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A deeper look at history

Hohokam community covered the land that is now the ASU Tempe campus.
Team hopes to transform ASU into open-air museum with pop-up exhibits, events.
Connecting students to ASU land's past helps tie them to its future.
February 2, 2016

ASU professors help students grow roots by studying what’s under Tempe campus — including expansive Hohokam sites

When Kostalena Michelaki came to Arizona State University, she wondered about the history of this sprawling campus in central Tempe.

“When I first arrived here, I read of ASU’s New American University mission to ‘leverage our place,’ and wondered what this meant,” said the anthropological archaeologist in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social ChangeThe School of Human Evolution and Social Change is an academic unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences..

Michelaki, who is originally from Greece, also wondered what — or who — was here before ASU existed. She was amazed to learn that the Tempe campus sits right on top of expansive Huhugam (Hohokam) ruins that were here long before the university. Yet, that history is invisible to most of the ASU community.

Michelaki realized that ASU has a tremendous opportunity to explore this history and leverage its place, starting right here in our own neighborhood.

She believes that if students engage more with the ASU community and its history, they could feel more attached to this place and have a stronger sense of belonging.

In fact, several studies — such as one done by the Center for the Future of Arizona — show that a strong attachment to place promotes a higher quality of life. This, in turn, may help new students continue their education, enrich their college experience and give them skills to build better communities after graduation.

To make this goal a reality, Michelaki has partnered with research professor and museum studies director Richard Toon in a long-term project they call “Materializing the Invisible.” Together, they hope to transform ASU into an open-air museum with pop-up exhibits, art installations, performances, participatory community events and even augmented-reality experiences that will appear throughout the campus.

They also intend for students to work hand-in-hand with faculty from such disciplines as Native American and transborder studies, anthropology, geology, design, engineering and history, as well as local community and tribal leaders and elders. Together, they will reanimate the past, strengthen their connection to the present and re-imagine the future.

Dwelling on the past

There is a millennia of human settlement history where ASU sits today. And many peoples have called this area home, including the Mexican Americans of San Pablo and the Huhugam of La Plaza before them.

La Plaza was a Huhugam community that thrived from A.D. 700 to 1400 and stretched roughly from the southern base of Tempe’s “A” Mountain to Apache Boulevard, and from Mill Avenue to McClintock Drive. What is now Veterans Way was once “downtown” La Plaza, with pit houses, working areas for processing caliche (a building material) and platform mounds. Huhugam irrigation canals pass just south of Veterans Way, as well as right under Barrett, the Honors College. Throughout the campus area, the inhabitants of La Plaza kept their fields and field houses for generations.

Students walk down a palm-lined sidewalk.

Understanding those who walked the land before them will help students have a better connection and sense of belonging to ASU, says anthropological archaeologist Kostalena Michelaki. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


San Pablo was another historic community nearby; Mexican American families settled the area around 1872, and the neighborhood flourished there until the 1950s, when ASU began to expand. It was bordered by Fifth Street, University Drive, College Avenue and the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks.

Many of the people living there worked at Carl Hayden’s mill or the railroad. San Pablo’s community church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel (located on the northwest corner of College Avenue and University), was built in 1903 and is one of the oldest standing structures in the region.

The future of ASU’s past

Michelaki and Toon have begun putting together a diverse group of cross-disciplinary faculty and students, as well as tribal and Latino community members, who are keen to understand the Tempe campus as a meaningful place with a very long history.

They will organize this group into several teams of different, but complementary, skills. The team of “Storytellers” will include those who study the past and give us its stories, such as tribal elders, archaeologists, San Pablo community elders, historians and archivists. Together, they will help gather information about the peoples who have lived here.

A team of artists, modelers and designers, or “Visualizers and Materializers,” will make the collected data and stories come alive for a visual audience. The plan is for this team to also work on creating an app that will inform users of the archaeological sites found underneath various points on campus.

The “Educators” will teach students about the area’s history and get them involved in the project, as well as promote their sense of place and attachment to the ASU community. Michelaki and Toon intend to work with experts and develop classes about the history and archaeology of campus. At the end of these courses, students themselves could become storytellers or visualizers.

Finally, “Cultural Managers” will work to strengthen and systematize ASU’s relations with the private archaeology firms that undertake archaeological excavations on campus. The goal is for classes to be able to visit their excavations and for the recovered materials to be curated on campus, making them available to students, researchers and community outreach programs.

The ambitious project has already received funding from the Institute for Humanities Research, the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the Center for Archaeology and Society.

Ultimately, Michelaki and Toon aspire to build a stronger ASU community by connecting people through the campus’ impressive history. Unlike other historical campuses that highlight only a small part of their history and exclude the contributions of minorities, the archaeological approach embraced by Michelaki and Toon is based on positioning the Tempe campus as a place where all of its past is celebrated, discussed and re-interpreted.


Written by Mikala Kass,

ASU community art exhibit explores the idea of home

February 2, 2016

We each have our own idea of what makes a home: a place of shelter, protection, refuge, comfort, family and respite. Other living things create and build habitats for sanctuary, safety and nourishment. Home often means security and belonging, and it can form feelings and memories of comfort as well as discomfort.

This is the essence of “House, Habitat, Home: A Community Art Exhibition,” now open in the University Center on Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus. Organized by the College of Public Service and Community Solutions, the exhibit provides individuals, schools and community organizations the opportunity to share their art with thousands of people in the downtown ASU community, placing art created by working professionals alongside emerging artists of all ages. This is Home, Polka Dot Suite and Mist Cycle “House, Habitat, Home: A Community Art Exhibition,” is now open in the University Center on Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus. Download Full Image

The exhibition, which runs through May 4, is displayed on the first, second and third floors of the University Center, 411 N. Central Ave, Phoenix, and features more than 160 works of art submitted for display in a response to a community-wide call to artists. Included are works of various media such as paintings, collages, pencil drawings, sculpture — all created out of a desire to celebrate the meaning of home.

Beverly K. Brandt, Professor Emerita with the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, provides a calming image of home in her watercolor, "Earth, Air, Water: At Home by the Bay." In cool greens and blues, homes along the water are depicted in a manner that is harmonious with the nature in which they are situated.

“My favorite medium is watercolor. It is so difficult to work with; yet, the results can be breathtaking if done right,” she said.

Brandt, who has only recently become familiar with the community arts program, added, “What a great opportunity to attract work from all ages, all backgrounds, diverse media, diverse visions. The ASU Downtown campus is having a profound effect on Phoenix, and a community arts program seems like a great way to celebrate the changes that have come about since ASU began showing a greater presence in the downtown area."

Carson Bilger, a teacher at Madison Simis in Phoenix, has had his art students participate in three community art exhibitions at the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus. This year, the students chose to create colorful and imaginative homes by using paint, Styrofoam, paper and other three-dimensional materials.

Bilger stated, “I use it as an opportunity for students who are excelling and interested in the arts to create collaborative pieces. ... Having an end goal, like displaying at ASU, is a great motivating factor for the students to create high-quality pieces and work their hardest. “

In one of her submitted works, "Agave," ASU art student Amanda Johnson feels that she was able to discover and reflect on her newfound love of the desert and desert botanicals. Johnson decided to participate in the exhibition because the title grabbed her attention.

“It’s amazing how one word can evoke so many different emotions,” she said. “I think it is important to have an arts community that ties all of the campuses together ... to see how we all influence each other and come together to make things happen.”

James Lowman, an artist in a group called Art Challenge, encouraged the group’s nine members to submit works of art.

“[We] had just completed a series of pieces with the topic ‘Show Me Where You Live.’ This seemed to match with the ‘House, Habitat, Home’ theme,” he said. 

The group submitted paintings, prints, drawings, collages and works in other media. Art Challenge had been involved with the downtown art scene through First Fridays and was intrigued and excited about the locale of ASU’s downtown art exhibition.

Lowman stated, “Art lovers, passersby, and the general public are exposed to art that is often home grown, yet is amazingly expressive. Seeing a show of this nature is a real opportunity to experience a cross-section of our identity as a community. “

Through this exhibition, the college hoped to encourage artists to observe the world that we live in and to consider its wonder. The exhibition shares the explorations of ideas of home and habitat seen through artists’ eyes.

One of those artists is Rosemarie Dombrowski, lecturer at the Downtown Phoenix campus.

“I’m primarily a writer, so if I’m venturing away from pure text, I tend to gravitate towards mixed-media. I like to incorporate verse fragments into pieces that have an ‘arts and crafts’ aesthetic with an emphasis on sustainability,” she said. “I love being involved with projects that foster collaboration between ASU students, faculty, staff and the greater downtown community. This campus for me, represents the epicenter of that type of engagement.”

The Action, Advocacy, Arts program is part of an ongoing community exhibition series held each semester in University Center at the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus. The gallery is free and open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except for holidays. Guided tours may be arranged by contacting Carrie Tovar, curator of art, at