Emotional terrain

Pam Houston has forged a career out of writing compelling fiction that explores the emotional upheavals of romantic relationships set against wildly rugged natural backdrops. Whether barreling down Class VI whitewater rapids or racing horses across arid plains, her fictional heroines are always more willing to engage the challenges of the natural world than their own feelings. Even when natural disasters threaten drownings and broken bones, sometimes that’s the less painful route.

SN&R’s Chrisanne Beckner entered into a dialog with Houston, the current director of UC Davis’ Creative Writing Program, just before the academic adventurer left for an orca-watching trip off Vancouver Island. The resulting interview, “Deep in the heart of Houston,” is a rare personal glimpse into the emotional heart and intellectual methods of one of the area’s most prominent literary voices.

As Houston told Beckner during the interview, “I understand emotion when it’s reflected in the physical world. … If I can bring that complicated emotional field that is an aspen tree quaking, or whatever, to the page and put it next to a character in a situation, then the emotion is going to come through that resonating object—which is how art works.”

Davis artist Terry Berlier might agree. Her current installation at the Richard L. Nelson Gallery, Remain Human: The Slatter’s Court Project, also utilizes a physical setting—a quirky, run-down trailer park—to express an emotional concept, the search for a feeling of home. Berlier’s exhibit, which incorporates video, maps and found-object assemblage, not only is a complex and endearing testament to the denizens of this low-rent community, but also may help preserve the onetime motor lodge for future generations. SN&R’s Jonathan Kiefer investigates the exhibit, which is on display through August 26, and its import in “Humans remain.”

Studying the work of these two Davis-based artists reveals this truth: It doesn’t matter whether one is fending off aggressive reptiles on an Amazon River excursion or cozying up in an aging trailer. No matter where we are, our emotional landscapes are vast and ready for exploration.