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.
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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