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Texas Through the Eyes of Jay B. Sauceda

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No one knows Texas like Jay B. Sauceda, and not many have seen it like him until now.

By Brianna Caleri, Aerial photos by Jay B. Sauceda, Exhibition photo by Chad Wadsworth.

If you’re talking to Jay B. Sauceda, at some point, the conversation will inevitably turn to Willie Nelson. An embodiment of his beloved state, Sauceda never strays from the people and places that make up Texas.

“Some of the most Texan things about Texas are because of Austin,” he says. “Willie Nelson is from Texas but wasn’t living in Texas until he came and visited Austin and decided that he thought that this was a killer place to live. … There are a lot of things about Texas and Texas culture that came from this city.”

Online, Sauceda is known as the man behind the popular social-media account and online store Texas Humor. Now he’s taking his Texas disciples to new heights with his aerial photography series, Texas From Above. Capturing about 44,000 images of the state from a small airplane during a 36-hour journey, Sauceda catalogued a vast, vivid array of landscapes and structures that highlight the beauty and diversity of the land. The project, originally commissioned by Texas Monthly, is presented in a hardcover book titled A Mile Above Texas, and through June 16, his work is also on display at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, where visitors can explore some of his images on a larger scale alongside other artifacts from the journey.

Amelia Earhart’s infamous flight around the world served as inspiration for the project, but with Sauceda’s signature Texas perspective, he scaled the idea to fit his version of the world.

“I would say that if I have a skill set, it’s being able to take pieces from different learnings or different people and put them together and make something that’s bigger,” he reflects. “But I get a lot out of just picking people’s brains. … I’m just inspired by other people.”

The Texas From Above exhibit enhances the aerial images with artifacts from the flight, displaying the flight simulator on which Sauceda learned to fly and a pilot logbook in which he reminded himself to “play it cool.” For each leg associated with the six-day journey, informative signs offer logistical information and humanizing anecdotes, contextualizing the experience and adding another sense of place to those of us on the ground. Touring the photographs through the rotunda, the walk really does feel like a trip around the world; the only thing missing is snow, but each giant photo contains some elegant white contrast among all the red and green, in the form of clouds or breaking waves.

“I wanted it to feel like a blend of colors as you went through it,” Sauceda says, “like you were moving across the state. That’s what it feels like when you’re flying.”

Altitude drove his vision: When too low to the ground, it’s too close to see patterns; when too high up, at a commercial-airline height, detail is lost. At only a few thousand feet, a perfect balance emerges and highlights the geography while, for the most part, leaving out the people. Still, viewers respond to the photos excitedly on social media when they see hometowns and other landmarks they recognize. Sauceda suspects the inclusivity of the project is one of the reasons people gravitate to it.

A deputy director of the Bullock, Kate Betz has seen a similar reception in person at the exhibit.

“It’s a great way to think about our place in the land,” she says. “This gives a way to connect past, present and future, as far as what Texas physically looks like and how that has impacted the way that we live in our state.”

Insights into the project are as endless as the terrain featured. Sauceda emphasizes that his only intention was to share the beauty he experienced flying. Even so, mustn’t there be something that makes him so loyal to sharing his love for his home state?

“It’s easy, I think, through the effect of proximity, to kind of just assume that the things that are around you are boring,” he answers. “If there’s a sense of duty that I feel, it’s to explore and better appreciate what we have right here.”

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