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.
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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