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.
facebook: Karrie Steely Fine Art and Creative Services
Youtube: Homesteading and High Adventure