Charles Ross has been toiling away in the New Mexico desert for nearly 50 years, since his mid-30s. Now 84, the artist is finally almost finished with his life’s work.
Ross and his wife, the painter Jill O’Bryan, began Star Axis in the summer of 1971. Ross calls himself an earthworks artist, and the massive project certainly bears that out. Halfway up a craggy mesa a few miles southeast of Apache Springs on route 84 is a landscape that looks startlingly like a shot from the Curiosity Rover on Mars. If Curiosity were to find a massive stone temple embedded in one of those ruddy martian hills.
Star Axis, in its nearly-complete state, stands over 11 stories tall and is made of sandstone, granite, bronze, steel, and earth in a fashion as old as the Romans. Entering it, one walks into the side of the mesa between two massive walls curved like cupped hands, into the triangular mouth of a staired tunnel leading upwards. Standing at the foot of the stairs, looking up their length in the dark of a clear night, Polaris, the north star, is just visible through the aperture at the very top. Called an oculus, the round glass window above you matches the very small orbit of that nearly-unmoving star. But as you ascend, the window seems to expand. Simple perspective, but still a very deliberate aspect of the massive art-work. The growing oculus represents the larger and larger orbits that Polaris observed in past epochs.
It looks like a temple, and perhaps it is – a temple to mathematics, to astronomy, to the past and future of our planet. Polaris is currently in its smallest orbit, and over the centuries to come, the tilt of Earth’s axis will widen that orbit again in a progress called precession. It is currently open only to the lucky few, but Ross hopes to finish it by 2022, and has plans to donate it to the state of New Mexico as an astronomical park.