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Joe KellY

& carlton sturgis abbott



by Howard Risatti

In the way it uses chance imagery, the Appalachian Trail Frieze workshop, begun in 1994, is similar in design to John Cage’s 1988 and 1990 workshops and to Ray Kass’ 1991 and 1993 workshops. Conceived as an ongoing collaborative project, the workshop was conducted in the Jefferson National Forest by former workshop assistant Joe Kelley in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service.1 Inspiration for the project came from an earlier activity, that of photographing the Ripplemead site on the New River, known fondly as “John’s Place,” where Cage acquired most of the rocks he later used in his two painting workshops at Mountain Lake.


From this project came the idea of giving participants paper and drawing implements or film and asking them to draw or photograph places of interest to them while hiking on and near the Appalachian Trail in the area around Mountain Lake.The photographs, which are personal records of individual participants’ visual experiences of both physical places and seasonal changes, were collaged together using chance procedures to create a long frieze. The frieze has a narrative quality in the way it unfolds in time as viewers move through the installation, thereby creating something akin to the experience of walking along an actual forest trail. The drawings, installed in different size plastic box-like frames and randomly placed above and below the frieze, punctuate the viewer’s passage along the frieze, imitating encounters with unexpected details seen along the trail.

1 In 1990, Kass, who had become a Shinto priest, blessed eight black walnut trees in the Jefferson National Forest that had been selected for Jiro Okura for his Mountain Lake Screen Tachi workshop. This ceremony was also conducted in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service.


2 The Appalachian Trail Frieze project also influenced the 2013 Mountain Lake Workshop titled “Three Graces in Public: Digital Montages.” Named after the Mann family farm near Lexington, Virginia, where it occurred, it also was a collaborative project; however, it was carried out using digital technology (cameras and cell phones) as opposed to wet film.


by Joe Kelley


The Appalachian Trail Frieze was a Mountain Lake Workshop project I proposed to Ray Kass in the fall of 1993. Sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, the workshop was conceived to be about the experience of walking on the Appalachian Trail and originally, at Ray Kass’ suggestion, was to have a parallel component about modern forms of human transportation. I had worked with Ray Kass on the second John Cage workshop, New River Rocks and Watercolors (1988), so I was familiar with Mr. Cage’s method of composition using chance operations. In the summer of 1993 I was working as a Ridge Runner for the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, and it was during this time on many work hikes that I put together the idea of using chance operations to compose photographic montages using photos and drawings done by several anonymous participants. Using chance operations was an appropriate tool because it eliminated both individual authorship and hierarchical ordering of images, thereby emphasizing communal experience over that of the individual.


On several hikes during the fall and winter of 1993, and then again in the spring of 1994, workshop participants took to the trail to take photographs and make drawings of close-up views and details of natural elements that interested them as they walked along the trail; they were discouraged from attempting “artistic” compositions or capturing scenic views or panoramas. The drawing activity was governed by a few specifications. Each drawing was to be made on a small piece of pastel-colored paper (there were four different colors) pre-cut to fit one of four different size plastic frames that looked like shallow boxes. Participants were also given pieces of construction paper/mat board that not only had been pre-cut to fit one of plastic frames but also had a small rectangular window (sizes varied) cut out of it. Participants were to use these windows as view finders in order to isolate small details that they observed in nature. Using Conté crayons and pencil, they were to draw these details, placing the mat board with the window onto the pastel sheet so as to mask most of the sheet, allowing the image to float on the paper. This method successfully formatted the presentation of the drawings in an interesting manner that brought a kind of unity to a display of works by many different hands. The same view-finder technique was to be used when taking photographs so as to direct focus on details and not larger scenes or panoramic vistas.


An overall sense of unified presence was furthered when the drawings, each placed in the correct size plastic frame, were randomly arranged on a wall above and below a running photomontage composed of layered fragments of the participants’ photographs. Emphasis was not on landscape photography and drawing in a traditional sense but more on what a person saw and thought memorable at the time.1


Ray Kass and Stefan Gibson, his studio assistant at the time, had been working on a series of photomontages titled John’s Place at Ripplemead. The polygonal montages, composed of layered images of portions of Ray’s photographs, were made for a German magazine, MusikTexte, as homage to John Cage, who had recently died.2 Kass’ photos were of a place called Ripplemead on the New River where he and Cage had gathered the stones for Cage’s watercolor workshops. I very much liked these images and used the same montage-masking technique to make the Appalachian Trail Frieze. Along with Ray Kass, Stefan Gibson became the most important collaborator on the photographic montage part of the project, spending many hours in the darkroom with me printing the images for the photomontage. The Appalachian Trail Frieze was designed to be installed using chance operations to arrange the montages and drawings specifically for each exhibition space. First shown in the late summer of 1994 at the Armory Art Gallery at Virginia Tech, it was always intended that the project continue on, to include experiences of environment, travel, and movement from the perspectives of many people from around the world.


During the fall of the following year (1995), Ray Kass and I organized a similar drawing and photography experience with landscape architect Carlton Sturges Abbott.3 Conceived as an extension of the “Pathways: Appalachian Trail Frieze” workshop, we called it “Virginia Pathways.” This time we went to Rocky Knob and places along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which intersects the Appalachian Trail. Most notably the group hiked to a small shelter originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s and did photographs and drawings with Mr. Abbott, whose father, Stanley Abbott, had been the head designer of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was very relevant to the project that he be involved and talk about the history of the parkway and landscape design and his experience in general.


Computer imaging and digital graphics programs have made it much easier to produce the photomontages and make the irksome task of spending long hours in a darkroom with photo chemicals unnecessary. We all saw the potential of what the computer could bring to such a project: a vision of many people making a record of their combined experience of their environment from around the world. In this sense, the project was never intended as something closed-ended, or as something to be complete, but always continuing.

1 At the time I was working as part of a small team to photograph major roads in the area. The photos the team took were not used in the final compositions, mostly because I decided to focus on the Appalachian Trail as the main image source. I intended to continue the project, focusing on other corridors of transportation in the future.

2 Cage died in August of 1992. Ray Kass, “John’s Place at Ripplemead,” MusikTexte, 46/47 (Dec. 1992).

3 Virginia Pathways was sponsored by the National Linear Parks annual conference and the Virginia Tech Design Consortium and was planned to coincide with Carlton Abbott’s exhibition Parts and Pieces at Virginia Tech’s Armory Art Gallery.

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