I finally got tired of sand dunes, wind and empty desert. My partner wanted to stay in that region of Southern California, and I needed a change of atmosphere. We parted ways for a few weeks. I packed up Priscilla and left the Sonoran desert behind, heading to the Mojave in Arizona. Did you know that there are several distinct desert environments in the U.S.? Where the Sonoran has limited plant and animal life, the Mojave is at higher altitude, has relatively cooler temperatures and more precipitation. Compared to where I was, the Mojave desert is lush. It’s still dry, but there is a much more diverse ecosystem, including the iconic saguaro cacti. I’m parked at a friend’s property outside of Salome, Arizona. He and his family have spent the past few years slowly improving an old shack on this land that he bought for the airplane landing strip. It used to be a cattle ranch, and an old windmill looms ever present. I have access to water and electricity, and a lovely porch with a work table in the shade. My friends come by a few hours each day to work on the house, which, besides my partner, is more interaction than I’ve had for almost two months.
Going for walks by myself is a lot like my artistic process. No straight lines from point A to point B. I don’t like to walk on roads, but prefer to follow game trails. I wander off after jack-rabbits or birds, or follow the trails to dried up watering holes and poke around for tracks and other signs of life. Every once in awhile I come across an old encampment littered with rusted tin cans and broken glass bottles. In this region, they are most likely from cowboys tending herds or gold prospectors.
The other evening I crossed a coyote trail and saw one watching me from several hundred yards away. They call to each other after the sun sets. I've noticed a pair of ravens that patrol this area a few times a day. One in particular is recognizable because it constantly talks to itself as it flies.
There's a few coveys (flocks) of Gambel's quail. They hide in the bushes, and you wouldn't even know that they are there, but when you get close they start making lots of racket and fly or run out in several different directions, including straight at you, making a squeaky toy noise. They come in from the desert really close to my camp. Even as I sit here typing in the hammock on the front porch, the little guys are on all sides of me. Every once in awhile I hear little feet patting furiously along, and a quail or two go running past, almost close enough to touch. The question marks bobbing on the tops of their heads makes them seem particularly comical.
It occurred to me the other day that I’ve become feral. I enjoy seeing my friends here, but interacting for any length of time tires me and causes anxiety. One had some interesting perspective about this. We were talking about my life-long conflict of a desire to be outgoing, but how interacting with people is painfully awkward and exhausting.
She's a retired literature professor, and mentioned the conflict of the protagonist in American literature, torn between conforming to society and being true to their authentic natures. Classic American literature doesn’t end with the same tidiness of European literature, where the hero delves into their inner conflict and resolves it in the end. In contrast, the American hero ultimately returns to their conflict and to non-conformity because to do otherwise would be inauthentic. She said, “You are an American Hero!” This paradigm shift somehow gave me a sense of peace, knowing that at least I am true to myself.
This morning I stopped at a roadside mercado to pick up some fresh vegetables. A man with a long black ponytail and warm piercing eyes sold me a bag of emerald green avocados, giving me a few extras that were perfectly ripe. As I sat alone in my camper, relishing the creamy lusciousness smeared on a tostada with a dash of salt and chili, I wondered about the man. I've seen him several times through the years that I’ve returned here. Always the same old van, always the table set out by the road, a hand-drawn sign taped to the front simply stating, “Avocados and Oranges”. I wonder if he is also an American hero. I wonder if he has dreamed of a world outside of this hot windy desert, or has left and come back again to his life here selling perfect avocados on dusty roadsides. I wonder if he is content or conflicted. I wonder if I will ever become sociable enough to ask him.
The Adventures of Frida and Kathrine
Frida has gotten interested in photography lately. She asked Kathrine and I to pose for her. I think she did a nice job with this shot.
We've been tucked up against a remote sand covered rock of a mountain for over six weeks now. Extreme isolation in the desert has left me exposed. Emotional layers of scars and callouses have been gently worn away by the same eternal wind that blows the sand into dunes. Defenses built up over a lifetime are unnecessary. I find myself exquisitely aware and sensitive to my environment. It's safe here with my partner, away from the overstimulation of humanity and civilization, easy to be vulnerable.
My body has become re-sensitized to certain stimuli, uncovering past trauma that’s been buried in layers of indifference and numbness for decades. One example is that an awareness has emerged that I don’t like my sides to be touched. For 45 years I’ve ignored and buried that discomfort. I know exactly where it came from. Tickling is a uniquely socially acceptable act of torture. Most children enjoy a little bit of tickling. But to be pinned down by those you trust, crying and screaming and begging for it to stop, not being able to breathe, and then being scolded for not being a good sport. Reading peoples’ moods and hiding when danger is sensed. The words, “We’re playing. You’re too sensitive.” If there was one phrase that could sum up my childhood experiences, it was “Stop being so sensitive.” I tried, certain that there was something wrong with me because I was ‘so sensitive’. I was convinced that if I could suppress or even extinguish my sensitivities, I would be accepted and able to function in an overwhelming world.
We've all learned coping mechanisms to survive. How many beautiful spirits have sacrificed authenticity for acceptance? The pain of hiding one’s true nature deep down in order to be able to function is familiar to many of us for our own personal reasons. Numbed years went by when I grew up, with a vague sense of unhappiness and not knowing why or where it came from. Resignation to the ‘supposed-to’s’. My life-altering epiphany came when I was searching for help and support for my own young daughter who was struggling socially and emotionally. I wanted desperately to be able to help her to become an authentic person who didn’t have to hide from anyone. So instead of ignoring and glossing over her signs of distress, I did research. I contacted professionals. I got her help. And in doing so, I discovered deep truths about myself. One of these was the concept of “overexcitabilities”. The pieces began to come together about why I was the way I was and most importantly, that there was nothing wrong with me.
“According to pioneering psychologist K. Dabrowski, there are five forms of overexcitability. These five forms are psychomotor, sensual, emotional, imaginational and intellectual.
Psychomotor: Overexcitability is a heightened excitability of the neuromuscular system. This manifests itself in a capacity for being active and energetic, a love of movement, a surplus of energy and an actual need for physical action.
Sensual: Overexcitability is an intensified experience of any type of sensual pleasure or displeasure emanating from one of the five senses, i.e. sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. It manifests as an increased appreciation of aesthetic pleasure such as music, language, and art, and delight from tastes, smells, textures, sounds, and sights. Conversely, extreme pain and disgust are experienced upon exposure to sensations perceived as unpleasant.
Intellectual: Overexcitability manifests itself as an extreme desire to seek understanding and truth, to gain knowledge, and to analyze and categorize information. Those high in Intellectual overexcitability are commonly seen as intellectually gifted and have incredibly active minds. They are intensely curious, avid readers and keen observers. They frequently love thinking purely for the sake of thinking.
Imaginational: Overexcitability manifests as an intensified play of the imagination, causing a rich association of images, invention, fantasy, use of imagery and metaphor and elaborate dreams and visions. Often children high in Imaginational overexcitability do not differentiate between truth and fiction, or are absorbed in their own private world with imaginary companions and dramatizations.
Emotional: Overexcitability is characterized by heightened, intense feelings, extreme experience of complex emotions, identification with others' feelings to the point of actual experience and strong sentimental expression. Other indications include physical response to emotional stimuli such as stomachaches when nervous and obsessive concern with death and depression. Emotionally overexcitable people have a strong capacity for deep relationships; they show strong emotional attachments to people, places, and things. They are empathetic, compassionate and extremely sensitive.”
I can emphatically check all of those boxes. When I began to see my “overexcitablilites” as a unique blessing rather than a curse, I was able to begin my journey toward self-actualization. And I joined in my daughters’ journeys of cultivating and celebrating their sensitivities and differences.
Do any of the overexcitabilites resonate with you? If you want to explore in more depth, this is a good article to start with.
Home of the Brave
I came across this 10 minute video about an intrepid person who left her own familiar world to start an artist residency in a deserted town in a remote corner of Utah. The video itself is well done, and the story is both inspiring and a little unsettling.
Think you might be interested in a pilgrimage of your own to this isolated artist enclave? Apply here.
I’ve shifted my paintings away from the desert critters toward a very different motif. I’m taking vintage photos of daring women doing trick riding and performances and painting them on my old maps. They are fun, beautiful, and powerful all at the same time. Now that I feel like I have control of the gouache, I’m playing with it and having fun.
“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure” - Joseph Campbell
Have you noticed that, when strange little coincidences appear in front of you, it feels like the universe is whispering in your ear? The trick is to be ready to change plans when magic is at the door. In order to collaborate with the muses, one has to be ready to grab a jacket and dash out at a moment's notice.
I’ve learned to say yes when they come knocking. For example, when I left my studio in Nebraska last fall, I didn’t know that I would be painting mostly with gouache over the winter. I originally planned on watercolor. But I pursued gouache because I wanted to do something challenging. Last weekend I stumbled across something that once again shifted the direction of my work. We went to visit a friend who was cutting down trees around an old home site. I found a shed that was overgrown by the trees, accessible only by crawling through the underbrush away from the harsh desert sun. They were to be demolished in the following days. It was shady and cool in the growth by the shack, and in entering this strange little bubble my curiosity was rewarded. I love coming across old forgotten things and gently sifting through them, looking for hints about the lives of previous inhabitants. There was a suitcase full of maps of the western U.S., some of them dating as far back as the mid-40’s. They had been safe inside the shed for decades, and the dry desert air had left them intact.
This brings me back to the coincidences. A month ago I found myself thinking about art forms that speak to what I am doing currently (specifically, traveling). I thought it would be really cool to use old maps as a background for paintings, and thought of the box of old geological survey topo maps back home in my studio. I was bummed out that I didn’t have them with me. So when I opened that suitcase last weekend and saw the maps, I was struck by a sense of serendipity, and felt that little knock on the door. It was my muse again. I wasn’t about to ignore it just because I already had plans for my next project. No, sir. At that point I was still fascinated with jackrabbits and was immersed in painting them. So I painted them on the maps.
And another serendipitous coincidence is that, when I was at the art supply store in Boulder a few months ago I bought exactly what I needed to make this work. I didn’t know exactly why I needed transparent watercolor ground when I picked it up off of the shelf. I was just certain that I did. It’s used to prepare surfaces for water-based medium. Exactly what I needed to prepare these maps to be painted on with gouache.
I finished a few little jackrabbits on pieces of maps. My next projects will also be painted on the maps. It incorporates where I am and what I’m doing right now... not just traveling, but exploring. The vintage western maps create a sense of nostalgia, a possible portal to adventure in a big, exciting world. They speak of potential and what one might find out there. It all comes together in this beautiful kismet-infused creative tangle. I couldn’t make this stuff up even if I wanted to. I love it.
Do you allow happenstance to influence your creative work? Wish that you did? I’d love to hear about your experiences, and how serendipitous events inspire you!
The Adventures of Frida and Kathrine
The ladies are enjoying their desert vacation, and have concluded that clothing is optional. They recently decided to make a movie. Based on the trailer (posted below), I’m not sure how far this project is going to go. But they’re having fun with the process.
We’ve been parked in the same place for three weeks now here in the southern California desert. Normally, Bureau of Land Management officers would have told us to move, because there is a two week limit for dispersed camping on public lands. But the pandemic has changed the rules. I’m not sure exactly why, but the BLM isn’t policing open spaces this year. Being a government agency, they might have furloughed their employees to avoid contact with the public. And they might have decided to give people a break who have no home to go back to. I’m guessing a little of both.
Being completely immersed in this landscape for such a long time has done something strange to my brain. By constantly studying the light, the shapes, the near and distant mountains, the play of shadows and clouds, I’ve shifted into that proverbial “seeing things with an artist’s eye” mindset. But it’s become more than that. I’m slowly blending with the landscape, and at times it’s difficult to know where the outside world ends and where I begin. We hiked up the nearby dunes the other morning to reach the rocky outcropping on top of the mountain. I had been staring at this part of the dunes and mountain each day from my window, and have done several sketches and paintings of the view. As we started up the first dune, I had a trippy experience that I was walking into a painting. The flat two dimensional plane was broken as I entered it. Walking through the sand, I imagined that each grain was a particle of pigment. It made me dizzy and disoriented for a few moments before I shook it off. My senses have shifted and become attenuated to subtle shades of color that play on close and distant surfaces. Mountain shadows and the night sky no longer appear black to me. They pop out in pure ultramarine blues and deep violets. I paint obsessively almost every day.
Following the Footprints
It would be easy to assume that there was no life in this arid and desolate desert, but we see tons of animal tracks on our daily hikes. And if you look closely at them, each set of tracks tells a complex story. You can see where an animal slowed down, stopped, or sped up. When they were trotting, loping or hopping quickly in a straight line or meandering around foraging. Every once in a while you can see where the violent and abrupt intersection of predator and prey took place. All of these tracks inspired me to do a series of paintings of the unseen animals in our midst. The internet has been a great source of photos to work from, but I have also incorporated the tracks into most of the paintings because they are part of the narrative of the artwork.
I've read that kit foxes are endangered but they seem abundant here. There are footprints everywhere, including around our camp. We set a game camera up for a few nights by a kangaroo rat hole in front of the camper. Not only did we see the cute little rat that looks like a gerbil with a long tail, but a kit fox was also visiting the hole at the same time every night. I wish I was patient enough to stay up and watch them, but once the sun goes down I crawl into my own den and fall asleep.
After a few paintings, a funny thing started to happen. After I finished the foxes, I decided to paint the ravens that sometimes cruise around the nearby abandoned campsites. That morning, as we were walking, we came upon a pair of ravens poking around an old fire ring. I thought to myself, “I hope they come and visit our camp site, I would love to see them up close. Come on by and see us, guys!” And you know what? Early that afternoon I looked out the window, and there they were right in front of the camper. I smiled and got my paints out.
I decided on a jackrabbit for the next painting because I love their big ears and expressive eyes. I thought, "Well, I haven’t actually ever seen a jackrabbit for the past eight years that I’ve been coming out here, but this is their habitat so I’m sure they’re around." As we drove down the dirt road toward town for supplies that day, guess who burst out from behind a creosote bush? Yup, the first rabbit I've seen here.
Now, I am not making any of this up. You can make of it what you will. When you're deeply connected, without distraction, to your surroundings, the universe opens up and you yourself become a part of its rhythm. The proper reaction is humble gratitude. These are gifts that I pass along through my artwork.
The Adventures of Frida and Kathrine
I tried sledding down the dunes, too. The girls made it look easier than it really is.
Camper Life – Original Tiny House Living
Living in the desert in a camper forces one to simplify and refocus. With limited space, objects get prioritized and weeded out. Organization is essential. Resources are also prioritized and life revolves around them. Water is finite- the tanks will only hold so much fresh water. Bathing and hair washing becomes a ritual. Bodies are perfectly capable of staying healthy and balanced without a constant barrage of shampoos and products slathered all over them. Dishes can be washed with minimal water. Without a connection to a sewer, grey water and black water tanks have to be dumped at dump sites. All trash has to be carried out. We live in a closed system.
Space for food storage is limited. We have a lot of canned food, including pork and chicken that we butchered and processed from our own farm. The refrigerator is small and the freezer smaller. Even during non-pandemic times, we only went to town once a week, and now once every few weeks for supplies. I eat very little processed food, and I take the time to cook and prepare my meals as part of my daily rituals. Because we have an excellent solar charging system, electricity isn’t a big issue. But for those without solar, a fossil fuel-powered generator is the only option. For heat, we use an electric heater run on solar energy, and sometimes propane when the skies have been overcast. The challenges and rewards of independence and a small footprint are worth this complicated lifestyle.
Always the Art
With art, one thing always seems to lead to another. I started out with the intention to just dabble in gouache for awhile until I got a feel for it, and then switch back to watercolor. But it lead me down a path toward a fuller understanding of my own artistic process.
I have never liked painting landscapes. Traditionally, most of the subject matter that I’ve painted has been pretty subjective, bordering on illustrative. When I was a kid I spent countless hours drawing animals, particularly horses. I thought that if I could draw them perfectly, they would come to life. I worked tirelessly to find that soul through perfectly imitating what they looked like in life. (Only much later did I discover that art can often capture a feeling or spirit through a few brush strokes, or certain colors, and don't need to be photographic to convey deep emotions.) Landscapes bored me. Man-made objects never inspired me. I come from a line of illustrative artists, and my daughters continue with that tradition. I recently found an illustration that my great-grandmother did of tree anatomy for her 1920's-era high school biology class. It's breathtaking.
A few years ago I decided to push myself out of my comfort zone and challenge myself with landscapes and new mediums, specifically watercolor (and now gouache). After dabbling with landscapes with gouache and feeling frustrated, I decided to go back into my wheelhouse of illustrative animals (desert animals since I'm here). It's been fun and feels good to be back doing something familiar in order to get comfortable with the medium.
Last year I had a conversation with my sister about feeling stuck and frustrated artistically. She gave me the book, “Big Magic”, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Now that I've read it, I pass on the recommendation to anyone who feels held back from their creativity.
"I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels- that's creative living. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place- that's what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one."
We are currently in the south eastern corner of California, where there is a wide sand-swept valley below sea level that reaches almost a hundred miles between distant mountain ranges. Superstition Mountain is a granitic stretch of hills that sticks up about 700 feet above sea level in the middle of the valley. Sand dunes have blown up to cover them. The border with Mexico is less than 20 miles to the south, and most of this area is owned by the US Navy. The whole region was a bombing range in the mid-1900’s, but the mountain itself is now managed by BLM, open to camping, hiking and recreational 4-wheeling. It is surrounded on two sides by active bombing ranges. The area is so vast that the bombing and machine gun training can only be faintly heard, and they usually happen at night. The Blue Angels winter training ground is directly overhead and January is noisy. Its kind of cool to watch them perfect their flying formations and maneuvers so close-up, but constant low-flying jet fighters are not conducive to quiet work.
There are literally miles and miles of open camping area. The weekends tend to be filled with buzzing 4-wheelers and motorcycles playing on the sand dunes and rowdy weekend campers. But during the week, we are often the only people here, and in the solitude, the desert goes about its business.
the art of art
I’ve taken this whole gouache thing very seriously. I thought that I would dabble with it in between watercolors, but I am soley focused on it now. I find that the main difference between the two mediums is that I can use black and even white pigment with gouache. Using watercolor, the white paper showing through the translucent paint creates a sense of depth and luminosity. Black sucks the vibrancy and life out of colors. But with gouache, white and black are mixed with the pigments and layered, building upon layers of color. They can be used as a wash, but their talent shines in the layering and building.
Every day I dabble with my new medium. I have a few varieties of reds, yellows, blues. When I walk out the door, I cant help but translate everything that I see into my color palette. The sky is ultramarine blue at the top which fades to a more pale turquoisy blue at the horizon. I see shapes and think about what colors I would use for their shadows and highlights. The curves of sand dunes and mountains make my hand twitch for a paint brush. When I see the atmospheric changes in colors in mountain ranges that fade into the distance, I think about how I would add white to create that tonality. I contemplate if the sand looks more ochre or cadmium at different times of day. In short, I am immersed. To add to the challenge of struggling with a new medium, I continue to try to paint landscapes. They've never been my bag. My strength lies in more illustrative, objective work. Its just that the colors and shapes of the vistas here have me enraptured.
In the western part of the United States, there are vast expanses of government land. Most is accessible to the public, and much is open to dispersed camping, which means that you can pull over and camp anywhere you want for up to fourteen days at a time. BLM land (BLM refers to Bureau of Land Management) has a few common-sense rules to keep it clean and safe for everyone’s enjoyment. Campers who are drawn to these remote areas come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from big RV rigs to tents. They bring their own resources and take their waste out with them. Some people boondock full-time, moving from place to place. Others are weekend campers, heading out from nearby communities to party and relax. Some, like us, are snowbirds who have come for the winter. We have enough water, propane, and catch tanks that we can spend a few months without refilling or dumping. Our solar panels and batteries can handle all of our electric needs.
As we were driving to one of our favorite boondocking spots in the southern California desert, I noticed a lot more people camping in cars than I have ever seen before. I assume this is because of the pandemic, and that some who lost jobs and even their homes have chosen to spend time in this solitude. The desert is one of those things that people either love or hate. Some feel exposed in wide open expanses of nothingness, and feel an unsettling lack of human presence. Others are moved by the intense light reflected from vast skies, and by tenacious life that has adapted to extreme conditions in beautiful, subtle ways.
I come to the desert to leave the distractions of a chaotic world and spend my days in the presence of the sun. Granted, I bring some distractions with me. My computer, phone, books, and other mindless activities. But I also bring things that force me to become fully present, such as art supplies, a journal, my mandolin, and a chair to sit in beneath the sharp night sky. If you spend enough time here, you will eventually exhaust the distractions and end up encountering yourself. There’s infinite space to struggle and wrestle demons and scream into the void. Reflection, contemplation, and meditation ultimately lead to growth. I love the desert.
I've always had a restless heart and have been traveling since I was nineteen years old. Do you yearn to get on an open road and see where it will take you? What is stopping you?
Priscilla Queen of the Desert
I drive separately from my partner because I take side trips by myself and spend time with family in Colorado on my was to and from the southwest. All of the art supplies that can fit are packed into the pop-up camper. My partner wanted the biggest, most powerful pickup that he could find so that we can use it for towing, so we got Priscilla. I would have opted for something smaller, but I can’t complain. She is big, powerful…. and those hips. I love those hips. She’s a cushy comfortable travel companion who always gets me where I’m going, and she can make the boys cry. She takes care of me.
I started driving south a few days ago, getting up early in the morning to avoid rush hour traffic on a stretch of I-25 between Denver and Colorado Springs. A few hours in, the sun rose to meet me, slanting up from the east to illuminate Pikes Peak as I passed. The highway through south Central Colorado and North Central New Mexico intersects vast open expanses to east and the Rocky Mountains to the west. The colors are similar to Nebraska's in January, but at elevation the powdery blue shadows and washed out yellowed grasses are sharp and somehow vivid. The sun is closer. I was driving a pickup with a cab-over camper, and my plan was to intercept my partner somewhere between Albuquerque and the Arizona border. He left our home in Nebraska the same time that I left Northern Colorado, but he had farther to go than I did, and his path would cross mine somewhere in New Mexico. He was driving a new RV that he rebuilt onto a semi truck, pulling an enclosed trailer with his rock crawler and all of its accoutrements.
I switched from a podcast to the radio after passing Santa Fe. For the rest of the day I listened as the events at the Capitol unfolded, my stomach knotted with disgust and disbelief. We will all remember where we were and what we were doing when this event happened. For me, it was driving through Albuquerque and veering west onto Interstate 40, following the sun which had by now gotten in front of me.
I’ve never seen so many trucks on an interstate highway as I did the rest of that day. There must have been a big storm to the north which diverted the commercial east-west traffic across the country to a more southerly route. The trucks seemed like a long segmented snake across the high desert. The truck stops, pull-offs, and fueling stations were full of semis and their goods. Driving while surrounded by trailer rigs is stressful. Most of the truckers have little patience for other vehicles, and they’re not afraid to throw their weight around. There was a weary tension backed by tons of rolling steel that made it exhausting. Ten hours after starting my journey, I pulled over in a crowded truck stop and waited for my partner to catch up to me, crawling into my nest in the camper and resting. He rolled in a few hours later, we ate a quick supper and got back onto the truck-infested highway.
The sun beat us to the Arizona border. It was only 8pm or so when we arrived at our next stop, but it was pitch dark and unusually cold with a biting wind. There is a sandstone cliff that overlooks Speedy’s Truck Stop, but in the darkness we could only see its faint outline from reflected lights. (BTW, during non-pandemic times I would have run inside for one of their amazing Navajo Tacos). We fueled and tucked our vehicles into a corner as far away from the other trucks as possible. Truckers understandably don’t like RV’s taking up spaces in their lots. Most RV’ers are on vacation, and the trucks are working, and when the lots are full they have to park on highway interchanges. We didn’t sleep much. The headlights and growling engines from the trucks coming and going didn’t stop all night. At 4am we got up, warmed our own engines, and pulled out once again. The highway was much quieter. We passed trucks lined up on interchanges and at stops, resting and waiting for morning. The heater blasted as I listened to the news of the night's events. The cold dark nothing outside was oddly peaceful with daylight still hours away. I was inside a protected little pod flying across a frozen desert, disconnected from the lonely blackness outside but at the same time very small and vulnerable.
If you approach the San Francisco Peaks during the day, you see tops of the mountains sticking up from the floor of the desert plateau from a hundred miles away. In the dark morning, I didn’t see it at all until we were climbing the eastern slope. (This range is fascinating geographically and historically.) The sun had barely begun to tint the eastern horizon, and as we climbed, the outlines of the peaks and pine trees appeared. The town of Flagstaff is in the middle of this archipelago of mountains, and it was there that we turned south toward Phoenix. On the southern edge of the prominence there is a vast, steep drop to the warm desert below. The pine-covered hills give way to a starkly different ecosystem of the warm, rocky, cactus filled Sonoran desert. We stopped at an overlook just as the sun crested the horizon. A few hours later, we pulled into Phoenix, shedding our winter coats and the weight of a frozen chaotic world.
A New Challenge
A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to master watercolors. Most of my life they intimidated me, so I avoided them. Now, in my older years, I listen to the voice of fear or unease and promptly tell it to go to hell. I spent a few winters struggling with it until I felt that I was finally getting a feel for it. Haven't reached mastery yet.
Along comes gouache. Another media that I feel inept and awkward with. One that has left me dissatisfied and frustrated when I've dabbled with it. So guess who is going to learn to paint with gouache this year? Yup, that would be me. I am in the kicking and screaming stage right now, but am confident that we will eventually become friends.
The other day, when I was at the art store in Boulder, I made a commitment and bought a few tubes of new colors of gouache. I thought that I had the rest packed in my art supplies. Fast forward, I am far from any art supply store, and just discovered that I don't have the other colors that I thought I did. Not willing to give up so easily, I ordered some online, and hopefully they will be shipped to a friend who we will see in a week or two at our next destination. I'm not going to give up so easily, gouache!
Below are some sketches that I did from the drive. The left is the open highway in New Mexico. The middle one is the truck stop with the trucks lined up in the darkness. On the right, the sun peaking up over the mountains in Flagstaff. I substituted watercolor for my missing gouache colors. If you've painted with gouache, let me know your experiences!
I’ve been in Colorado for the past few weeks. Desipite the pandemic, December was filled with time with friends and family. There have been a lot of blankets and wool socks in my life recently, since we moved the social sphere outside. Sitting around in my best friend's driveway all bundled up and drinking hot beverages, and lots of walks and hikes. The best part by far has been spending quality time with my two daughters.
The day after Christmas was bright, sunny, and 60 degrees. Ana, Kate and I unanimously decided on a hike on one of the trails west of the city of Boulder in the mountains. We were well aware that, on days like these, everyone and their brother had the same idea. But people are extremely predictable, and we knew that it wouldn't be hard to find a trail that wasn't packed. We drove up Flagstaff Mountain, an extremely steep switchback road leading up the first mountain that overlooks Boulder and the Front Range. Absolutely stuffed with people. Bumper to bumper Subarus and foolhardy bicyclists. Parking lots and pull-outs full of cars. Everyone had their brand new outdoor outfits on. REI, VOOG (Vegan Organic Outdoor Gear.... Ok, I made that one up), all new and shiny and ever so fashionable. After a few miles up the mountain and trailheads with people lined up to get on the trail, the crowds suddenly thinned out. We pulled into a partially full parking lot, no human in sight. After packing up protein snacks, water bottles, and masks, off we went down the wide open trail. We only saw a handful of people. One of the things that always blows me away when I go hiking in Boulder County are the bad-ass trail runners. Its not just amazing that people are actually jogging or running up and down in the mountains. The thing that really gets me is that most of the trail runners we see are in their 50’s and 60’s. For reals. I wanna be like those people when I grow up.
After our 3.5 mile hike, we headed back to civilization, dodging the cars and bikes on the way back down the mountain. On a non-pandemic day, we might have stopped at the Rio restaurant in Boulder and enjoyed a rooftop hot toddy with an amazing view the Flatirons foothills, or a beer in one of the dozens of microbreweries. As it was, we went to Guiry's, the only remaining art supply store in town (CU, the local university, has managed to push most of them out). My girls and I are all artists with our own genres, and there’s a section for everyone in that store. You know that feeling when you walk into a store that has everything that your little creative heart could desire? Its better than being a five 5 year old in a candy store. The fresh colors, the pigments, the tools….. possibilities are boundless. I don’t know about you, but I can smell the infiniteness wafting down the isles and oozing from the pads of blank paper. Its just magic. So the endorphins from our hike and my giddiness from being in the art store catapulted me into a spectacular mood, and I felt like I was high for the rest of the afternoon (I honestly didn’t partake in any of the Colorado herb available in the nearby stores). To top the day off, they made me an amazing home-cooked dinner of salmon and carmelized brussel sprouts. What a great day!!
Me: I always like to start off by asking: What is your favorite color, and why?
Collin: I like purples and deep purples, because I'm a history nerd, and purple was a very difficult pigment to make. It was really hard to make purple fabrics and cloth. So it's more of a royal color. I also like deeper darker colors, personally, but that's probably just because I'm into history. Royal colors- the purples and the blues.
Me: So what is your art?
Collin: Fantasy and magical weaponry and armor, if I had to describe it. That’s a loose definition but that's good.
Me: And what inspired you, or drew you to this?
Collin: My dad has always fabricated everything. And my mom's very artistically inclined. I've always been very interested in the 14th through 16th century, like Renaissance medieval. That sort of style. I love the knights and armor and swords and shields. That was always something I’ve loved since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I'm just manifesting a part of that.
Me: How do you manifest creativity in your life?
Collin: Creativity exists as an alternative to normality, so the reason it exists in my life is because I absolutely abhor a boring and regular existence. I really don't like that. Creativity seems like an alternative path to that, and every single person I know, their form of creativity manifests in some sort of beautiful way. I think every single human has inherited creativity and when they express it, it's really cool to see. But I think creativity manifests in my life because the alternative is to be mundane and boring and I can’t stomach that.
Me: What does community mean to you?
Collin: For me, because I'm still on the learning side, community is a wealth of knowledge. The ability for two brains to conquer a problem versus one, and everything I've learned I've learned through someone else. My dad helped me build my first forge, I had to have that stepping stone. You can go on YouTube and you kill yourself doing that sort of thing. You need need guidance, and they don't teach that in school. They teach professional business guidance or how to start a business, but they don't teach you how to do 14th century metal work.
Me: There are a lot of people out there that love to see others being creative, but they’re not quite sure how to make that a part of their own lives. What advice would you give to aspiring creatives?
Collin: I think the societal or the emotional constraint is something that we push against. A lot of people will see an independent artist and they'll tell that person, hey there's no way you're ever gonna make money. And that's wrong. It just takes an exorbitant amount of time, you just have to be passionate about it. My sister is a good example. She worked in food service and places, but she was like I’m fucking gonna be an artist, and she worked way harder than anyone because that's the one thing that she was focused on. Now she’s built an entire business, and bought land, just by creating her art.
You know, not many people I've met are really into 14th century metalwork. Very few people are. You just have to pursue that thing that you find naturally resonates with you. Most people aren’t going to look at a 14th century sword and be like, “That's really cool, I'm going to spend 1000’s of hours learning to make that.” No one else is gonna put all that in, invest all this money on tools. But you might, because you love it, not because it makes sense. People observe that love, and they appreciate what it is. They will pay money for what you do, and they appreciate it.
I think that what happens is that we tell artists that they're not going to make money doing what they do and so they don't think that it’s possible because it's a money game, right? You have to live indoors, you have to eat food. So, people want to go for something more secure and more consistent financially. I try not to spend too much money and have expensive dreams, I try to live within means to realize goals, because it's easy to get caught up in this money game and expect an expensive house and an expensive car. It takes a lot of humility to do that. Most of the time I just sell a lot of drugs as a bud tender at a dispensary. If I did that as a regular day thing and I didn't have something else, life would be really easy for me. But the people who are specialists, which are the people who really end up getting what they need out of the world, are the ones who just continue to pursue their thing. If you can avoid the rules of society, there's a place for everyone to carve it out and then do their own thing.
follow Collin on instagram, Green Wizard
Boulder County straddles the Front Range, with part of the county in the mountains and part on the plains. The city of Boulder has been called the Berkley of Colorado since the 1960’s, with its peculiarity seeping into surrounding communities. Longmont is close enough to absorb the good things about Boulder while retaining its own unique flavor of immigrant families and traditional Colorado culture.
On Main Street in Longmont, there’s a doorway that leads up a narrow stairway of a historic downtown building. It reminds me of Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. The muggles don’t notice it. But if you’re a little bit magic, the metal cactus cutout and the “Cactus Coven” storefront next door will beckon to you. Thistle Witch Tattoo is at the top of the stairs, where Ana Lara-Steely and three others artists operate their studio.
All of their clients come from word of mouth and Instagram. Their friend opened this studio, and more recently the femme pagan curio shop downstairs, by building on reputation and relationships. The work that comes out of this space is quality, creative, and edgy. They take themselves and their art very seriously, and business thriving.
I sat down to chat with Ana (they/their) this week while they were designing tattoos for clients. Their passion about their work became clear immediately because of the depth of their answers. They were intense and emphatic about tattooing. But they aren't simply producing tattoos. Ana's life is immersed in actively creating an inclusive and loving tattoo culture in their community and beyond.
Me: What is your favorite color?
Ana: Yellow. It’s bright and happy. I think my soul is yellow.
Me: Tell me about tattooing.
Ana: The industry is changing a lot right now. There’s more tattooers than ever been before. It’s kind of effecting how people see tattoo artists and treat us. Instead of going to just some random shop, you can seek out someone because you’ve heard good things about that service. And that’s new.
Me: It seems like there are two components of getting a tattoo. The artwork itself and the experience in the studio.
Ana: Definitely. Word of mouth is huge. If someone comes to you and has a bad experience, that gets around. So it’s important to provide a good service. I have clients who come who have been to a more traditional tattoo shop. And they didn't have a positive experience. They were bullied or harassed or belittled by the artist. So a lot of times people come to us and they're really surprised by how positive and kind and affirming we are. That's something that's changing in the industry as it's getting bigger. The people who are negative or abusive are slowly being pushed out. That's a good thing.
Me: When you talk about offering a positive and affirming experience, what does that look like?
Ana: When somebody leaves the studio I want them to feel good. I don't want them to feel like they got talked into something that they didn't want. They should feel like they got what they wanted and paid a fair price, that they've got something that empowers them. The whole point of tattooing is to make you feel empowered in your body. It’s about being able to choose what your body looks like. It's just this whole new level of empowerment because you get to decide. You’re taking ownership of your body.
Me: How does your own personal journey reflect in the work that you do?
Ana: I think especially for women in this society we're so disempowered with our bodies. There's always these messages of what women should or shouldn’t look like. Tattoos are just really beautiful fun ways break away from that because traditionally it was very unfeminine to do that to yourself. Most of my clients are women. It's kind of this thing where collectively we've decided that this is what we want to do. My generation is like, well screw that, no one can tell us not to tattoo our bodies, we're going to do what we want. We're tough.
I think that falls in a lot with queer culture. They haven’t always been welcome in those hyper-masculine spaces. And so, like a lot of things, queer people have created their own spaces within tattooing. That's what we're doing, opening up this femme queer space. A lot of us identify that way. Only one straight person works at the shop. The rest of us are more fluid. In more traditional shops they couldn't really be open about that. So we just want to embrace and encourage those queer spaces because they're so precious and we want the industry to be more inclusive. That's the kind of energy that we need. We want to create safe spaces for ourselves and our baby gays to get tattooed and express themselves and, again, to take that ownership. I make a point of getting tattooed by femmes and queers because the industry has tried to push them out. They deserve support. I’ve never had a creepy experience with a queer tattooer.
Me: You have created a space for yourself as an artist and an individual to be authentic and to encourage others’ authenticity. What advice do you have for other creatives who have similar goals?
Ana: Do it. Don’t give up. The secret is persistence. I think a lot of people are gonna tell you no. Everyone's a critic, and no one's gonna believe in your dreams as much as you do. And so… just do it. Even if you hate it, you still do it because you love it. There's no magic words, there's no magic formula. You just got to put in the time and the heart and the love...... and that’s all I have to say about that.
Ana on Instagram - @anita.bruxita.tattoo
Thistle Witch Tattoo- @thistlewitchtattoo
The Cactus Coven shop- @the_cactus.coven
Artist, homesteader, teacher and adventurer. Turning over every literal and figurative rock that I can find, living curiously and creatively outside of the conventions of the common world.
facebook: Karrie Steely Fine Art and Creative Services
Youtube: Homesteading and High Adventure