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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