Projects: Ben Johnson & Ben Wilder


Stopping For Pozos: A Collaboration Between Ben Wilder and Ben Johnson

Gavenus, Erika, Johnson, Ben, Wilder, Ben | Image by Ben Johnson

Driving along the highway through northwestern Mexico’s Gran Desierto you might not notice the pozos dotted amongst the seemingly endless sand dunes. Most drivers don’t. Yet these pozos provide fresh water critical to a diversity of life. Historically, pozos were central to the physical and cultural nourishment of the people of the area as well. Now, most people just drive by unaware of these incredible sources of water and life.

Ben Wilder, the acting Director of The Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill and a Research Scientist in desert ecology and botany from the University of Arizona, and Ben Johnson, a visual artist and curator from Tucson, Arizona, do not drive by. Wilder and Johnson are working together through the 6&6 Project and have chosen to focus their work on the pozos.

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At the Source

Ben Johnson’s compositional sketch

The pozos, or freshwater springs that miraculously punctuate the Gran Desierto region of the Sonoran Desert are uniquely charged, mysterious places. Unresolved in origin, and essential to countless species, they rise up inextricably out of the largest swath of sand dunes in North America. We are inspired by these springs and motivated by the questions they pose. What is the origin of this water and how long has it resided below the dunes? How have the pozos and the riparian vegetation they support changed through time? What is their trajectory given expansive ground water pumping along the border and predictions of a hot and dry future? How has the connection between humans and the only water source in the midst of this sand sea changed over time?

Our thinking about the pozos quickly spirals out to a wide range of dependent themes. From the traditional salt pilgrimage of the Tohono O’odham people, to nesting raptors, generations of cottonwood trees, and the future of water in the binational Sonoran Desert desert; these springs are central.

Embracing this holistic network of subjects is a core goal for the artwork and science. But how to tie it all together coherently? For the past number of months, we have been discussing the options in an effort to puzzle it out, and Ben J has focused on collecting, photographing, sketching, and doing preliminary paintings. It all has led to a multi-faceted artistic direction. A large, 8 foot wide painting of a pozo will be properly situated at the center of the work, with a surrounding orbit of photographs, objects, research materials and text. The springs themselves are beautiful, almost mythical places. The scale and composition of the painting aims to highlight this, while providing an anchor for the related content.

Ben J has begun work on the painting, preparing the canvas itself and doing preliminary compositional sketches. The pozo featured is located in Salina Grande, a key location that we visited during a January 2016 research trip. The hydrology and long-term change aspects of the science have begun. More visits to the region will follow in coming months, as will the development of the artwork.

Field Collection - photographs by Ben Johnson

Pozo at Salina Grande with Ben W amongst the cottonwoods - photograph by Ben Johnson



Initial Thinking

Pozo at Salina Grande and archeological shell midden in foreground. Photo by B. Wilder

Our initial thinking is revolving around a specific region in the Sonoran Desert, the fresh water pozos of the Gran Desierto.

The Gran Desierto is the largest extent of sand dunes in North America. These grains of sand, once the interior of the Grand Canyon, found on both sides of the international border, hold a fossil water aquifer of unknown extent. This ancient water rises to the surface on the coastal edge of the dune field where artesian pressure brings forth multiple wetlands and pozos (fresh water springs) – riparian islands in a sand sea. These oases and salt fields have been a source for humans and wildlife alike for hundreds of years. What was once the destination of a multi-day pilgrimage now lays adjacent to a newly constructed paved highway.

Discussions have addressed how the pozos portend as a point of focus for our work together. We are both drawn to the singularity of the well, the individuality of it as a vital pocket in the long-stretching desert, yet not entirely singular, from their connection to visiting peoples and animals both in distant times and today; The decades of humans orbiting them and their strata of collected biomass... So singular and so communal both at the same time…


Images from Carl Lumholtz's 1912 expedition as scanned from New Trails in Mexico:

Pozo at Salina Grande at dusk. Photo by B. Wilder

Text from Carl Lumholtz's expedition in 1912

“One of these pozos was still further out, actually in the salt bed, where the soft salt cover became more solid, and here the water was perfectly fresh. One small pozo which contained much water had no hill in the middle. An extraordinary feature of these formations was that water actually may be found on top of the sand heap in the middle. Climbing up one of them which was unusually high, about ten feet, I found that a coyote had scratched a hole four feet above the depression, and this was filled with water. The sand on top was mixed with some black vegetable matter and was extremely moist; a small hole I scooped out with my hand was immediately filled with fresh water. I suppose these curious formations in the sandy soil of the shore are due to the action of water that at one time must have been stronger than now. There is no mountain range nearer than the isolated Sierra del Rosario, thirty-five miles to the north. Sand dunes are still characteristic of the country for miles further on. It seems as if the presence of so much fresh water here must pre-suppose its existence underneath the western area of the desert of the District of Altar and extending perhaps up into southern Arizona."

– p260 - 265 Lumholtz, C. 1912. New Trails in Mexico. Scribner's Sons.