Route 66 in the News

Students Document Mother Road Changes

2013-05-31 08:36:45

KINGMAN, Ariz. - When 19 students and two professors from the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., descended on Kingman recently, they were looking for something specific.

And while they didn't find the actual Flying A gas station that once stood at 2610 E. Andy Devine Ave., their search yielded something more important.

They got plenty of information from the site - sounds, photographs, history, mapping and interviews - to add to their collection for Road to Ruscha, a first-time, two-week course at the university offering three college credits and a road trip along Route 66 from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles and back.

The students were following the trail of pop-culture artist Ed Ruscha, 75, who was named in April as one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people in the world for 2013.

The group traveled about 3,000 miles in 10 days in late May to locate the 26 gas stations Ruscha photographed in 1963 for his book "Twentysix Gasoline Stations."

Ruscha lived in Oklahoma City from 1941 to 1956, then moved to Los Angeles to attend Chouinart Art Institute, but frequently drove Route 66 to visit family back home.

"This is part of a project to figure out what gas stations are still there on Route 66," said Gary Gress, a professor in the school's Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability. "We went to each site, whether it was still a gas station or a field, and did investigative research.

"We were detectives looking for clues. We wanted to see how the landscape along Route 66 had changed and get a sense of community. We found Kingman to be one of the strongest, friendliest and most open communities with ties to Route 66."

Gress said he spent hours on the telephone before the trip, trying to confirm the existence and location of each site along the drive.

Jim Hinckley, manager of Penske Truck Rental at Martin Swanty Kia, said he received a call from Gress asking if he knew anything about Flying A, which had been situated at that site and photographed by Ruscha.

The students and teachers met with Hinckley when they stopped in Kingman on their return trip to Oklahoma City.

"It was a bizarre thing," said Hinckley, who has written several books about Route 66. "A gentleman called and said he had found the book 'Twentysix Gasoline Stations' and asked if I knew where the Kingman gas station was located.

"I remembered it as Hobbs Truck Stop, and I always stopped there when I came in off the ranch because I loved the food at the café. But it was torn down a few years ago when Swanty bought the place and the gas tanks have been removed."

The class and road trip also served as a chance for the students and teachers to draw attention to "No Man's Land," one of Ruscha's paintings on loan to the university's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

The work, which dates from 1990, outlines the territory of Oklahoma before it became a state and recalls the artist's youth in Oklahoma and his perceptions of the world beyond it. The museum is trying to purchase the painting, which costs about $430,000.

As part of the class, the group recorded video and sounds, interviewed locals, took photographs and mapped each site with real-time Global Positioning System tracking. All are available on an interactive board near the painting in the art museum, as well as online at

The idea to replicate Ruscha's trip with students originated with Todd Stewart, associate professor of photography and associate director of the OU School of Art and Art History.

"The museum is trying to buy Ruscha's painting, and it got me to thinking of ways to raise visibility for that cause," said Stewart. "As a photographer, I've always been interested in Ed's work, especially his older books.

"I thought it would be great to use the book about gas stations and design a class centered on a road trip. So we decided to give it a shot."

The trip merged students and teachers from the School of Art and Art History and the School of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences, with academic disciplines including art, art history, geography, meteorology, geology, film and media studies, and advertising.

The trip was funded by grants from the Kirkpatrick Foundation, the OU College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

The group also visited Ruscha at his studio in Los Angeles, where they described their trip and findings. Gress said Ruscha was easy to talk to and was fascinated by their time on the road and what they had accomplished.

Angela Rodriguez, 22, a senior in the School of Art, said she took the class because she was familiar with Ruscha's work and wanted to travel and visit with the artist.

"I think the class and trip were cool," said Rodriguez. "I love the idea of collecting information and documenting an experience that people normally wouldn't find exciting. They're just old gas stations. And it was very exciting to go to the artist's studio, see him and his dog and view his current work. There are a lot of art projects I'm going to be working on because of this trek."

Robbie Wing, 24, a senior in the School of Geography, said he learned a lot on the road trip, especially since he had never heard of Ruscha or his work.

Wing said he was responsible for gathering most of the sound data along the trip, and in the case of Hinckley, Wing recorded the television playing at Penske, noises from each room and Hinckley talking on the telephone and to the group.

The data will be part of the interactive board and website, Wing said, and available for people to hear.

"I feel like we've done this trip in a way Mr. Ruscha didn't," said Wing. "When you look at the photos in his book, there's no narrative with them. I went to each place and got the history of Route 66.

"The landscape is changing, and we're documenting that and having a blast doing it."

~Kim Steele,


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