Wild Rivers has always been a special place for Claire Coté. Born and raised in Questa, Coté’s childhood birthday celebration often involved camping with her parents at Big Arsenic Springs, where she could again experience the sublime views of the Río Grande Gorge. Little did she know that she would one day make Wild Rivers the site of her cornerstone project as an environmental arts advocate and educator.
Since 2009, Wild Rivers Recreation Area has played host to NeoRio, an annual environmental art exhibition and workshop that Coté founded in collaboration with University of New Mexico (UNM) Emeritus Professor John Wenger and Aron Rael, the late park ranger. The event combines viewings of temporary art exhibitions built into the landscape with artist lectures, communal dinners and music. The event has expanded — the first year had 35 participants and the latest had around 170. This year’s ninth NeoRio event was held Sept. 16 and was centered around the theme of “Seeds/Semillas.”
“I feel like the other part of landscape, as a culture, we don’t experience awe as much as we maybe did in the past,” Coté said. “Just sitting here and seeing this incredible gorge alone is amazing. But when you do it with a big group of people, it bonds you with a group [in a way] that sitting in front of a TV does not do, even though you’re all having a common experience.”
NeoRio is just one of the many initiatives Coté has been a part of in the past decade. Initially formed for the purposes of managing and planning NeoRio, Coté formed the Land Experience and Art of Place (LEAP) organization in 2009 as a subset of the local nonprofit Localogy.
Around that time, she also joined the team behind SEED, a nonprofit inspired by Rob Kessler and Wolfgang Stuppy’s macrophotography book, “Seeds: Time Capsules of Life,” which showcased magnified images of plant seeds. SEED, which was founded by Siena Sanderson and Mandy Stapleford, presents yearly art and science exhibits that can teach young and old alike about the natural processes of seeds. On top of all this, Coté has also served on the board of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.
Coté’s journey began in earnest following her graduation from UNM in 2004, when she earned a degree in fine art and cultural anthropology. Initially, she wasn’t sure whether she would pursue a career in art or anthropology.
Then Coté participated in UNM’s Land Arts of the American West program. Every year, the program takes a small group of students on two 25-day camping expeditions (with a week of decompression, showering and clothes-washing in between). While in the woods, the students attended lectures, pursued art projects outside the studio context and navigated the necessary rituals of survival. All told, Coté traversed much of Southwest over the course of the semester.
“It was definitely learning how to be a nomadic group: cooking for each other, a smallish group of people that are all taking care of our collective needs and making new artwork together,” Coté said.
The semester left a profound impression on Coté. During the program, a visiting professor introduced her to the art and ecology program at Dartington College of the Arts in Devon County of the United Kingdom.
“It was really neat to be in England and observe what people are doing there, which is similar, but different from us,” Coté said. “Our countries, in a way, have some sort of common history, but are sort of very different now.”
When Coté returned, she sought to bring back what she learned to her hometown of Questa.
“I just started to look for ways my training and interests could manifest here in a positive way,” Coté said.
From her graduate study abroad, Coté also gained a stronger sense of regional identity and pride.
“I guess I kind of almost struggled with my identity as someone who was born and raised here as a white local,” Coté said. “Going away gave me a strong sense of pride and ownership of the place and the cultural traditions, which weren’t necessarily my own cultural heritage genetically, but they are a part of my own experiential cultural heritage. They are wonderful, beautiful and unique, and I feel strongly about trying to highlight and preserve them. It’s really amazing how leaving helps to gain that perspective on the place that you call home.”
After England, Coté hit the ground running, and now she’s got so many projects operating that she often emphasizes that balancing time with her family and support from her husband, Chris, have been critical.
“I definitely feel like it’s important to keep perspective on not doing too much,” Coté said. “You have to be topped up yourself in order to share your joy with other people.”
As a result, Coté and her collaborators have planned a scaled-down LEAP event calendar this year so that their efforts will be more sustainable. Still, she considered NeoRio an example of her philosophy of art and education.
“Not every art installation is awe-inspiring like the gorge, but it’s a reason to come to this place and experience it in a different way, so I kind of see it as a recipe somehow,” Coté said. “That event is a metaphor for my approach to place and education; it should involve the senses, it should involve food, it should involve experiencing of beauty or nature in some way.”
Reflecting on what it meant to be selected as an “unsung hero,” Coté expressed gratitude, but thought due credit should be made to her collaborators and supporters.
“I’m really honored, I was taken aback,” Coté said. “I don’t feel like a hero. I don’t feel like I deserve this kind of public recognition or honor. I do this because I love it and because I have to.”