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Originally published August 11, 2013 at 5:06 AM | Page modified August 11, 2013 at 7:48 AM

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Susan Robb: connecting people and the wilderness

A profile of Seattle multimedia artist Susan Robb, who fosters connectedness among individuals, and between people and the wilderness, with her “long walks.” She’ll embark on a very long walk next summer — nearly 3,000 miles. And we’re all invited to watch.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Imagine this: You’re standing a few miles east of Tecate on the Mexican border. You start walking north. You walk all day. And all the next day, and the day after that. Your destination is the Canadian border northwest of Mount Winthrop, which means you’re going to walk the entire north-south length of the country. You’ll manage about 20 miles a day, and it’s going to take you nearly six months.

It’s a remarkable undertaking, both in terms of stamina and commitment. But imagine tackling a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail not merely as a physical challenge, not as sport or “thru-hiking,” as it is called, but as a huge work of art.

That is the task that artist Susan Robb has set for herself next year.

Robb isn’t the sort of artist that you could categorize as a painter or a sculptor, or even a conceptualist or a performance artist, although she uses all of those disciplines and many others in her work. Better to think of her as someone who uses whatever techniques are appropriate to the task at hand, and as something of a sorceress as well, for one of her principal gifts is turning one thing into another. She has coordinated light festivals in Seattle’s midwinter gloom, made 50-foot-long garbage bags into balloons and let them dance in the warmth of the sun, blended perfumes from the stuff she picked up along King County’s trails, turned sewage into methane to fuel a camp fire and then toasted marshmallows on it, and taken photographs from a plane to discover what the Earth’s face looks like.

She has also done a lot of walking. During the summers of 2010, 2011 and 2012, she led 50 walkers on a 45-mile, four-day Long Walk from Puget Sound to Snoqualmie Falls. In 2011, one of those walkers was University of Washington art historian Kolya Rice, who draws attention to one of Robb’s other key abilities — encouraging creative contact among the individuals who are involved in her work. This is a central aspect of its profound human significance. “Her work is brilliant,” Rice says. “It’s a catalyst for exactly the sort of human interactions that you would want to have every moment of the day. It facilitates you doing good things in the world.”

A Connecticut native with “very, very little exposure to art,” Robb wasn’t exactly encouraged by her parents to pursue the life of an artist. In fact, to placate them she spent her time at Syracuse University pursuing two degrees side by side — a bachelor of fine arts in photography, and what her parents considered a more useful bachelor of arts in art history. She first came to Seattle to do a master of fine arts at UW, again in photography, though she explains that for her, photography meant primarily “creating experiences — I would have my friends dress up and enact things, and photograph their experiences.”

In fact, if there is a single instinct — or what she calls a “fundamental expression” — at the core of Robb’s art, then perhaps this is it: setting up circumstances in which experience might be savored. Even as a child, she recalls, “I made imaginative situations and brought the neighborhood kids into them. There are kids who draw and kids who make things, but I would organize crazy scavenger hunts, or suggest ‘Let’s be tigers,’ or trick-or-treat in July! Nobody prompted that, it was just what I did.”

It’s still very much what she does, only now the situation she creates is a 2,650-mile walk. It will begin next April and it is called “Wild Times.”

That title is entirely appropriate because wildness, and its relevance to our 21st-century lives, is at the heart of its meaning. Although the relationship between civilization and wilderness is central to any sense of American identity, Robb points out that only 2 percent of the continental U.S. is now considered wild. For many of us, the resulting ‘nature deficit disorder’ gives rise to a fundamental crisis: “Have we ruined the climate so much that we’ve entered into a wilderness of our own making?” Robb asks. “Have we created a world that we don’t know how to live in?”

Though the questions are daunting, her responses to them are positive. Buoyed by a prestigious, $50,000 grant from Creative Capital, the New York-based artist support organization, Robb will punctuate her walk with “base camps.” Some of these will be traditional arts institutions and galleries, others will be people’s homes. At each base camp, at other “points of engagement,” and sometimes on the treks between them, she will be joined by artists, performers, activists and environmental policy makers. It is the wisdom that these people can call upon, or conjure up in their shared search for meaning, that will furnish the “Wild Times” experience. It is an experience open to fellow walkers, to visitors to the base camp, to Susan Robb herself, and to anyone else who interacts with the piece. And that could include you.

This is because, contrary to what you might expect of someone so concerned with wildness, Robb is no technophobe. “Technology is both the cause and solution to this project,” she suggests, and she will be transmitting a constant digital stream of photo, video and text material back to the base camps. She will compose songs. She will use software that will enable the sculptures she makes en route to be reproduced by 3-D printers. These things and others will constitute a cumulative exhibition at the conclusion of the walk, but she knows she cannot predict everything that will occur, and that is part of the walk’s significance.

“In a way, we’re all going out into the wildness,” she admits, “because I don’t know what I’ll be doing.”

Perhaps that is the most radical, most optimistic aspect of the entire undertaking — in a world where civilization is increasingly synonymous with predictability, Susan Robb dares embrace uncertainty. “We can’t anticipate everything,” she stresses.

“Everybody involved has to take a leap of faith.”

Robert Ayers: robertayers@mac.com

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