Our farm is a healing place for me, where early summer is a time of green and blooming and potential. My neighbors are the birds, snakes, rain, sun, wind and the moon. I’m learning their languages.
I've got my little vintage camper set up by the pond, and am using it for a 'mini retreat'. (Hey, if you need to get away, hit me up. Really.) Our chickens are an endless source of entertainment and eggs, and the cows on the pasture pass by slowly and methodically like clouds. The rhythms here have put my spirit at peace.
The storm that shook my soul has passed. Last month my daughter got Covid a few days before she was scheduled to be vaccinated. It caused her to spin into a mania and lose the ability to sleep for over a week. The result was psychosis and time in a mental hospital and several ER visits. The worst part of the experience was probably modern medicine’s well-intentioned but inept attempt to ‘cure’ her. No one knows why many of the drugs they use to treat severe mental illness work. Or the long-term repercussions of side effects. They just throw what they can at a problem until something seems to work. These drugs can be compared to blood-letting and lobotomies a few hundred years ago; archaic and brutal.
None of the doctors or nurses paid any attention to what was going on in her mind, a journey into a sometimes terrifying, lonely place. They didn’t listen to her, hold her hand, or acknowledge her soul. They gave her pills and ‘group therapy’ sessions. There is a spiritual component to psychosis that western doctors completely ignore. They don’t entertain the idea that perhaps it is part of the process of the mind integrating and rearranging itself in what ultimately has potential for growth. People who experience mental breaks in our culture have no spiritual guides, no one to accompany them and gently lead them back. Doctors are trained to put a band-aid on the symptoms and ignore deeper causes.
Her dad had flown to California from Colorado and was taking care of her the best that he could. But she continued to descend, and early in the morning that she entered the darkest place, I felt the earth tremble underneath me. I packed my bags, drove five hours to Denver, flew to Sacramento, and drove a few more hours to the ER where I finally found her. Twelve hours after the earth had shaken me out of bed. I held her and told her that it was time to come back, and walked out the door with her hand in mine. I lovingly and firmly led her back into reality. She slept all night for the first time since all of this had started. The mania was subsiding, but the drugs were wreaking havoc on her body and mind. Our next challenge was to get her back to Colorado where family and friends could nurture her. We rented a car and drove back because she was too fragile to handle airports and airplanes. Under the guidance of an integrative psychiatrist she gradually weaned off of medication. (I love Boulder, where you can find people trained in traditional medicine AND holistic practices.) She gets better and better every day. Back to her normal self, but changed. She has a great deal of work to do processing the trauma of her physical experience, and the implications of the emotional and spiritual gifts that she bears.
It took me several weeks to process my own experience. We both entered the underworld. For her, it was to commune with her spirits. For me, it was to retrieve her.
I couldn’t draw or paint during that time. I had nothing to say, it was all tied up too tightly inside of me. After sleeping and dreaming and spending time listening to nature whispering to me, I did my first painting. The creative dam has broken, and I’m back in the studio painting again.
I’m not sure where to start with this blog entry. I’ve recently been through hell to retrieve one of my most beloveds. I still have no words. There is a lot to untangle and process, and I think that ultimately the only way that I will be able to express it will be through metaphor and story, whether the written word or visual art. I’ll get there when I’m ready.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing my second daughter about what art means to her. This is all entangled in my story. I am blessed with the fact that both of my daughters have inherited Art from me. I don’t mean that in the literal, art-as-a-physical-object sense. I mean it in the sense of art with a capital “A”, something profound and complex. Art as a way of being.
Artist Interview - Kate Lara-Steely
Me: The question that I always start with is, what is your favorite color, and why?
Kate: That's such a hard question. I know my favorite color has changed over the years. For a long time, it used to be blue, because I love water. But I've really liked the color pink since I was in high school because it's just such a vibrant alive color. Especially when I went to college and I started studying Forensic Anthropology, which has a lot to do with death. It's all about decomposition and murder and all this other stuff, and it was just so nice to have pink. I got pink sheets, I decorated my room pink and it was all froofy and this way I could balance that darkness with some very happy colors. Yeah, it was also very feminine, too, which I liked.
Me: Let's talk about art. What do you think art is?
Kate: I think that the best part about art is that you can't define it. Anybody can do any piece of anything, and it can be art, and that's the most amazing thing- you can look at some old machinery that's half broken and think that's art. When people tried to teach me about what art is, they said "Oh, it evokes emotion". But for me, when I make art, and when I enjoy other people's art, it's stepping into their fantasy. Or their dream, even maybe their nightmare. It's seeing beauty in patterns, and in things we don't quite understand. It's just a way of interacting with the world, and that's the most amazing thing. It's a way of existing and creating and being with the world around us. However you do that, that's beautiful, in your own way, even if it's scary. Even if you think it's ugly, actually a lot of people will enjoy it- you'd be surprised.
Me: Why do you think that art is important?
Kate: Well, I was always torn. I was going to be an academic because I love academics, I'm such a nerd, you know. I was really torn between that and doing a lot of artwork because I loved it. Art was a hobby, a way for me to relax and just create. I always had to be drawing in my notebooks, I always carried a sketchbook. It was never like, "I need to sit down and practice art". It’s just what I’ve done ever since I was little, I think it's because that’s how you raised me, because you're an artist, and it was just something that I did. I really got good at art because I couldn't read books. Because I’m dyslexic, I had to listen to them. And I would just draw when I listened to, like, Percy Jackson and like all of these other stories and I would just draw out the stories. To me, art is really connected with stories. That's how I've always interpreted art that people make and that I make myself- I'm trying to tell a story.
Me: How does art apply to us, as a society or culture, today?
Katie: So I decided to go with the academic side of myself. I wanted to get a PhD in Forensic Anthropology, because I thought that would make me feel successful. And recently I had a mental breakdown. Honestly, a big part of it was because I wasn't letting myself create art. I wasn't giving myself time to just play with colors and with stories. There isn’t a lot of emphasis on art in our schools nowadays. We're not fostering art because they think it's just a waste of time. But through my breakdown, I realized that art is critical thinking. Learning to express something is giving a person permission to do it however they want, and make all the mistakes they need to. Those mistakes are how we get better. Art is such a beautiful way (and not just physical art, but also music and all the other different forms of art) that gives us permission to make mistakes, which turn out to be beautiful. That's so different from the way of teaching mathematics or science or English. That's why it's so important that we integrate art into our schools. Just as important, adults and everybody should just enjoy creating art because you're allowing yourself to make mistakes in a such a beautiful way. A phrase that I was obsessed with in high school was “An ugly sort of beautiful”, and, you know, these two things don't make sense together. But in art they do, and you start to fall into that and it starts to almost consume you.
Me: How do you manifest creativity in your life now?
Kate: So when I have to focus a lot on academics in college, I still do things that are artistic even though I don’t have time to sit down with the sketchbook. I go to Home Depot or one of those stores that have all the paint swatches, and I pick out colors. I write sentences or phrases on my paint swatches that I find in books I read for school or for fun, or a song lyric that catches my eye. I’m also a poet, so I might use a phrase from one of my poems. And then I just put it up on the wall, and all of a sudden my desk is surrounded by these colors and phrases, and it just continues to collect. I also like going on walks and picking up weird seedpods or cool things that I find, and just putting them in my space. Suddenly you realize that you’ve created a space of art. I did this with my chemistry notes, too. I have three different chemistry things up on the wall, like periodic tables. I colorfully highlight them in different ways, and, you know, obviously it's very academic. The reason why I was highlighting them was so that they could be art at the same time. When you look at it abstractly, you're like, "Wow, that's really beautiful". But really I was just taking notes. By making your space enjoyable and surrounding yourself with the things you like, you can be artistic. Even if you're not going to be the best illustrator in the world or the best musician.
Me: What advice would you give to aspiring creatives, or people who have been taught that it’s not ok to make mistakes?
Kate: Do art, however you want to do it. There isn't a wrong way to do it. (Of course if you're trying to learn a skill, then people can teach you the right way to do that skill.) All great artists steal, so listen to what people say, draw what other people draw, practice. The whole point of art is that you can do whatever you want. Get a sketchbook and on the front, write “Ugly” in big letters. And then on the back of the sketchbook, write “See Me In All My Miss Takes” When you write ‘mistakes’ separate the words. “Miss Takes”. So you can do more takes if you miss one. And then just allow yourself to draw whatever you want, and allow it to be ugly. Allow yourself that pleasure of making mistakes that you don't have to show anybody. You have to let yourself go into that place of being uncomfortable, and coming to the realization that this is actually a really amazing place. Because when you mess up, that's when you grow. You really have to detach your ego from it, which is the hardest part. So dedicate a sketchbook for all of your terrible artwork.
There you go.
Visit Kat.lolbeh on instagram
One Head, Two Brains
I listened to a podcast yesterday that spooked me a little bit because of how closely it related to this interview. The podcast is about the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and the take-away that I got was about the creative, whole-picture part of our mind, versus the analytical, detail oriented side. If you want to nerd out a little bit more, it is 100% worth the listen. Hidden Brain, NPR Podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam
I'm starting to get into the swing of spring here on the farm. Still fighting my body- I just want to sit and sleep and eat all day. A little bit of self-discipline plus a little bit of self-indulgence feels like the right way to go. Not inspired to make art yet, the creative energy is going elsewhere for now. But soon. Soon.
The pandemic has created some interesting consequences. I went into it already struggling with isolation and loneliness because of where I live and my lifestyle. But in this moment, I feel more deeply connected with people than I ever have. I think all of us have recognized the importance of connection and community in a way that we could have never understood unless we collectively experienced the lack of it. Somehow, everyone in the world joined me in my solitude. Ironically, isolation has been a collective experience that we've all shared. I'm more driven than ever to connect to new people, and they seem more receptive to that connection. It feels like a release of a breath that has been held for over a year. A feeling of hope and deep, simple joy in being present with others.
Last night we went to visit an elderly friend who lives alone on a farm a few miles away from us. It felt old-fashioned. We didn't call or text, just showed up and knocked on his door. He was so pleased to have company, he hasn't had many visitors since the pandemic started. All of us have been vaccinated, so that ever-present anxiety that I've felt in enclosed areas with others was gone. There was a cool, gentle relief that I think we all felt. The simple act of sitting at a dining room table chatting with an old man was a precious experience.
I am looking forward to making some new, meaningful connections soon, and I don't know if they would have presented themselves without the pandemic. We are also planning on resuming some social events that we used to do. Campfires with friends at our pond on the weekends, and a gathering of a few close friends for Waffle Wednesday where we make waffles for dinner and sit around and play music and sing. Hopefully some other new happenings with new connections. There's potential in the air, and it smells like waffles and s'mores!
The Ladies Are In The House
We have chickens again!! This year I didn't want to do meat birds. All the killing was hard to take last year with so many other stressors in the world. I've made a commitment to produce as much as our own food as we can, and raising animals for food has been a complex journey. (More on that later.) This year we decided on laying hens for eggs. Six seemed like a good number to provide plenty. A friend was thinning down their flock, and gave us fourteen birds. What are we going to do with soooooo many eggs?! We love to spend the evenings feeding them and watching them interact. Chickens are fun!
A friend gifted me with copious amounts of tomato and pepper plants recently. Now I don't have the option of putting off gardening. They need to go in the ground soon!
The overabundance of eggs has forced me to find recipes that I can use or preserve them. My first step was to make egg noodles this morning. Dinner is going to be egg noodles and pork chops. The thing I absolutely love about this meal is that it is all farm to table. We raised the pork last year, raised the heritage wheat a few years ago, and the eggs came from our farm. This kind of food-ing is my happy place. Incredibly satisfying!
I'm afraid that the girls are letting their popularity get to their heads a little. A friend knitted a blanket for them, they adore it. They've taken up residence in the back of our Model A, and are now referring to me as their chauffeur.
This is getting a little bit ridiculous.
I'm having a hard time getting back into the swing here. Looking back through my photos last year, by this time I was building a chicken coop, making bark beer, foraging nettles, raising chicks, transplanting elderberry cuttings, baking a cake, making empanadas, throwing pots and making a ceramic seed sprouter..... holy shit. I've been having a hard time getting off the couch since I've been back this year. I don't know if it's the vaccination wearing me down (got it two weeks ago), or age, or my health condition. I just don't feel like doing much of anything, and its frustrating. Sometimes you just need to remember to be patient with yourself.
It feels good to be back in my studio with all of its space, even if I'm not actually making anything yet. It's nice to come back to my art supplies, my books, my collections of interesting things, my room to spread out.
The space does inspire me. Sometimes it just offers itself as a place to be in and do nothing, which feels like incubation. I can feel the potential there, but don't feel the pressure to push and make something happen. It's waiting for me to be ready.
The girls were very glad to be back home and see their friends. Everyone got vaccinated so no more social distancing. So far they've shared exotic beers they discovered on their journeys, played Scrabble, and had art night.
Looking Back Out the Back Door
Last week, after a 7-hour drive from central Arizona, I stopped about 30 miles south of Moab, Utah on the edge of Canyonlands National Park. The canyons were formed by the Colorado River over millions of years. I’ve been to this region many times before to camp, bike, or visit friends and family.
I drove up over a ridge and the view of miles upon miles of canyons spread out to the horizon took my breath away, even though it isn't new to me. There is just nothing like this place.
Whenever I’m here, I am always struck by a sense of deep time. The Colorado Plateau covers parts of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. This chunk of land wasn't squished and deformed and covered up the way that most of the mountain west was as it was created. Several oceans have come and gone, continents collided and parted, mountains formed and eroded and formed again... it's amazing. I mean, the sand in these sandstone rocks I'm standing on started out as part of a mountain which eroded and turned into sand on sea floors which became sedimentary rock which was eventually uplifted and formed into mountains again which eroded again. One little grain of sand! I'm a total geology nerd, sorry not sorry. I love rocks. Come on, who wouldn't be excited by this? There are frickin' rocks in the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Arizona that are almost 2 billion years old. That's about half of the Earth's lifetime!! You can touch those puppies with your bare hands. So when you stand on the rim of one of these canyons and look down, you are literally looking at layers of time. This is mind boggling. Beautifully, overwhelmingly mind blowing. At least once in your life, you gotta visit this part of the world, you'll never forget it.
Outside the boundaries of Canyonlands are miles and miles of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. So, unless otherwise posted, anyone can enjoy our public lands, which includes finding a sweet little spot to your liking and setting up a camp. Isn't that amazing? I found a beautiful rock (small mountain?) and had it all to myself. I walked all the way around it several times while I was there, and crawled part way up one edge. I was intensely curious about what was on top but I promised my Mom that I wouldn’t’ climb it while I was alone. They call this kind of sandstone slickrock. Its great for biking and hiking; feet and tires almost stick to it (so it should be called stickyrock). (Moab is one of the premier mountain biking spots in the world.) Climbing up is easy, but coming back down is always scary if its steep. Scooting down on my butt or belly feet first is the preferred method.
I didn't boondock alone in California or Arizona because it didn't feel safe. It does here. Most people in this area are tourists. When I chose my site, I parked where I had a clear view of the only road leading in, and I could see the main road in the distance. I dropped a pin and sent it to my mom so someone would know where I was. I feel safe camping alone because I pay attention to these kinds of details, and always have a strong sense of situational awareness.
Desert light is amazing, constantly changing throughout the day.
My daughter Ana and her tattooed clan took a vacation on a house boat on Lake Powell in southern Utah last week. On their way back to Colorado, they stopped and camped with me for one night. I hoped to see her longer, but they were understandably anxious to get home. I thoroughly enjoyed the short-lived company.
Phone and texts worked OK at my Big Orange Rock Camp, but internet didn’t. I got bored. I painted, I read a book, I played my mandolin, I went on several short walks. But I was bored. Without constant online distraction, I came to the realization that I was lonely. After spending a few days completely alone (other than Ana’s brief visit) and with no internet connection, it hit me hard that I'm tired of being alone. When Alec is around I don't feel lonely, but I do miss other people. I want to share my experiences with others. I want to squabble over playlists and podcasts while driving. I want to cook with people. I want to share the excitement of new discoveries, little observations, and awkward moments. It's been a great winter season, but definitely time to head back.
the girls' last adventure of the season
Making Bad Art
I was so enamored with the view at the Canyonlands overlook that I started a gouache painting. I was very dissatisfied, and decided to abandon it partway through. But I didn’t feel good about giving up. I don’t like quitting, even though I decided that even if I finished it, it wouldn’t be a good painting (because of the composition and such). It reminded me of how limited I am and how much I have to learn. Landscapes just bore me and I don’t know how to paint them. I came up with a new strategy to cut it into two pieces to reorganize the composition and make two smaller paintings. After taking that approach and continuing, I still wasn't happy with it. I broke out my brand new box of crayons and finished up with them. Even if I ended up not being happy with the art, I still had the satisfaction of opening a brand new box and using virgin crayons. That's always a satisfying experience.
The northerly migration has officially started. We're heading back to Nebraska on a roundabout route, the first stop being at Bumblebee Arizona, north of Phoenix. I love this place because it is a little green rocky valley that cuts through the desert. There are tons of species of cactus and desert plants and a lot of wildlife. It's already late spring here, the cottonwoods, willows and grass are in full splendor at the bottom of the canyon. It's on BLM land (Bureau of Land Management), managed by the government but open to public use.
You can't swing a stick without hitting a mining claim (basically an official federal sign telling others that it's illegal to look for rocks on the claim). People still prospect here, and anyone can stake a claim. I don't think much gold comes out of these hills, but small-scale prospecting is a fun pass time, a lot like fishing. Personally, I'm more into hunting for free-range rocks. I try not to take very many home. It's more like catch and release unless I find one I just can't live without.
I’m looking forward to going home and moving forward with my plans. Last year I got my ducks in a row to have work in galleries and exhibits in 2021. I’m excited, but a little bit anxious. I sat down with myself and explored why I feel apprehensive. I think its coming from a sense that I don’t really belong anywhere, and putting my art out in the world has always been unsettling. There's a push-pull going on. Do all artists experience this? Why do we do it? Just sitting alone in a studio producing art is essential, but not wholly satisfying for me. It needs to go somewhere, to be in action. When I was younger, I wanted to be recognized for my skills and gifts. I needed a sense of identity as an artist that was acknowledged by the world so I could find my place in it. I no longer feel a need for validation and admiration. I'm pretty content on the outside at this point in my life. Frankly, it makes me a little uncomfortable to be the center of attention at gallery openings.
So why do I keep going back? I had a very insightful experience a few years ago at an opening of a solo show. I was able to observe as people walked around and looked at my artwork. I got to see the process of a few peoples' immediate visceral connections with the work. I witnessed love at first sight as I watched my art provoke deep emotion. It was then that I realized that getting work out there isn’t about prestige and money, but rather sharing something bigger than that. My job isn't to paint pretty pictures. Its to lift the veil between the worlds of flesh and spirit. The role as an artist is to be a modern day shaman, a conduit of profound human experience. When people connect with art, something is activated; magic settles in and the spheres of the universe begin to hum. I want the art on the wall to be a little doorway into an alternate dimension of experience. One where people get goosebumps from the muses’ breath on their skin and sense the electric smell of being.
I’ve been painting a little bit again, letting whatever inspires me lead the process. Recently its been garden vegetables. Must be spring fever. At this point I'm more inspired to paint vegetables than plant them. For the first time that I can remember, I’m not drooling over seed catalogs and planning a spring garden. Last year gardening was exhausting. We fought to just get seeds to come up, and by the time the season was over, not much came out of the garden. Mice took over at the beginning and weeds took over at the end. As each year passes, my energy becomes more finite, and I need to choose where I spend it wisely. I still want a garden. I don’t want it to make me miserable.
When I first moved to Nebraska, I went crazy with the wide open spaces, abundant water and rich soil. This year, I’m retreating to my Colorado gardening techniques. I’m only going to plant in raised beds (some old stock tanks filled with dirt that I found around the farm). They're already set up to be low maintenance.
Part of my strategy to my artwork 'out there' is to sell prints. These cute little 5"x7" veggie paintings seem like a good starting point.
The past few weeks we've been playing a lot with my partner’s 4x4 rock crawling machine. Besides traveling around the desert to find big crazy boulders to crawl over with it, we go to a few off-road events each winter. Alec’s cars are…. well…… totally outside of the box.
If you asked me to describe them, Dr. Seuss’ inventions come to mind. Some might say that Alec is like a combination of Dr. Emmet Brown from Back to the Future and Hayao Miyazaki’s Kamaji from Spirited Away . (BTW, one of my fav directors. If you haven't seen any of his films, you just have to.)
Although he doesn’t describe himself as an artist, a huge amount of creativity and ingenuity go into everything that he does. He has a passion for building and inventing, and has built a multitude of things over the years, from tank vehicles to airplanes. Part of his satisfaction comes from operating them at their full potential, but the creative process is what he lives for.
Alec Yeager - Inventor
Me: What is your favorite color and why?
Alec: Fuchsia green. I think Chrysler called it Sassy Grass Green.
Me: Why is that your favorite color?
Alec: I don't know, I’ve always liked that color.
Me: What is your art?
Alec: My art is using metal. I take an idea and create it out of metal. It’s always mechanical.
Me: What’s your process?
Alec: My process started back a long time ago. Growing up on the farm, we built or rebuilt most of our own equipment. I always liked custom harvesting because the machines that we harvested with were very complex, with a lot of systems going on at once. I enjoyed seeing the interaction of a multitude of systems that do completely different things, all interacting together. So I would always take it to the next level, because there was always room for improvement. It was about improving, making it more functional, or to make a machine do more things than it was designed for.
Me: You’ve made a leap from just building something that has already been designed or conceptualized. You come up with ideas that nobody has ever thought of before and then create them, and make them work flawlessly. What’s different from what everybody else has done and what you do?
Alec: That probably came from growing up very isolated on a farm. My parents didn’t’ keep me busy 24-7 with things like Little League and all these other things that people think kids have to do. I had lots of time to do my own creating in my own brain. When I saw mechanical devices I always thought of other purposes or ways to incorporate things in machines that they weren’t necessarily designed to do. I still do that when I see a piece of equipment; I think of how I could make it do what I want it to versus what it might have been originally intended for. It's always been about thinking outside the box.
I learned something important very early on, which was to look at something from a totally flipped perspective. Turn it over 180 degrees. So if it was designed to go a certain way, I’d turn it around in my head and think it through completely backwards. You flip it and look at it working in reverse and also a mirror image. I found that very useful in creating new ideas because then you could eliminate the trap of going down only one path and being limited.
Me: What is your favorite part about your creations?
Alec: One of my favorite parts is the creative process, it doesn't cost anything to think up 100 different vehicles. Let's say you have 100 ideas then you start narrowing them down and then narrowing them down. That's the fun part - you weasel and weasel it down to about the 10 best ideas that you can think of. And then comes the work, because then you have to start making decisions about which one is the very best. Well, there's a lot of ways to skin a cat. There are multiple ways of approaching the same problem. There's not one best way, but a decision needs to be made. Then it's time to start spending money on iron and motors tires and all this. Once you make that decision, it’s pretty rewarding because then your brain kinda relaxes and you go, “Okay, this is how we're going to do it.” And then you spend a big ol’ pile of money and then become stressed again. The last car I made, I drew it out and did lots of measuring and so I was pretty confident that everything would fit.
Me: Do you design your machines on a computer first?
Alec: I'm not a computer guy or a digital guy. I'm an analytical guy, but I need to grab a hunk of iron and start going at it to see how it will fit together. I do sketch things out, just not in detail, I sketch a general concept. Then I get my hands on it and build in the sub-structures after the main items are there.
So that's pretty stressful because you’ve got to make the decision eventually to poop or get off the pot, you’ve got to put things in the right place. And once they’re in you have to live with it. The more cars I build I get better at knowing the direction I'm going as I build. I want to avoid the, “Oh, crap that shouldn't have gone there now I can't work on the piece that's behind it”. A lot of engineers don't worry about that because they don't fix their own stuff, they just build it. Then when other people like me are trying to repair it, we go, “A stupid engineer put that there.” I have to fix my own stuff so I’ve learned to pay attention.
Me: What advice would you give to aspiring creators?
Alec: Don't quit because it doesn't work the first time. It’s like the story about the best baseball player of all time. Babe Ruth had hit the most homeruns. And come to find out later, he also had the record for the most strike outs. But then Hank Aaron comes along and beat his homerun record. Well, turns out he also beat the record of striking out the most. So me, I was just too stubborn to quit. I have a whole yard of scrap up home from things that didn’t work. Instead of going to engineering college, I paid my tuition in scrap metal. It's not always knowing the ways that something will work. I know a lot of ways that don't work. A lot of other inventors do that too. There's precious few ideas that work really well. The more ways you know that won't work, the more likely you are to come up with something that does.
If you want to see roXdawg (his latest build) in action or hear about his other machines or projects, I’ve posted lots of video on our YouTube channel. Most people looking for 4x4 videos want to see rollovers and horsepower, and we don't quite fit that niche. But we have several thousand subscribers who seem to be interested in watching his unusual cars, and watching him describe his building process on this and other projects. We’re also on Facebook and Instagram.
I’ve been struggling for awhile now to create art and write. After working at such a furious pace, some fallow time is necessary. The creative well needs refilled. This usually happens around this time of year, especially after I've had a productive winter. It starts with a sense of emptiness and boredom when nothing appeals to me and I don't look forward to any projects. I marinate in ennui (a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction). The creative juices always comes back eventually, but I really dislike this. The challenge is to sit with the discomfort and just let it happen, and not try to force something that doesn’t want to come. I know my muses will find me again, they always do. I just have to have faith in the process. So while waiting this out, I decided to continue to explore, searching for that elusive Art with a capital 'A'.
Island State Park
Continuing the solo adventure, I ventured out of my comfort zone. I stayed at a campground in a small State Park along the Colorado River, which defines the border between California and Arizona where it snakes through the desert and high volcanic mountains. The river is about half a mile wide at the park, lined with palm trees, vacation homes and RV resorts. I knew it would be good for me to be around all these people. I fought the urge to bolt for the open desert, but reminded myself that I didn’t have to talk to anyone unless I wanted to. I ended up using my rusty social skills a little and it wasn't too painful. Most of the campers were retired couples, and many of the men sat most of the day in camp chairs, drinking beer, watching each other, and talking to their little lap dogs the same way one might talk to a child. My neighbor (a grandmotherly woman) saw that I was painting and told me about her watercolor journals and the classes that she takes online, constantly mentioning that she was no good at it. I looked at her pictures and listened attentively. I didn’t feel compelled to tell her that I was an artist, or to mention where I showed my work. I had no desire to build myself up and feel important. I just wanted to share and encourage her enthusiasm. In retrospect, I think I made her feel a little uncomfortable because I didn't return the banter by talking about myself. Social skills aren't like riding a bicycle, I guess.
I went for a hike one morning, even though my Chronic Fatigue symptoms were flaring up. (Sometimes I feel dizzy, off-balance, faint and suddenly tired. I’m used to it, and normally push through rather than letting it keep me down.) I decided to be safe and tell the camp ranger which trail I would be on and when I planned on returning. I began with the intention to stay on the trail, but it wasn’t well marked, and it was hard to tell where it started. I hiked up an arroyo (dry wash) and then to the top of a low mountain to look out and find it. As I topped the first ridge I found that there was another ridge, and then another, and I kept going, despite the fact I was nowhere near the trail where I said I would be. When I finally made it to the top, I found myself surrounded on three sides by cliffs lining tall red plateaus. The river and campground were down in the distance on the third side. Seeing no trail and only dead-end canyons in three directions, I backtracked down the rocky slopes to the roadway, thinking that I really should find the trail and stay on it since I felt a little faint and off-balance. Down at the bottom, I found several side washes with cool rocks, and so wandered down those for a while. Every time I bent over to pick up a rock I told myself to stop doing that because of the dizziness it caused, and every time I saw another cool rock I bent over again to inspect it. Finally, I found the trail. I followed it like a good girl, until it came to a bend where it went up a steep ridge. I was already tired from my earlier slog up the mountain, and a beautiful narrow canyon with colorful cliffs on both sides invited me around the bend away from the path. At that point, I realized that it is just not in my nature to stay on a trail. Off I went, telling myself that I would stop after the first bend in the canyon. And then the next. Before long I saw a lone cottonwood tree and lush cool greenery that stood out against the warm earth and rock. There was a seep spring coming out of the side of a cliff, and approaching I could sense the sweet smell of water. Sitting down in the middle of this little oasis in the shade of jagged canyon walls, I ate my lunch and was finally content. I didn’t realize that I needed to be in this exact spot at this exact moment until I had found it. As much as I wanted to continue to follow the canyon, it was getting hot and I knew that to go much farther would result in making myself sick and having to spend at least a day recovering. Someday I hope to come back to my secret little oasis and continue up this shady little canyon.
The next day, I drove an hour to a remote area downstream from the crowded riverfront and found the Blythe Intaglios. This mighty river has attracted people to the area for thousands of years. The Mohave were the original inhabitants, and much of the river is on the Colorado River People reservation, descendants of the Mojave. The intaglios are 150 – 200 feet long figures of humans and animals etched into the ground on flat arid mesas overlooking the river, recognizable from above. The figures were made by removing the darker rocks and exposing the lighter colored material below. No one knows when they were made or why. As I hiked between the figures, I wondered about the people who made them. Was it a group effort? A sacred act? How long did each take? How did they conceptualize creating these large works of art made to be seen from above? What inspired them? I assume that they were made to communicate to a higher power of some kind. No one is left who can answer these questions definitively, so we are left to let them speak to each of us individually. I was moved by a deep respect for the artists.
"The Last Free Place"
The next day, I headed west again into the California desert, detouring a few hours out of my way to Slab City, a remote enclave of desert drifters that has grown organically on public land. A permanent Burning Man, perhaps? A social experiment in anarchy? Since the 80's, its become a community of squatters, artists, snowbirds, RV dwellers, migrants, survivalists, homeless people and hippies, with very little structure or law enforcement. The negatives of a lawless place are evident; drug abuse, theft, conflict, lack of resources for the poor and mentally ill. But there is also a great deal of freedom and potential for human good. The people here have left even the fringes of society to avoid a civilized world. Most people move on before the summer heat sets in. Still, even the seasonal inhabitants are extremophiles. There is nothing easy about living here. No water, electricity, or basic amenities of any kind other than what is hauled in. The community is scattered with experimental art, live events, performance art, music, murals and sculptures. Slab City as a whole is a Salvage Punk installation. There are a few Air B&B's and hostels for intrepid travelers, and a few very rudimentary eating establishments that are reminiscent of those found on the back roads of impoverished countries.
I stopped at "Salvation Mountain", a huge installation that a guy spent years building and rebuilding as a tribute to his god. Though they look nothing alike, I was struck by the parallels between this modern construction and the intaglios a hundred miles away. In both instances, human beings were trying to connect with or to celebrate or to express themselves to something larger than themselves. Walking around both of these large monuments and contemplating their makers' intentions was yet another meditation on what art is.
And finally, I need to make a nod to the movie Nomadland, which I haven't seen yet, but I already recognize some places and sentiments from the trailers. I will make a point of watching it and report back, and if you've seen it, leave a comment and let me know what you thought. I've seen a wide range of reactions on womens' RV social media sites that I follow. Some people loved it, some hated it. I'm excited to see if it wins any Oscars.
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.
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.
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