But where are the aliens?

For the last few weeks, I've been sharing with you the various and sundry subjects that have caught my sketching fancy in Roswell. Today, however, I'm going to talk about what I haven't been drawing: the UFO paraphernalia.

Somewhere out there...is a grumpy curator who doesn't want to draw me.
It is at this point axiomatic that Roswell is synonymous with UFOs, thanks to the infamous 1947 incident (though it is often mistaken as the site of Area 51, which is actually in Nevada. And while we're being persnickety, the Roswell Incident didn't actually happen in Roswell, it occurred on a ranch about 30 miles away). I'll admit, UFOs were the first thing that crossed my mind when I first saw the job posting at the Museum, and when I told my friends and family that I was moving here, a bevy of alien jokes and remarks inevitably followed. For better or worse, Roswell conjures up images of little green men.

Much of this fascination is Roswell's own doing. Before the 1990s, the UFO incident was rarely discussed here, but the popularity of The X Files (which I admittedly watched for a while), Roswell (which I've never seen), and other extraterrestrial-themed movies and TV show encouraged Roswell decided to amp up the alien factor for tourist revenue. The result? A downtown proliferating with little green men, flying saucers, and devotees making their pilgrimage to the International UFO Museum and Research Center.

One of the displays at the UFO Museum.
Nearly every building on Main Street has some sort of alien-themed decor. Every July, the International UFO Festival takes place, and even the Museum participates with its Alien Costume Contest. The city is steeped in it.

Roswell_NM_logo.png (376×369)
Even our official city seal features a little green man. Image courtesy of http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/7d/Roswell_NM_logo.png

I haven't sketched any of this, and I imagine some of my friends are disappointed as a result. Indeed, when I left Vermont, a lot of people asked me whether I was going to start incorporating aliens into some of my lobster prints.

I haven't, and now I'll tell you why.

What I feel about the alien paraphernalia is deep ambivalence. In my brief time in Roswell, I've discovered a city that is rich in history, from the architecture of the Historical District to the experiments of Robert Goddard in the 1930s, from the W.P.A. origins of the Roswell Museum and Art Center to the cultural crossroads of the Artist-in-Residence program. It is also a land with a stark beauty, a place that at first appears flat and desolate to the untrained eye, but is in fact replete with life and color in the right circumstances.

Yes, we can even get frost and ice here.

The extraterrestrial hype erases that complexity in favor of an easily digestible, one-dimensional image, the alien, the other. This is how many tourist-driven places function; I've lived in enough of them to know. In Maine, that iconic tourist image is the lobster. I admittedly do feature the lobster in some of my work, but my use of it is idiosyncratic and autobiographical, which I may explain in a future post. I haven't felt the need to do that with the alien, because I've already got the lobster.

This isn't your roadside, "best lobster roll in town!" kind of crustacean.

My ambivalence about the Roswell aliens is similar to how I feel about Salem, Massachusetts. That city has a long, rich history in science, international trade, and art. Yet what most people associate with that place, and what Salem itself has promoted, is that debacle known as the 1692 witch trials. I personally consider this period to be one of the more embarrassing moments in our history, but nowadays it's a cash cow. Call me a downer, but to me it's in poor taste.

Grant it, nobody died as a result of the Roswell Incident (except perhaps the aliens, transdimensional beings, or whatever you believe they were). But to me, it's yet another example of the commodification of culture. Cheap trinkets becomes substitutes for experiences and memories. Gift shops beckon, asking you to spend your money in exchange for tokens of your pilgrimage. As someone who's always disliked both spending money and clutter (what can I say, moving a lot teaches you to simplify) I fail to understand its allure. Why would I want to buy a cheap plastic trinket when I have my memories instead?

Of course, my rant about tourist culture is nothing new. Some might dismiss my bemoaning as yet another instance of the high art/low art routine, and if so, go ahead. We're all entitled to our different opinions, and if little green folks and flying saucers are your thing, by all means embrace them. I'm not calling for a banishment of the alien kitsch here, I'm just saying that there's a lot more to this place than UFOs, and that's the Roswell I choose to depict. Maybe I'll eventually find a way to appropriate that imagery for my own use, but until then, I'm avoiding it because I'd spoil the fun for everyone else.