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Pitt owns 6,000 acres of fossils, artifacts and inspiration in Wyoming

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Pitt owns 6,000 acres of fossils, artifacts and inspiration in Wyoming

Students participate in a bird-banding exercise at the University of Wyoming's facility. Courtesy of UHC

Students participate in a bird-banding exercise at the University of Wyoming's facility. Courtesy of UHC

Students participate in a bird-banding exercise at the University of Wyoming's facility. Courtesy of UHC

Students participate in a bird-banding exercise at the University of Wyoming's facility. Courtesy of UHC

By Marissa Perino / For The Pitt News

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It was a series of fortunate events.

Allen Cook had no use for dinosaur bones and, in the late ’90s, he certainly never expected to have an art studio near his property. Now Cook has both.

Cook, a rancher in Wyoming, donated 4,700 acres of land to the University of Pittsburgh in December 2005 — a donation that became the foundation for the University Honors College Wyoming program. The program now inhabits a 6,000 acre plot, after a lease of 1,300 acres from the state of Wyoming and the federal government.

Four to five students from visual arts majors use the rustic setting as an inspiration for their work, while approximately 15 students majoring in engineering, pharmacy and history, among others, study ecology and paleontology during the Wyoming Field Studies Program. While the Field Studies students gain hands-on experience they would be hard-pressed to find in Pittsburgh’s urban setting, the art students gain the inspiration they need to continue or finish their work.

Students apply through the University Honors College and the program starts in late June. The art program lasts for 17 days and is worth three credits, while the Field Studies program runs for six weeks and is worth six credits. The Field Studies program, which started in 2007, is also two years older than the art program.

After spending their summer on their artistic projects, the art students will display their work in the Frick Fine Arts Building from Jan. 12, through the end of the month.

Cook’s donation included not only land, but also valuable artifacts within the land itself. In addition to fossils of dinosaur bones, the property had Native American artifacts dating back nearly 9,000 years. Above the surface, the prairie land held a complete ecosystem with eagles, antelope and a wide variety of plant life.

After 10 years running, some changes are coming to the 2017 program. Instead of staying at the usual University of Wyoming dorms, non-art students will be staying at a ranch on the edge of the property.  

After the change in accommodations, McCord said the ranch base could likely handle up to 16 students for 2017.

Students pose for a photograph on Pitt's property near Laramie, Wyoming. Courtesy of UHC

Students pose for a photograph on Pitt’s property near Laramie, Wyoming. Courtesy of UHC

The story

As Cook considered selling his property in the 1990s, Bill Mundy — a childhood friend of former Honors College Dean Alec Stewart and Cook’s real estate adviser — contacted Stewart in 1999 and advised him to find a way to acquire the property.

Cook’s property contained a 6,000 acre cache of previously undisturbed dinosaur bone fossils, which faculty from the University of Wyoming helped verify as authentic, according to McCord.

“[Mundy] said [to Stewart], ‘Alec, you won’t believe the property that I am now appraising.  It has this extraordinary bed of dinosaur bones, pristine, untouched, never known to exist before …This is something that is so valuable for research and education,’” McCord said.

Stewart and McCord were members of the small group of Pitt faculty that visited the land in 1999 to try to complete the deal. During their visit, an unexpected blizzard blew in and trapped the faculty group on Cook’s property for three days. McCord said that blizzard was “the best thing that could have happened,” allowing the faculty three full days to pitch Pitt as the best possible owner of the Cook’s land.

“It was the craziest idea in the world that the dean of our honors college would set aside his work here as dean and start trying to figure out how to buy land in Wyoming,” McCord said.

Starting in 2000, the honors college spent three years trying to raise the thousands of dollars to purchase the land, but struggled to get enough support for funding. After exhausting every avenue to campaign for support, they gave up on owning the property.

“After three years, we failed to meet his price,” McCord said. “We walked away from it. Nothing happened. About two and half years later in 2005 … the phone rang and Alec Stewart answered the phone.”

Cook, saying he’d had two great cattle seasons and really liked the Pitt faculty he’d met, had decided to donate his property to the University for just the tax deduction.

Students complete field work at the dinosaud bone quarryon Pitt's property in Wyoming. Courtesy of UHC

Students complete field work at the dinosaud bone quarryon Pitt’s property in Wyoming. Courtesy of UHC

The art

After the program was established in 2007, the first year included a visit from Clark Muenzer, a German literature professor at Pitt, and his son David Muenzer, a studio art major from Yale University.  

“There was one occasion where the geologists were all looking and getting a lecture beneath this rock precipice,” McCord said. “And I look up and to my astonishment sitting cross-legged there was David Muenzer sketching everything, sketching us.  I thought this is fantastic, having this combination here.”

Muenzer’s visit to Wyoming prompted McCord to reach out to the studio art department at Pitt, where professor Delanie Jenkins happily agreed to start the arts division.

Jenkins first viewed the property when she spent a week on the Wyoming land later that year, where she fell in love with the area, which is nearly 40 miles from the nearest large town of Laramie, Wyoming.

“She was just on fire about it,” McCord said of Jenkins’ visit.

Now, Jenkins’ art students work in an abandoned bank building a few blocks from their motel in the nearby town of Rock River. Jenkins said the building has had a number of different identities throughout the years.

“It was a church, it was a fire station, it was a jail, it was the haberdasher, it was a library.  Then it was a geology museum, and now it functions as an art studio for three weeks of the year. No running water, but we have electricity,” Jenkins said.

In the rustic accommodations, students like Stephanie Taylor — a senior studio art major who participated in the 2016 Wyoming program — continue the work that they started at Pitt.

“It really broadened the focus that I thought I had, and opened up my considerations of new approaches to my work,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s work, alongside that of other studio arts students, will be on display in the Frick Fine Arts University Art Gallery beginning Jan. 12 and extending through the rest of the month. The exhibit will also include work from three other students from the Wyoming program — Noah Gasch, Ciara Gray and Brent Yingling — as well as three Undergraduate Research recipients — Maria Ignelzi, Grace Magyar and Rebecca Faix.

Despite changes for the other Wyoming Program students, Jenkins insists on keeping the art students at the Longhorn Lodge. Originally, the entire honors college group, which usually numbers about five students, stayed at the motel, but only the art students remain today.  

“I would say it’s a 1940s motor court.  It looks like it was log cabins.  It’s really pretty funky and quaint,” Jenkins said.

McCord said that the Longhorn provides the rustic look that Jenkins hopes students take away from the experience. The same landscape that provides educational opportunities in the fields of geology and paleontology for the other students, provides inspiration for the art students work.

Although she has traveled to Wyoming many times as part of the program, Jenkins said she relives her first experience through each year’s new students.

“The students who have never been West … it’s wonderful to watch that wave come over them,” Jenkins said. “It’s pretty exciting. It’s exciting as an educator to watch them eat it up.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Allen Cook donated 6,000 acres of land to Pitt. Cook actually donated 4,700 acres, and Pitt leases an additional 1,300 acres. The story has been updated to reflect the correct information. The Pitt News regrets this error.

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Pitt owns 6,000 acres of fossils, artifacts and inspiration in Wyoming