Mystery, Nostalgia And Atomic Energy Fuel 'Yucca Fountain' Installation

Aug 29, 2019

All summer, the Campus Commons Gallery at the University of Northern Colorado has been under wraps. The windows are papered over with old drawings, black and white photos of atomic mushroom clouds and vintage newspaper articles decrying "Doom Town Wiped Out By Mighty Atom Bomb."

It's been drawing a lot of attention to the gallery's upcoming exhibition, said Pam Campanaro, UNC's director of galleries. The space itself has been kept under lock and key. Only Campanaro and the artists and crew have been allowed into the space.

"I'll leave to use the restroom or I'll be between meetings and someone will say, 'Oh Pam, can you just, please? I know you. Can't you just open the door?'" she said. "Everyone that asks, I say the same thing: 'September 19th, 4 to 9 p.m. You will not be disappointed. I promise.'"

That's the debut event for "Yucca Fountain," an installation by Andrew Bablo and Helen Popinchalk. The Boston artists gave KUNC the first look at the exhibition as they prepared for its opening.

One side of the gallery has been transformed into a desertscape — from the pitch-black night sky to the gravel (a very specific type of rock called "squeequee") under visitors' feet.

On the other side is a 1950s-style diner, complete with booths and a lunch counter. Many of the items, including a stainless steel soda fountain and neon signs, were salvaged from Yucca Fountain, a soda shop that existed in the 1950s.

"We're trying to recreate (it), to the best of our abilities, based on the drawings that we have and what we know," Bablo said.

Vintage newspapers line the windows of the UNC Campus Commons Gallery.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

Which isn't much. The soda shop operated around the Amargosa Valley — near Nevada's famed Area 51 — before burning down in a mysterious fire.

"I don't want to divulge too much about Bert's conspiracy theory," Popinchalk said. "But I'll say that it involves the as-of-yet unsolved fire that destroyed Yucca Fountain and the 1958 test ban — the atomic testing ban — and there were points in October 1958 where they were testing upwards of five to six devices a day in the desert, and from what we've sort of gathered from our research is that the fountain existed in the Amargosa Valley sort of right on the edge of the atomic test area there."

But how did the artists come to own these relics and why are they using them as art?

"It's sort of a long story," Popinchalk said.

While on a vacation in Nevada in 2016, she was lured into a store by a vintage sign. "Visit Yucca Fountain" it read. The owner told her it was on loan.

"And the guy's like, 'Oh yeah, you know, Bert lent us that,'" Popinchalk said. "And we're like, 'Who is Bert?' And he's like, "Aww, if you want to know about Yucca Fountain, you gotta talk to Bert.'"

"Bert" is Bert Tuttle. He was the owner of Yucca Fountain and apparently a well-known, if slightly eccentric, local.

Popinchalk didn't have time that day to seek Tuttle out, so she filed his information away in her travel diary. Two years later she convinced Bablo that his story might lead to an interesting art project and that they should finally go meet him.

Unfortunately, when they went to Tuttle's house they learned from the new owners that he had recently died. And, unable to locate any of his family, they were trying to figure out what to do with the massive amount of stuff left behind, including a vintage travel trailer.

Boston-based installation artists Andrew Bablo and Helen Popinchalk sit in front of Bert Tuttle’s travel trailer. The camper is part of the ‘Yucca Fountain’ exhibit.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

Inside they found lots of personal effects — photos, drawings and stacks of notebooks filled with his writings. A lot of it was about his former business, and that mysterious fire.

They also found the shop's original stainless steel soda fountain buried under a mountain of junk in an outbuilding on the property.

"This was saved for obvious reasons," Bablo said. "I think even then it was pretty cool and pretty collectable."

"These would have pumped marmalades or whatever they had in here," he said holding the porcelain dispensers with tops that read 'orange,' 'cherry,' and 'grape.'

Afraid the relics would be lost to the landfill or piecemealed out, Bablo and Popinchalk decided to buy the lot of it and recreate the soda shop, but there was one problem. Aside from those few drawings and black-and-white photos, they didn't really know what the fountain looked like. Even the paint colors were a mystery. In one of his notebooks, Tuttle vaguely mentioned an orange and teal color scheme.

"In a sense it is frustrating because I would love to know exactly what the fountain looked like," Popinchalk said. "I'd love to know what it was like to sit at a booth, what kind of ice cream flavors they served. I'd love to know all of those stories.

"But in a sense, not knowing has given us the opportunity to use our creative license to recreate some of this for the visitors … I think part of what Andy and I are trying to recreate here is that sense of discovery and exploration that we initially had when we were going through these items and uncovering this story."

The fountain will seat 40 people on the exhibition's opening night, Sept. 19.
Credit Andrew Bablo

But it's more than that, Bablo said. The exhibit touches on everything from the existential dread of the atomic era to the disappearance of small-town American hubs and the nostalgia of the Route 66 experience.

Everything in "Yucca Fountain" is designed to trigger a different sensory experience and memory, the artists said. It's part of the reason why for the exhibition's opening event, the diner will be operating as an actual diner complete with 1950s prices for sodas, ice cream and hot dogs.

"For us, it's the height of all senses but there is a story back here," Bablo said. "And it's more than just recreating what was once a '50s soda fountain. So there is a deeper story to this, and I think as we started digging deeper into the research — and what we found in Bert's camper and all his stuff — I think we started finding that there was a much deeper story in the background. That was a lot of fun for us to discover, but I think can be equally as fun for the viewer to come and discover as well."

A kick-off party for the exhibition will be from 4-9 p.m. on Sept. 19 in the Campus Commons Gallery on the UNC campus. The exhibit will be on display through March 14.