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Overland Trail

In 1849, a little-known artist named James Wilkins traveled the Overland Trail to California with the intention of gathering visual materials from which to make a moving panorama. The panorama was completed in Peoria, IL in 1850, and it was premiered in September of the same year. Wilkins subsequently presented the panorama, The Immense Moving Mirror Of The Land Route to California, across the Midwest to great acclaim throughout the 1850s. It has since perished along with many details relating to Wilkins's life and work. Of the 200 drawings Wilkins is thought to have made, 50 have survived and are currently in the collections at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, WI. The journal Wilkins kept during his journey stands as a vivid record of the Overland Trail journey; it resides at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA. A full transcription of the diary with commentary and reproductions of the 50 watercolor drawings was edited by John Frances McDermott and published in 1968: "An Artist of The Overland Trail. The 1849 Diary and Sketches of James F. Wilkins" (Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.)

In Fall 2017 and Spring 2018, I embarked upon two trans-continental land journeys to California from my home in northeastern Illinois, each time following the same route travelled by James Wilkins in 1849, the main emigrant route from St. Louis to Sacramento. I recorded my journey in a series of observational watercolor drawings, digital video, and photographs. I also kept a journal and recorded some details in a blog: Itinerary, landscape, process. Looking for the landscape…

A more detailed discussion of James Wilkins in the context of scroll panorama performances can be found in the International Panorama Council Journal, Volumes 3 and Volume 4. On demand print copies and a free PDF download is available on the International Panorama Council 'Publications' page.

The four groups of images below represent the initial record and response to my cross-continental journeys: Watercolors, Drawings, Photographs, and Ceramics. While traveling each day, I developed a routine around the locations that are included in James Wilkins's watercolor drawings. My intentions were to collect details each day, making drawings, watercolors, photographs and video with ambient audio. James Wilkins's images became anchor points along the way. My intention was to look for current or present conditions, and to record and document what I found being open to present as well as the striking details that might present themselves. All the time I looked at the landscape while also looking for it, trying also to be aware of what cultural conditions were informing my ability to see what is there. What cultural overlays were obscuring and distorting my perception of it?


In January 2018, I began a two month Arts/Industry Residency in the Kohler industrial ceramics factory. The last image set "Ceramics" represents an initial series of material responses to the material I had gathered in preceding fall. A series of twelve slip cast ceramic objects was produced in an edition of eight.

"... the way Gaston Bachelard explores the poetics of the forest seems to resonate with the panoramic.  The panorama is an array of images that nestle inside a container that is itself an image of immensity.

Notes, August 2020 


"Encounters with animals are frequent and always feel significant. Landscape is a totally human phenomenon - otherwise its habitat? It is impossible to know precisely how or if animals have the same sense of place that we are capable of conjuring - they certainly return to the same places annually migrating, drawn on by food ..."

Journal 2017-18. (edited excerpt)


"in 1849 three weeks travel from St Louis gets you into the middle of [what is now] Nebraska... ... makes me feel ever more respectful and fortunate..."

Journal 2017-18. (edited excerpt)


"Souvenir? Memory in object form- Landscape can never be possessed. It has its own time, and while enduring changes perpetrated by human interventions it endures beyond any human lifespan. ...but not of collective memory. so the memory of landscape and the traditions it holds are key to a human sense of place, identity, belonging. And so it becomes the subject of stories rather than the objects [artifacts] which move through it ... how to articulate the rocks which preceded and that will endure long after human life does not?"

Journal 2017-18. (edited excerpt)


Overland Trai Ceramics
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