NATURE NOTES:
In “Texas as Art,” Geologist Transforms Satellite Imagery to Stunning Effect

By Andrew Stuart

photograph by Michael Nickell. Geologist Rebecca Dodge, with pieces from her exhibit “Texas as Art,” at the Sibley Nature Center in Midland.

As a return to air travel accelerates, some remember its conveniences, others its hassles. There are also surprising moments of beauty from the air. A window seat on a flight from Midland to Las Vegas presents a vision of the Grand Canyon – light seeming to shine from its depths. Flying west into El Paso, a Big Bend resident looks out on the mountains and mesas of home – range upon shadowy range, stretching into Mexico. A flight over the Panhandle reveals intricate patterns of dazzling color – the caprock canyons, the headwaters and breaks of Texas rivers. Human impacts also come into focus. Well pads dominate the view on a flight from West to Central Texas, reminding the traveler how much of the state is given over to oil-and-gas extraction. 

The “view from on high” is the starting point for an exhibit now on display at the Sibley Nature Center in Midland. In “Texas as Art,” geologist Dr. Rebecca Dodge has taken satellite imagery of our region – and transformed it. It’s West Texas as you’ve never seen it before.

“I never thought of myself as an artist, although I’ve processed satellite imagery for 30 years,” Dodge said. “Turning it into art was a challenge I felt like I might not be able to meet. But it’s been a lot of fun, and people seem to like the art, so I’m happy.”

Dodge is an emeritus professor at Midwestern State University, semi-retired now to Midland. She’s long worked with imagery generated by “Landsat” satellites.  

The satellites are built by NASA – the first Landsat was launched in 1972 – and owned and operated by the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS makes Landsat imagery freely available, and it’s a powerful tool in land management, informing decisions about crop production, water use and forest restoration around the world.

The USGS also supports its use in K through 12 education. For years, Dodge has helped Texas teachers integrate Landsat imagery into science instruction. Images centered on state parks – Monahans Sandhills, Palo Duro Canyon, Big Bend Ranch – help students grasp scientific concepts like erosion, wind deposition and volcanism.

In terms of geology and geography, the Landsat images are instructive. But they also invite an aesthetic engagement. 

In 2012, NASA published a collection called “Earth as Art.” Even more than the view from an aircraft, satellite imagery reveals the Earth’s surface as a tapestry of evocative shapes, forms and textures. Landsat records light beyond the visible range, and by incorporating that infrared light, the images accentuate the planet’s beauty, and strangeness.

Through grant funding, NASA and the USGS invited its geologist partners to share these “Earth as Art” images in exhibits. Dodge considered showing them at Sibley – but then had a different idea.

“I was always thinking, ‘That’s so beautiful – I wish I was an artist, I wish I could do that,’” Dodge said. “I was originally going to bring those images to Sibley – and I thought, wait a minute, Texas has such beautiful landscapes, I’m going to give it try to turn this into ‘Texas as Art.’”

Dodge has taken 14 satellite images – each capturing an area about 50 miles wide – and made bold changes in color. The muted desert pallet has been replaced – with intensely vivid reds, blues, purples and greens. 

The colors still reflect facts on the ground – geological strata, soil types, vegetation – and the landforms and water courses of West Texas are identifiable. One work is centered on Big Bend Ranch State Park – the Rio Grande corridor stands out, and the area’s geological complexity makes the image dizzying. Another piece focuses on the Monahans Sandhills – I-20 is visible, as are the communities of Odessa and Midland, and the oilfields that abut them.

The satellite perspective itself is intriguing. But the changes Dodge has made render these West Texas places surreal, electric.

Michael Nickell, Sibley’s museum scientist, hung the exhibit. 

“And when she finally came out with the actual images being used, I was absolutely floored,” Nickell said. “They were very stunning images, and in many respects they have the qualities of that abstract expressionist-type painting, after the likes of Jackson Pollack. I was amazed by the quality of them. Some of them, by the juxtaposition of colors, almost have a three-dimensional quality.” 

Nickell is both a scientist, and an artist. As a young man, he traveled from his native Amarillo to Santa Fe and Taos – the trip was a high-school graduation gift from family friends – to take in the art there. He’d been particularly impressed and moved by a Pollack retrospective. 

After seeing Dodge’s work, Nickell returned to reading he’d done about Pollack in the past. In a confirmation of the resonance he’d felt, one critic connected Pollack’s “action painting” to “the vast new vocabulary of forms that the surface of the Earth itself yields to modern eyes and imagination.”  

The images Dodge has created are arresting, and their size contributes to the effect – each is 30-by-30-inches. The work is making its debut at Sibley, but will move to other institutions across the state in the coming years. And Dodge plans to create new pieces – using satellite imagery of other parts of Texas.

The “Texas as Art” exhibit is on display at Sibley through June, and there will be a reception Tuesday, May 4, at 7 p.m.