"I feel uneasy about my back and legs. I rather fear for my future," Hiram Pierce said in a letter to his wife in 1850.

Pierce, who had left his family back East, was still empty-handed after searching for gold in California for a year.

"I feel most deeply to regret that I have earned nothing in order to make any remittance," Pierce told his family.

Although his wife wrote back pleading for him to come home, Pierce wrote excitedly in his next letter, "Yesterday I saw my neighbor pick up a $100 nugget."

Through art and excerpts from letters and diaries, Kyle Peets' exhibit "Gold Fever" explores humanity's past and continuing obsession with gold. The exhibit in the Art Building at Southern Oregon University in Ashland continues through Dec. 9.

The exhibit is especially intriguing given Southern Oregon's own mining history, especially in the Jacksonville area.

The hunt for gold split families apart during the California gold rush. Some men struck it rich, while most labored for little or nothing.

In the piece "I Often Think of Writing Home," Peets captures the addictive, obsessive quality of the search for gold.

From a distance, the artwork looks like a large, framed letter from a miner to his family. Up close, the handwritten word "GOLD" repeats over and over — more than 3,500 times.

"It's a look into the mind of someone obsessed by gold fever," Peets says. "There's an obsessive, compulsive single-mindedness. From a distance, it looks benign. Up close, a frightening world opens up."

Peets says his own interest in gold and its complications began a few years ago with the reality television series "Gold Rush." Now in its seventh season on the Discovery channel, the series follows a group of down-on-their-luck Oregonians who move to Alaska in search of gold.

Peets said he could relate to the men's search for the rare metal. He had graduated from Southern Oregon University and moved to Iowa to pursue graduate studies in art.

"I left the state and people I love in search of something. Art-making is equally elusive," he said.

Peets said he developed a craving for the western landscape and found himself watching western films.

Now back in Oregon and an art faculty member at SOU, he is continuing to explore themes of gold and the West.

The "Gold Fever" exhibit includes a series of graphite drawings in which Peets created faint, subtle tracings of fading ghost towns that once bustled with miners. He wrote in lines of text from miners' diaries and other historical sources.

In one drawing, a single, tiny building is paired with the words "Why Not Me." The piece captures the yearning and sense of failure many miners felt.

"The myth of the gold rush was that you would be rewarded according to your labor," Peets says.

Many men left factory jobs in the industrialized East, pursuing dreams of autonomy and wealth. Yet finding nuggets or rich veins of gold often depended on luck.

And it was often the mining companies, with the resources to carry out intensive hydraulic and deep shaft mining, that grew rich. Miners who came West pursuing independence often found themselves once again working as wage laborers, Peets says.

In a drawing of a church and scattered buildings, a miner's words read, "I am now convinced I have done very wrong in coming here."

Another tracing of a ramshackle building has words about the vigilante justice of the era, saying, "We left them to swing in the wind until morning."

Although his subject matter is serious, Peets uses humor in the exhibit.

In the series "Hopeless Gold Digger," he has collected paint sample swatches from hardware stores and framed them.

Peets says the series started when he was at a hardware store buying paint and saw a swatch with the word "gold" in the name of the paint color.

While some of the colors could be more accurately described as dull yellow, tan or beige, they are burdened with grandiose names such as "Kingdom Gold," "Grand Canyon Gold," "Glitzy Gold," "Gold Digger" and "Gold Strike."

"Clearly our obsession with gold is still there," Peets says.

— Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.