Alumna creates Commons art installation using dirt, shoe soles

Anna Krause, University Daily Kansan

Usually, people clean dirt off of rugs, condemning the soil between the threads as something to get rid of. Artist Rena Detrixhe flips this notion on its head.

Throughout the past week, Detrixhe, a University of Kansas alumna, spent hours using sifted red dirt and modified shoe soles to create an installation called “Red Dirt Rug” at The Commons. She stamped elaborate patterns into a thin, rectangular layer of earth, evoking the painstaking nature of the hours that go into making intricate woven rugs.

The work engages Detrixhe's audience in a deconstruction of its notion of rugs — which have historically been regarded as symbols of wealth for their time-intensive nature — and dirt, which is not valued in the same way.

Detrixhe’s installation “Red Dirt Rug” is one of several of its kind. There are other “rugs” in Oklahoma, Missouri, Michigan and other states, but this one is different, she said.

Detrixhe feels that the space in which this installation resides could further elevate its meaning and complicate the way it is thought about.

“Spooner Hall is the oldest continuously-used academic building on campus," Detrixhe said. "It has been a library, an art museum, an anthropology museum, and now as The Commons it is a space that promotes dialogue and collaboration across the sciences, arts, and humanities. I think it is an appropriate space to contemplate this work through multiple lenses; art, science, history, etc.”

Matthew Lyman, a freshman engineering major from Parker, Colorado, experienced the “Red Dirt Rug” exhibit as Detrixhe installed it.

“It looked super realistic, like it was a carpet,” Lyman said. “It was super serene as well, and it made me feel peaceful. Just watching her smooth the dirt over was calming.”

Lyman also appreciates the symbolism incorporated into the installation.

“I think it's interesting that she uses shoe soles for texture. It speaks to nature and man coming together,” Lyman said.

Detrixhe earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University, which she said adds yet another layer of meaning to this particular work.

“As a KU alum, it is also incredibly rewarding and special to have the opportunity to spend time on campus and share my work here,” she said. “Spooner Hall was the locus of a number of important moments for me as an undergraduate.”

Detrixhe was inspired to create “Red Dirt Rug” in response to living in Oklahoma, where she was moved by the history of the land and interested in the way it has been treated by its inhabitants as perception of the state has changed.

“I am interested in the social and environmental histories of place and was particularly struck by how drastically and violently Oklahoma has been shaped by human presence just in the last century,” Detrixhe said. “There is a complex and often sorrowful history imbedding in this place, like much of our country, that is directly related to how value is ascribed to the land.”

The work's two materials, red dirt and shoe soles, have strong symbolic implications. Detrixhe sees the red dirt as a part of the land’s identity, and her attention to detail is to both physically sift out impurities and metaphorically sift through the stories ingrained within it. The shoe soles are intended to acknowledge the impact of human presence upon the dirt, yet also demonstrate how these two symbols interact.

“I do not want to suggest how someone should receive my work; everyone's experience will be different because we each bring our own experiences and ideas and histories with us,” Detrixhe said. “If anything I hope that those students, faculty, and community members who have the opportunity to see the work will slow down for a moment and spend time with it.”

“Red Dirt Rug” is currently on exhibit in The Commons and will remain there until Oct. 25.