactured for NASA. Sam-Bruce also makes reference to the demolition of a chunk of downtown North Adams in the Urban Renewal movement of the 1970s — resulting in what many still regard as a wound in the center of the city.

“The things I’m trying to tap into aren’t necessarily specifically historical, in terms of it took this amount of humans to make it or this many days or this machine,” Sam-Bruce said. “I’m trying to conjure feeling with it. “

That’s where the personal aspect of this project, the less tangible history that inspired Sam-Bruce’s creation, becomes a factor.

Construction as art
Sam-Bruce grew up in northern California, where his father was a construction worker. As a boy he played with the materials his dad had around their home, and he tagged along to job sites. His desire to build structures never went away.

Later, after finishing art school and an unsatisfying period as a painter, he struggled for a form that satisfied his desire to express himself more.

Then, while working a stint as a summer camp counselor, he built a huge cardboard structure in the woods for the staff to congregate inside as a retreat. That was the moment he realized the artistic potential, as well as the emotional and psychological power, of creating structures people could enter.

“We spent the night in this thing, and it brought out all kinds of conversation,” Sam-Bruce recalled. “It felt like people had received an invitation that I didn’t even know I was offering by making this thing. People opened up and were their vulnerable selves in that space. It felt really worth making, where with the paintings it felt like it didn’t really matter whether I made them or not. I thought maybe I should explore stuff like this as art. I feel like I accidentally made a piece of art with that structure.”

Sam-Bruce approached his first placement in a group gallery show as an opportunity for evolution, offering to create a site-specific structure for the gallery instead of a painting, resulting in a fort-like creation made from scrap wood.

“People were really engaged with it, and I didn’t have to explain anything,” he said. “I could just be totally anonymous. It didn’t need an artist statement. It didn’t need me explaining the didactic at all. That was the first time I had built something that was immersive or exploratory or architectural in an art context, and I was doing it on purpose.”

Combing caves and mines
These works also drew from his childhood fascination with caves, which was nurtured by his parents taking him on regular hikes that included exploring caves and old mines. Sam-Bruce’s father liked to prospect for gold, and a weekend day trip often saw the family doing just that, as well as digging for artifacts and going into mines.

During his high school and college years, Sam-Bruce spent a lot of his free time with friends exploring the many limestone caves in the region near his home.

“We’d drive around these canyon roads forever and then park and scramble around on canyon walls and look for openings in the earth, and then put your headlight on and crawl in and see where it would go,” Sam-Bruce recalled. “The feelings that came from doing that were exciting enough to keep me doing it.”

The emotions inspired by those activities are the ones Sam-Bruce tries to conjure up with his artwork. He remembers what it feels like to stand on the edge of a dark hole and imagine what awaits him inside. It’s the same feeling he had when he went to take a look at the entrance to the Hoosac Tunnel, and it’s what he hope kids feel when they encounter his structure in KidSpace. He sees it as a natural reaction to exploration, but also as part of the sense of wonder and danger that kids can bring to such situations.

“It feels like that’s the gold vein in the mountain that I’m trying to tap into, those feelings kids are having,” Sam-Bruce said. “I want those feelings of mystery and excitement — or the feeling that you might get as a kid trespassing up to the Hoosac Tunnel as a middle-schooler or a high-schooler in North Adams. I know that those feelings are happening with kids, whether it’s that tunnel or an abandoned house or stepping into an old mill or something like that. I love those feelings, and I want them to have their place in this exhibition.”

Originally appeared in the Hill Country Observer.

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