Sometimes a child’s passion motivates a parent to try and help make sense of the world, for both of them.
For Pinedale artist Cristy Anspach, the response of her then 13-year-old daughter Megan to mule deer struck and killed by a vehicle was the catalyst for a show called “Unintended Consequences.”
“I was driving into town with my daughter,” Anspach says, “and we saw a lady hit a deer.”
Without hesitation, Anspach stopped to help the driver. Later she realized she had parked with her headlights illuminating the accident scene as if it were a staged play.
“My daughter had to sit there and watch this deer die for 20 minutes,” she says. “She’s a rugged kid and understands the cycles of life, but it bothered her, that lack of respect. I never thought about it from that angle.”
Conversations with her daughter gave way to the creation of 110 ceramic vessels. Each represents an animal killed — or presumed to have been killed — between October 2017 and May 2018 on Anspach’s commuter route from Boulder to Pinedale, where she teaches elementary school art.
The stoneware pieces became the heart of her graduate studies for a master’s degree in art education at the University of Northern Colorado and now comprise a gallery show in Pinedale.
Anspach decided ceramic lidded containers would be perfect to honor the lives of the road-killed ungulates. While others might label them “urns,” she doesn’t.
“I don’t want people to feel weird about putting cookies or sugar in them,” she says. “They don’t hold ashes.”
That said, the pieces both memorialize and document the dead animals collected by Wyoming Department of Transportation’s maintenance crews between mileposts 89 and 99 on state route 191, Anspach’s regular commute. The larger vessels are stamped with the date of collection, mile marker, age, sex and ungulate species. Reflecting the preponderance of mule deer deaths, the majority of the work depicts that species.
In researching the project, Anspach connected with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and WYDOT. The agencies provided information on mule deer migrations and ungulate mortality statistics.
Anpach discovered that between 2013-2015, 87% of wildlife killed on state highways were mule deer. Statewide, during that period, the cost of the deer-vehicle collisions totaled between $44 million and $52 million each year, according to information released by the Wyoming Wildlife and Roadway Initiative in 2018.
Dean Clause, Game and Fish wildlife biologist for the Pinedale region, and Tory Thomas, district maintenance engineer with WYDOT in Rock Springs, confirmed that because mule deer move around a lot year-round, they are the most vulnerable to accidents.
Sublette County supports two distinct herds, each with its own human-animal conflicts. The Mesa Complex herd winters between Big Piney and La Barge, but after the fawns are born, most of the group migrates 30 miles north into the Hoback area and the Wyoming Range, “where the groceries are better,” Clause said.
Some of those mule deer stick around, according to WYDOT’s Thomas, which means roadkill continues to be a problem. “The river and the food is on one side of the road,” he said, “and where they sleep is on the other. That’s a bad scenario.”
On the other hand, the Pinedale segment of the herd, represented in Anspach’s show, takes on a longer migration, with some deer traveling as many as 150 miles, two times a year. Most of these ungulates venture only to the Gros Ventre Mountains and the upper Green River, but, Clause said, some travel as far north as Jackson Hole and south to the Red Desert, even appearing along I-80.
Anspach was surprised to learn from Game & Fish that for every dead deer seen by the road, officials extrapolate that one to three others are killed. Most roadkill collected are mule deer does carrying fawns and traveling with others.
“I was kind of rattled,” she said. “It felt like I’d been punched in the belly when they mentioned there were also fawns. Now, I thought, I have to do [the jars].”
During the eight months of her project WYDOT retrieved 67 carcasses in her stretch of road. If she stuck to her goal of accurately reflecting the total number of animals killed, Anspach realized she would have to make 134 pots. She stopped at 110.
For the central containers, Anspach employed silkscreening, Japanese Mishima carving (which creates very fine lines), painting and stenciling to portray the dead animal.
On the larger vessels, there is a lot of “random scratchy stuff,” to show the grass and the wind in motion around the particular animal. She also used washes of color, the Italian technique sgrafitto and slip-trailing of wet clay on the surface. In this way, Anspach successfully unifies the surface images and offers a context for the once living, breathing ungulate.
“I didn’t want to be fiddly realistic,” she says.
While the center pieces are heavily decorated, the chopstick boxes, which represent the fawns, are unadorned, like a blank canvas, as if the “occupants” never had the chance to create a narrative. The companion jars, meant to portray the killed but uncollected, have faded images of an animal or a hoof print stamped into the clay.
According to her artist’s statement, the project is Anspach’s way of “paying respect to the struggle that migrating animals face, and of honoring each individual that wasn’t able to complete his or her journey.”
WGFD and WYDOT allocate resources to mitigate the human-wildlife collisions. Both Clause and Thomas indicated that measures taken at Trappers Point between Pinedale and Daniel has been successful in reducing wildlife mortality.
“That’s an historic migration route for mule deer and pronghorn antelope,” Thomas said. “It’s a natural funnel. There’s a big dispersion, but they all go through Trapper’s Point.” Since construction of a system of underpasses, overpasses and tall fencing, WFGD and WYDOT estimated a roughly 90% reduction in road kill for that stretch of highway.
Biologist Clause lauded WYDOT’s reduction of nighttime speed limits in high mortality areas, as well as clearing back brush from the road way, as helping minimize roadkilled mule deer.
Viewing “Unintended Consequences” both forces and allows viewers to consider the stories and perhaps even the
spirits of the wildlife we humans intersect with, whether on the road, in our backyard or on a hike or hunt. Anspach’s show seems a fitting way to send their “spirits,” and perhaps our own, on their way, and to recognize there are things we can do to change the outcomes for these chance encounters.
“A kid doesn’t have calluses on her heart like we do,” Anspach concludes. Perhaps the sheer volume and visual impact of her lidded jars will soften those hardened parts of the rest of us.
In her artist’s statement, Anspach captures a common regional sentiment. “None of us intends to cause damage to wildlife,” she writes. “Quite the contrary, those of us who choose to live here tend to be deeply engaged with natural surroundings and many have made a deliberate choice to live in a region with abundant wildlife.”
The artist’s reception is scheduled for 5-8 p.m. on Feb. 6, at David Klaren’s Mystery Print Gallery in Pinedale. The show will be up through March 1.