In 1951, President Harry S Truman turned 1,360 square miles of desert military bombing range into the Nevada Test Site for atomic weapons. The nuclear detonations lasted from the early ’50s to 1992 and could be seen from as far away as Las Vegas. Ritzy hotels and casinos along the Vegas strip would host “viewing parties” where patrons could enjoy a cocktail while watching the mushroom clouds billow 65 miles away. For 43-year-old artist Doug Waterfield, this bygone era proved inspiration for his latest series, “Doomtown,” opening at space:eight gallery in West Augustine. Waterfield, an associate professor of art and department chair at University of Nebraska at Kearney, has shown his work at spaces ranging from the Library of Congress to the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.
Folio Weekly: How did you and space:eight gallery owner, Rob DePiazza, get hooked up for the show?
Doug Waterfield: Rob and I go way back. We fought in ’Nam together and he saved my life on more than one occasion. He even jumped on a grenade for me and got himself killed two or three times. Well, either that, or I stumbled across him and his fine gallery through Facebook. He is such a nice man.
F.W.: Had you been to St. Augustine?
D.W.: I was there once for a couple of enjoyable days in 1989. I remember lots of Spanish mission-style architecture and a lighthouse somewhere. I also recall some odd Tragedy in U.S. History Museum [closed in 1998] that had Jayne Mansfield’s death car. I think they had Bonnie and Clyde’s car as well. I also remember eating really good seafood somewhere — pleasant memories all.
F.W.: Yes, that’s no longer here. Your new series focuses on the Atomic Age. Tell me about how and when your fascination with that era of Americana began.
D.W.: The Atomic Age has held a fascination for me as far back as I can remember. It’s only been in the last five years or so that I began to explore the nuclear aspect of it. The objects of popular culture from that time were a direct result of atomic paranoia and a deep fear of Communism. The way that we as a society converted our abject terror of nuclear annihilation into a love for giant bugs and radioactive lizard-men and then fused it with the Space Race that gave us aerodynamic everything — from coffee tables to cars — is truly astonishing. As I dug deeper and discovered some of the actual testing processes, I was hooked. The fact that Civil Defense workers actually built the “Survival Towns” aka “Doomtowns” to see what the effect of an atomic blast would be on the typical suburban neighborhood was astonishing. There were some magazine articles, one in Life from 1955, I think. If I had been around then and seen the photos of the charred mannequins of men, women and children, I think I would have found it pretty chilling. And now, the image of the mushroom cloud is the product of a bygone age.
F.W.: Do you consider yourself a “prepper”?
D.W.: I’m a prepper, you’re a prepper, wouldn’t you like to be a prepper, too? No, I’m no prepper. If the big one comes, I do not want to be left behind to mutate into a zombie and wander aimlessly over the surface of the scorched earth. I’ll just put on some dark sunglasses, pour a nice Scotch and enjoy the spectacle.
F.W.: Have you made any preparations for a possible nuclear apocalypse?
D.W.: I have not really tricked out my basement into a bomb shelter, but I have collected a number of Cold War artifacts related to atomic testing — brochures, pamphlets, atomic comics, some mildly radioactive uranium glass plates and even a little piece of Trinitite. I also collect old atomic-era movie posters when I can find them, but they are hard to find in the affordable range these days.
F.W.: You’re an associate professor of art at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Have you integrated your “Doomtown” series into the syllabus?
D.W.: My students were one of the reasons I began this series. I would refer to it occasionally in class. They literally had no idea what I was talking about when I would refer to the Cold War or atomic testing or Communist paranoia. I decided they were probably not alone, and so I embarked on this series to educate, mainly. I have taken great pains to try and not have a political perspective on the morality of the bomb. There are valid arguments on both sides. I just want to raise awareness about some of the peculiar details.