I fly back to Manchester tomorrow after a very productive and adventuresome trip to Utah. I’ve learned all sorts of lessons and met some interesting people. I have had my faith restored through the friendliness I’ve encountered along the way as well as the loveliness of the natural landscape that has been the backdrop to my travels.
The main purpose of my trip has been academic. The Branding the American West conference at the Museum of Art (MoA), BYU, has more than outstripped my expectations. Every paper I attended was well delivered, well constructed, well researched. I once heard that the secret to a good presentation – and the secret to a good reception – was simply to show an audience that their time and attendance was valued. Being prepared and evidencing effort, constructing an argument, showing care and thought in what is argued, then, serves the idea that an audience wishes to be – and is – appreciated by the speaker (and, no doubt, vice versa). This sentiment was played out at the MoA conference in spades (or should that be copper miners’ shovels, I wonder?)
Janalee Emmer, Director of Education at the Museum, and conference organiser had put together a carefully curated programme of speakers. My two panel mates, Sonya Abrego and Caroline Jean Fernald, formed the perfect complement to my own presentation on dude ranch clothing in the Thirties. Sonya, with a recently-earned doctorate from my old stamping ground in NYC, the Bard Graduate Center, switched the focus to the 40s and 50s with a detailed discussion of Western clothing brands (think Wranglers and Levi’s) and their use of cattle brand hieroglyphics. Her argument was illustrated with some super examples, including a denim line for children by Lee, which sold pint-sized jeans with a blank leather patch on the back left pocket ready to be scorched in-store with a personalised name (how I’d like some of those!). Caroline, Director of the Millicent Rogers Museum, Taos, New Mexico, focused on Native American objects as tourist artefacts and showed us photographs of holiday-maker Albert Einstein (no less) during visits to the West on the Santa Fe railroad.
It’s both difficult and a little unfair to pick out highlights from the symposium. I enjoyed Phil Deloria’s (University of Michigan) keynote speech on Western branding, in which he proposed the mythologizing process to be as much about ‘Westing’ the brand (as branding the West). His talk took me back to my doctoral thesis and my own past work on Britishness and branding and the commodification of national identity (refer to my book, The National Fabric). Leo Mazow from the Universiy of Arkansas rounded off the first day’s programme with a tour de force, ending his presentation on Thomas Benton and Edward Hopper with a 10-song guitar and vocal performance. Surely every conference should include a singing professor? The conference banquet was held in the University’s ‘Skyroom’, a viewing gallery set on the top floor of the Student’s Union building, with awesome views of a setting sun over the Wasatch range. We marvelled at the scenery whilst dining from enamel plates with bandana napkins, channelling the chuck wagon and chowing down (to use the vernacular).
Day two of the conference served up the opportunity to hear from the curators of the MoA’s latest exhibition, also titled ‘Branding the American West: Paintings and Films 1900-1950’, which is a collaboration between BYU and the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas. We were treated to a panel discussion with the essayist contributors to the exhibition catalogue, too. As a result, I am much more knowledgeable about the works of those Western painters such as Maynard Dixon, Frederic Remington and the Taos School (and was honoured to view the originals in the excellent exhibition curated by Marian Wardle and Sarah Boehme). And I was introduced, too, to artists unknown to me such as the Mormon painter, Minerva Teichert, with her signature delicate and ethereal style.
There is more to attending a conference than simply turning up or to ‘scoring’ a presentation point to put on a CV. Finding out about other academics and their work – and learning from them is an enriching process. But, so too, are the enrichments from the unexpected or unscheduled experiences. During my visit, a group of us went up into the mountains to dine at Sundance Ranch (of film festival and Robert Redford fame) and marvelled at the floodlit ski runs replete with their after-dark skiers swooshing dramatically into the night. I was also invited by the director of the Redd Center for the American West (Brian Cannon) at BYU to go on a tour of Provo Canyon and was delighted to have the opportunity to see Bridal Veil Falls in snow. And, after the conference concluded on Saturday afternoon, I was up bright and early on Sunday morning to catch a lift into Salt Lake City for the renowned live broadcast (the longest running continuous radio broadcast in history) of ‘Music and the Spoken Word’ at the Mormon Tabernacle. My trip to Utah? Stirring in both mind and spirit.