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Hidden City: Unearthing Kevin Sudeith's Urban Petroglyphs

The artist carves images of spacecraft, helicopters and airplanes on boulders around New York.

Thursday, February 09, 2012 - 12:00 AM

WNYC

The images reveal themselves slowly: a hot air balloon covered in moss, an NYPD helicopter darting across a granite sky, the delicate outline of what appears to be the Space Shuttle. Overhead, satellites dutifully orbit through space. This is no ordinary astronomical display. On a steep granite outcropping that lies within earshot of a major New York roadway, artist Kevin Sudeith has carved a series of delicate petroglyphs that depict a variety of air traffic.

It is an unusual juxtaposition of technique and imagery: crude rock carvings -- of the sort that have been produced for tens of thousands of years -- depict objects that represent the latest and greatest in scientific achievement.

"It's the cutting edge of human technology," said the clear-eyed Sudeith, who still carries a bit of a twang from his native Minnesota. "It could be there and we don't know about it. I'm interested in documenting it in a permanent way."

Since 2008, this itinerant artist has carved petroglyphs into stones around North America, from Cape Breton to California -- documenting facets of local culture and his long-running interest in space. ("When I first got a computer, the first thing I did was went online and looked at the Mars rover photos at NASA," he said. "Space imagery is amazing.")

Many of the pieces are done with the permission of land owners. Others are executed in abandoned, overlooked bits of parkland -- of the grim, dirty sort that can sometimes be found jammed between a couple of roadways.

"One of my goals in doing rock art in remote places is that it hopefully adds something to the place," said Sudeith. "That it makes something out of nothing."

Over the last couple of years, he has bounced in and out of New York City, planting roughly two dozen petroglyphs in the greater metropolitan area -- on boulders and granite outcroppings, amid leaf litter and hypodermic needles.

(For legal and other reasons, he prefers not to disclose their locations. Plus, he likes to give intrepid explorers the thrill of simply happening upon them.)

Sudeith, who was born in St. Paul, but received his MFA in painting from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan in 1995, says that his work is a way of creating a long-lasting record of our moment in time. In Nova Scotia, he recorded species of fish harvested by local fisherman. In Colorado, he did bear. On a rugged hillside, he carved images of area pick-up trucks. In his New York work, he's included the police department's high-tech helicopters.

"You see these ancient works of rock art that are beautiful and reveal things about cultures that don't exist anymore," he said of his inspiration. "Some of the carvings in the Southwest, they don't know what happened to the people that made them. They disappeared and that's all that's left of them. And that interests me -- to make a very permanent document of our moment."

Ultimately, it's about leaving little surprises for intrepid explorers -- a type of public art that takes place far away from high-traffic galleries and plazas. "People who come across work they are not expecting to see enjoy the surprise of it -- of coming across some unexpected thing," he said. "That is very rewarding for me."

To hear Sudeith talking about his work, click on the audio file below. His Web site Petroglyphist.com contains additional images of his work. (Special thanks to the band Ohioan for the snippet of their song "Being Cold" for our audio.)

Courtesy of the artist
Wherever he goes -- whether it's California, New York, or North Dakota -- Sudeith draws objects related to air and space travel: helicopters, airplanes and even the Space Shuttle (shown above).
Courtesy of the artist
On a rock in the vicinity of New York City, Sudeith has carved an image of an NYPD helicopter. Aircraft, he says, are an omnipresent part of our physical environment.
Courtesy of the artist
Though satellites can't be seen from earth, Sudeith includes them because he says that no matter where he goes, he knows they are there.
Courtesy of the artist
After Sudeith completes a carving, he paints it, then covers it in a wet of piece of paper -- resulting in printed impressions like the one above. This is from a carving of a satellite in Colorado.
Courtesy of the artist
In his Brooklyn studio, Sudeith has impressions of carvings of a moose and a single floating astronaut. His images are a mix of the earthy and the hypertechnological.
Carolina A. Miranda
One of his carvings from the New York area: an image of a hot-air balloon, made in 2009.
Courtesy of the artist
An astronaut attached to a clutch of balloons, a hydroplane and a jet -- all from the New York area.
Carolina A. Miranda
An impression of the Space Shuttle hanging in Sudeith's studio.
Courtesy of the artist
A carving of a C-5, a military transport plane -- used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other conflicts.
Courtesy of the artist
An image of the Gemini capsule, from a project Sudeith did in northern California.
Courtesy of the artist
A boulder carved by Sudeith in Colorado. Some of these he does by invitation. Others are on the fly.

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Comments [7]

Cadu

The question is not whether it is legal or not. It just happens. Who will judge whether it is valid or not, are those who observe - I liked it. And I think it is purer than many and many kind of arts.

Feb. 10 2012 12:30 AM

@tim h: I see your point, but to be clear, the sites Sudeith chooses are by invitation (on private property) or in overlooked areas (those grimy bits of land tucked alongside highways and the such). He's not hitting national parks or monuments. The areas he chooses have already been heavily marred by human hands. I think a six-lane highway is perhaps a much bigger vandalism than a drawing on a rock, which doesn't alter the natural ecology of a setting.

Feb. 10 2012 12:08 AM
elcelso

this is so awesome...I love these works! keep it up!

Feb. 09 2012 11:43 PM
tim h

Actually, graffiti can be pretty okay and has a certain cultural value. The best of it is important, most of it is boring trash. My complaint about this is that they guy is vandalizing nature, even if it is rocks in a city. If he's doing true "petroglyphs", they will be almost permanent too - gouged or stained into the rock.

It's one thing to fuck up a subway door, it's another to permanently mar a piece of nature just because you think it's a good idea.

I used to poke around in the weird underspaces and out-of-the-ways in NYC and it sickened me to see all the graffiti in the otherwise quiet spots. It's no different because this guy has (I assume) a fancy college degree in markmaking.

Feb. 09 2012 11:11 PM
R M from New York

With all the talented people who pay for their art materials and struggle to make ends meet this is reported as art?
Petroglyphs? This is graffiti. And as that not very good. Are we next going call the vandals who scratch their names into subway windows artists?

Feb. 09 2012 05:44 PM
Julie from Texas

Sounds crazy to me I know if I colored on a rock I would want the people who are interested in it to see it.

Feb. 09 2012 05:26 PM
tim h

Where's the line between petrogylph and vandalism? How much do these things need to age before they move from one state to the other?

Feb. 09 2012 12:05 PM

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About Gallerina

Carolina A. Miranda is a regular contributor to WNYC and blogs about the arts for the station as "Gallerina." In addition to that, she contributes articles on culture, travel and the arts to a variety of national and regional media, including Time, ArtNews, Travel + Leisure and Budget Travel and Florida Travel + Life. She has reported on the burgeoning industry of skatepark design, architectural pedagogy in Southern California, the presence of street art in museums and Lima's burgeoning food scene, among many other subjects. In 2008, she was named one of eight fellows in the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program for her arts and architecture blog C-Monster.net, which has received mentions in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In January of 2010, the Times named her one of nine people to follow on Twitter. Got a tip? E-mail her at c [@] c-monster [dot] net

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