Few deserts are as storied as the High Desert, which has drawn together a community of artists and creators, healers, helpers and those simply looking for some space.
WRITTEN AND PRODUCED by amelia FLEETWOOD
photography by tierney geAronv
The Integratron’s sound baths draw 100 people per day to tune in and drop out.
There’s something out of this world about the white wooden dome that looms on the horizon of the Mojave Desert. With a diameter of 55 feet, the Integratron has become a place of pilgrimage for wellness worshippers looking to cleanse negative energy through the vibration of quartz singing bowls. And if its founder, George Van Tassel, is to be believed, its acoustically perfect structure follows the architectural specifications delivered to him telepathically by extraterrestrials.
“It is a place to wake up and deepen artistic resonance on any level,” says Joanne Karl, who, together with her sisters Nancy and Patty, have owned the Integratron since 2000. As remote as it may be, the spare desert backdrop works double duty as ego deconstruction. “You have to get as wild as the desert to live here,” says Nancy. “People come to the desert to live out their dreams and to become their authentic selves. It strips you down and you have to surrender.”
Painter Caris Reid is soothing Downtown Los Angeles and beyond from her desert studio.
Grace and Grit is what painter Caris Reid named her powerful, 40-foot mural of a red-lipped woman covered in celestial symbols in Downtown Los Angeles, located near the Broad museum. The embodiment of both grace and grit, Reid, a long time New Yorker, moved to the high desert to commune with nature. “The desert just fits the vibration of my work,” Reid explains, “because life in the desert is more meditative and grounded.” Vibrations are integral to Reid’s practice.
The artist-cum-Reiki practitioner explores femininity and feminine archetypes through acrylics and wood panels, employing a flat, centralized figure who almost always makes bold eye contact and telegraphs hypnotic and soothing energy through symmetry of repetition. Take, for example, the gently undulating hair line of her DTLA icons. “I believe all objects carry an energetic frequency,” says Reid.
It’s a recent shift toward emotional and spiritual realms that is threaded through her work from inception to completion. “I have a meditative studio practice, and when I start a painting I like to be in a very centered place. I am conscious of what I am bringing to life.”
Music manager-turned-ceramicist Brian DeRan finds space to create.
Brian DeRan, whose long-time career in music management found him living in New York, Los Angeles and for a time, Baltimore, always had an art studio wherever life took him. Nowadays he can be found in Joshua Tree—mostly in his studio—painting and making ceramics. DeRan says, “In 2015, I made a shift toward making my art a larger part of my life, and the desert was a huge part of that. The inspiration of the landscape, the environment, and, of course, the lack of distractions… it’s hard not to create here, to be honest.”
The influence of the desert is easily spotted in DeRan’s ceramics; his use of textures created by desert elements, and how he employs sand and ash for casting and glazing, give the impression of really being “of the earth.” Twice yearly DeRan has an open studio, and his work can also be seen at thewesterndesert.com.
The Brothers French
Two Oregon hoteliers find the cowboy way at the Pioneer Motel.
The Pioneertown Motel draws travelers the world over to a stretch of the Yucca Valley for its rustic cowboy charm, a convincingly authentic aesthetic that owes as much to the motel’s origin story as it does to well-executed design. The Pioneertown Motel was built at the same time as Pioneertown by Hollywood heavyweights Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Russell Hayden, and the Sons of the Pioneers (for whom the town was named) in 1946. The inn was conceived as lodging for Western movie stars filming in the living movie set built as a reimagined 1870s frontier town, complete with façades, a working saloon and dirt-paved Mane Street.
When Oregon-raised brothers Matt and Mike French first came across the single-story property nine years ago, they were enamored; they bought it in 2014. “It’s not just the spirit of the desert but also the spirit of Pioneertown that we were specifically taken with,” says Matt. “We see it as a gem within the high desert.” The brothers assembled a team to restore the historical motel to serve the jet set and its own community, hiring local artists and local craftsmen work on their projects. “There was a wave of people moving out here decades ago and now people are coming out again for the space to create,” says Matt. “We wanted to pull up the ladder behind them.”
Space and Time
Artist Erlea Maneros Zabala experiments in making the most out of the least.
Artist Erlea Maneros Zabala is an essentialist. Exchanging her native Basque countryside for the California desert, the Spanish-born creative has trained her focus on monochromatic, two-dimensional work in mediums ranging from paint to photography, printmaking and drawing. That, and erecting a dream home out of mostly found materials for the past seven years with her partner, using their bare hands. “Sure, we had an electrician come in and some other specialists, but we built the whole thing ourselves,” Zabala says.
Old floorboards, with their enviable patina, were salvaged from a recent refurbishment of the Capital Records building in Hollywood. The steel exterior was sourced from leftovers at the Brewery Art Colony in Downtown Los Angeles. The wooden countertops in the kitchen were made from leftover fine art frame stock. The resulting structure is strikingly simple, outfitted with the kind of high ceilings and large windows designed for expansive horizon lines. “I like reductionism, so it makes sense that I only work in monochrome,” says Zabala, who shows with Redling Fine Art Gallery, in LA. The desert, she finds, allows for a release of pressures that build up in the city, leaving her with the mental space and serenity to create. Her most recent show was a commentary on her relocation. “I listened to a lot of local, right wing, Libertarian radio, and I realized that there is a whole American culture I knew nothing about.” For the exhibition, Zabala made a video of herself working in her studio with the radio droning on in the background. Now she has her sights set on her forthcoming show at the Carreras Múgica gallery in Bilbao later this year, and experimenting in abstract drawings. Using a projector and a timer, she challenges herself with less and less time to draw. Call it the art of reduction.
Jonathan Cross’s coveted sculptures capture the brutalism of the desert.
Jonathan Cross, the sculptor whose work can be found at The Future Perfect and Lawson-Fenning, started his career as a printmaker with a cactus obsession. Driven by the lack of suitable vessels for his beloved cacti, he began making his own. “I still make planters and vases, but my concern is no longer the use of the pieces,” says Cross. “It is purely an aesthetic pursuit.”
Preferring to work with clay heavily engorged with stones and chunks of iron, Cross creates textural, geometric vessels with polished edges and chiseled lines. He uses local wood, mainly from citrus and cottonwood trees to fire his work, imparting the ash surface that have become synonymous with his name. “It’s a blending of Brutalist architecture with a geological aspect,” he explains of the characteristic style he’s developed in his Twentynine Palms studio, where the desert finds its way into each piece.
“I feel such an affinity with the desert,” says Cross. “I am creating objects that emulate and reference the landscape.” The cactus brought him here, but the work keeps him.
Artist Phillip K. Smith III is bringing the desert to Milan Design Week.
“When you grow up in the desert it’s in your blood,” says artist Philip K. Smith III, who moved to Palm Springs from Los Angeles when he was seven years old. “It’s impossible to deny the power of living and breathing in this arid environment; it becomes part of you.” In the case of Smith, it also became part of his work.
When the Californian moved away to study art and architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, Smith says he desperately missed his “brown mountains.” So in a way, he recreated them. Much of his early work engaged light and shadow and the movement of the sun, paying homage to the mountain ranges that colored his youth. “I love how the mountains transform over the course of the day, from a highly-textured, three-dimensional surface to a monochromatic silhouette at dusk.”
Smith is known primarily for his outdoor installations, like the arresting mirror and wood-slatted shack he erected in the high desert in 2013 called Lucid Stead that had the trompe l’oeil effect of looking straight through the structure. “Something was right about that project,” he says. “The allure of the desert, combined with the quality of the light made it into a unique experience. It’s been more than 4 years since it was taken down, and we still have requests to see it!” But his multi-disciplinary oeuvre is rife with the essentialist elements of his landscape.
“My understanding of light as a medium is becoming more expanded and more focused,” says Smith, a specialization that is being rewarded by bigger, more prominent exhibitions. From April 17-22, his installation for fashion brand COS will be unveiled during the Salone del Mobile, where Smith’s architectural sculpture will stand in relief against the 16th-century courtyard and garden of Palazzo Isimbardi.
“It’s the first time I’m creating a large-scale, contemporary piece in an urban setting, and my first international project,” he says, brimming with enthusiasm. To contrast the buzzing metropolitan environment, he plans to give Milan a taste of a broadened horizon line. “The piece will be about pulling the sky down into the courtyard. The sky is everywhere! I hope when people leave they will go back with this renewed connection and understanding of the sky.”
Back home, he will continue to explore permutations of “reflection, color, light and shadow and time,” with a forthcoming immersive light installation in LA next spring. “I’m interested in joining all of my ideas together,” he says. The blurring of the seams, he explains, is exactly where the magic happens.“I strive for balance, giving enough information for people to access and understand the work, but also holding enough back that there’s space for discovery.”
Call Your Girlfriend
In the Yucca Valley, La Copine is what’s for dinner.
This refurbished old-time diner in Flamingo Heights serves locally-sourced menu ripe with Middle Eastern, deep South and clean Californian influence that earns its reputation as one of the best restaurants in Yucca Valley. Just a stone’s throw from Pioneer Town, the brainchild of East Coast transplants Nikki Hill and Claire Wadsworth garner hour long waits with their Jidori fried chicken and cauliflower “couscous.” La Copine doesn’t take reservations, but its happy, well-fed customers echo enthusiastic encouragement: “It’s worth it!”
Home and Hearth
Shop on the Mesa owners Thao Ngyuen and Anthony Angelicola are filling homes with the simple and the good.
Thao Nguyen and Anthony Angelicola, partners in both life and work, have long collaborated, designing and crafting deceptively simple furniture for the last seven years. Drawn to Joshua Tree’s casual, mid-century design, they left the east coast behind to set up in a 50s-style building of their own. Now, on an unassuming stretch of Twentynine Palms Highway their store, Shop on the Mesa, has become the Yucca Valley’s go to for aspirational desert living.
Inside, Ngyuen and Angelicola’s hand-hewn oak and walnut side tables and leather-slung safari chairs from their own line (Fire on the Mesa) nod to the best of mid-century ease in materials built for everyday durability. For every other corner, cabinet, closet and countertop in the home, the couple also offers an artisan apothecary, vintage clothing and ceramics and textiles sourced from around the world. “People come to the desert to get away and re-set,” says Nguyen. “When visitors walk into our store, they always stay a while; they just sit down, and hang out and take it all in.”
More often than not, they take it all home, too.
Writer Trinie Dalton and musician Keith Wood are making the desert work.
“We love the sun!” reads a text sent by prolific author Trinie Dalton from her home in Joshua Tree, where she lives with her musician husband, Keith Wood.
In spite of their distance from the city, both the couple maintains impressive ties to contemporary culture. Dalton has penned and published six works of fiction, with a seventh, “Destroy Bad Thoughts, Not Yourself,” out this spring. That, in addition to contributing regularly to Artforum, and writing a selection of art books.
The couple sources endless inspiration from the desert’s harsh climate and unforgiving topography. They are mesmerized by the way time in the desert seems to stretch out and by the atmosphere of survivalism that prevails. But more than anything, they revel in the large sky that dominates their environment. (Joshua Tree recently became designated as a ‘dark sky’ community; town codes now ensure that lighting at night is minimal.)
“Since moving out here, I’ve become more sonically aware,” says Wood. He boasts decades of solid touring as a singer-songwriter and guitarist under his belt, most recently with Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, with whom he formed the band Chelsea Light Moving. But these days, his primary focus is his personal band Hush Arbors, which he describes as rock ’n’ roll with a dash of folk and a psychedelic twist. And if you listen closely to Wood’s new album, slated to be released this summer, you just might hear the desert he adores. “I record outside sometimes. I just love the quality of the sound.”