Tulsa artist Natalie Slater revisits historic Route 66
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2013
2/17/13 at 7:32 AM
After three years of work, Natalie Slater's vision of Route 66 is approaching the end of its journey.
There's still a few weeks of work to do before she will be ready to unveil the entirety of images and objects that make up "The Mother Road Revisited: Route 66 Then and Now."
That will be in April, when the complete exhibit opens for a monthlong run at Living Arts of Tulsa, 307 E. Brady St.
The multimedia exhibit will include some 200 images - postcards and snapshots taken along Route 66 in the mid-20th century, paired with photographs Slater took of those same locations, standing in the exact same spot as the photographer who took the original image.
Some of these images will be combined in interactive lightboxes. When the viewer activates the foot switch, a black-and-white image from the past is suddenly overlaid with a color image from the present - the swimming pool of an east Tulsa motel in the 1950s transforms into its modern-day weed-filled expanse.
"When I started this," said Slater, a graduate student at the University of Tulsa's School of Art working on her master's degree in printmaking, "I thought of limiting myself to Oklahoma. For one thing, this was supposed to be only a semester-long project.
"But I realized pretty quickly that I wasn't going to be able to keep this to a semester," she said, laughing. "I tried to resist it for a while, but in the end I realized that if you're going to do something with Route 66, you had to do all of Route 66."
What originally drew Slater to the project were images of the old advertising signs that once dotted this stretch of highway that snakes through the Midwest and Southwest, from Chicago to Los Angeles.
"I have a bachelor's in graphic design, so that appealed to me," she said. "And these objects had a story to tell. I decided I would try to find out what that story had been in the past, and what that story is now."
Slater was also inspired by a book she had seen by a Russian photographer, who juxtaposed images of landscapes during World War II with how those places looked today.
"But my concept wasn't to take a dark view of things," Slater said. "I tried not to make these images depressing if I could. I wanted them to be more nostalgic."
She spent the better part of a year planning - tracking down old postcards and vintage photographs, plotting out the locations she needed to photograph on a series of maps, creating the plaques she would place at each site she would photograph, and buying a 1960s-era Shasta trailer that would serve as home during the more than 2,400-mile journey along "the Mother Road."
"I found one of my best sources for postcards about a mile from where I live," Slater said. "A woman named Laurel Cain has this incredible collection of Route 66 postcards and photos, and she was very gracious about letting me scan the ones I needed."
The metal plaques are printed with a QR code that, when scanned by a smart phone or other device, will display the vintage image of that site, so that the viewer can see the past and present at once.
Once all the preparation work was done, Slater and her assistant, Jeremiah Christie, drove to Chicago to begin their monthlong trek down Route 66. They attached the first QR-coded plaque to the Chicago sidewalk at the base of the signpost that marks the start of Route 66.
And, "it was like looking for needles in a haystack," she said, laughing. "There was one place in California that we spent four hours trying to find, and no one we talked to knew what we were talking about."
Then there was the discovery that, once they arrived in Barstow, Calif., that the street Slater and Christie were looking for had been removed years previously.
But setbacks such as these were rare occurrences, Slater said.
"A lot of the people who live along Route 66 know and appreciate its history, and they were happy to help if they could," she said.
When a tire on their vehicle went flat, Slater told the workers at the tire store about her project and showed them the photo she was trying to re-create.
"They said, 'Walk out our front door, and that's the place you want,' " she said. "And it was true. Another time I went into an IHOP to ask about finding another site. No one knew what I was talking about, but when I went out through a different door, there it was - the view I needed for that shot.
"So those serendipitous moments happened all the time," she said.
Now, Slater is preparing all the many elements that will go into her exhibit, which will open April 5 at Living Arts.
These include such things as the Shasta trailer, a mid-20th-century living room complete with a slide show of other photographs taken along the route, and a fully stocked gift store.
"Right now I'm working on these coasters," Slater said, pointing to stacks of highway shield-shaped objects, some of which have already been printed with imagery from vintage postcards.
"I want to give people the complete Route 66 experience," Slater said, "and that includes the gift shop. Everywhere I went along Route 66, you'd find some kind of souvenir shop, and they all seemed to have the same things, no matter where you were."
Artist Natalie Slater has a “preview”
version of her exhibit, “The Mother Road
Revisited: Route 66 Revisited” at Vintage
Tulsa, which runs through Sunday at Expo
Square, 21st Street and Pittsburg Avenue.
Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $6.
Original Print Headline: Revisiting Routes
James D. Watts Jr .918-581-8478
Artist Natalie Slater sits with some of her Route 66-themed work at her studio in Tulsa. Slater traveled the length of the famous highway re-creating vintage photos of landmarks along the way. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World
Natalie Slater and Jeremiah Christie pose at the starting point of Route 66 in Chicago. At the base of the sign post is one of Slater's metal QR-coded plaques - the first of 80 she would place along Route 66. Courtesy
A collage of modern and historic views of the intersection of Lewis Avenue and 11th Street, part of historic Route 66 NATALIE SLATER/Courtesy
Handmade coasters from artist Natalie Slater feature landmarks from Route 66. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World
A layered collage made by artist Natalie Slater shows a vintage photo superimposed over a recent image from the same vantage point. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World