Meeting artist Ed Ruscha, the “father of Google Maps”
Our journey on the “Road to Ruscha” began with an idea and a collaboration of students from various college majors and studies, combined into one group to learn from the past and how it influences the future. Artist Edward Ruscha, who grew up in Oklahoma, was one of the first artists to document the familiar and present it in an art form unlike any others before him. Over fifty years ago in 1962, Ruscha self-published Twentysix Gasoline Stations, a first of a series of photobooks the artist made in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The highlight to our trip was meeting Ed Ruscha and crew at his Los Angeles suburb studio. His staff was friendly, his friends and family were inviting and his dog was loving. They graciously invited us in and Ruscha took a break from his busy schedule to talk to us and show our group around his studio grounds. So many of the preparations and so much of our trip revolved around this well-known artist who in our minds was almost a fictional character. As we visited people and places on his often traveled route, a few of us joked along the way, W.W.E.D. (What Would Ed Do?)
As the interstate highway system did not yet exist, Ruscha recorded gas stations between Oklahoma City and Los Angeles on his often-traveled Route 66, which at the time was “the” highway road to travel. The last stretch of interstate wasn’t opened until 1984 through Arizona and since then much of the original Route 66 has fallen to disrepair and yet so much is still worth exploring. Much of the road through America’s countryside and urban areas that display signage and images, between visible homes, businesses and roadside eateries, is still there. When the same image or place is viewed often in one’s lifetime, these sites may seem mundane and familiar. However, as time goes on and as these landscapes change, one may recall the buildings and activities that were once there. Later found photographs, maps or paintings of these forgotten once-familiar places, bring on memories of good and bad events one has experienced in the past. Ruscha understood the changes taken place right in front of him and others.
I’ve learned through my experiences, travel informs one’s understanding of space, land, and place in the world. I am a little older than most of the other university students on this trip which allows me a little more insight. I understand we are only on this earth for such a short time. I am intrigued with the American road and landscape, and the history each space contains. As people come and go, the earth and place remain. Although the topography may change, the soil may erode or man-made structures may come and go, the space remains. Within the space lies a history of those who have traveled before and those who will travel after. I believe Ruscha understood this before many others or at least any artists who chose to document the changes. Art critics and writers have even called him the “Father of Google Maps.” Although it is a relatively new technology and a tool many use today, Google Maps is often taken for granted, as images of cities and maps appear at the push of a button.
Finding myself traveling in new unfamiliar places, I search out the land and experience the unknown. Each place I experience brings a new understanding to the past and a new connection. I am intrigued with the new and continually grow from each experience as a little part of it remains with me. As I traveled with our university group, I experienced Ruscha’s America, revisiting his steps to deepen an understanding of the land, places and space he and others have experienced before me. Ruscha’s work emphasizes that people are only on this earth but a moment in time and although the land changes, it remains for the next generation to experience. I feel privileged to have been reminded of our short time on this ever-changing planet and to have met Ed Ruscha in his studio with his friends and family.
- Shelly Perkins