Sunday, December 29, 2013

Flat Top Projects




"You know, you're down in your windowless basement studio making these weird little paintings and you're thinking, HOW AM I ADDING VALUE TO THE WORLD? What's at stake? And then you go and make yourself a sandwich."

My teaching fellowship for the semester is over, but the evening conversations I had with the visiting artist I worked with continue to play out in my head long after I sorted the brushes, razored down the last glass palettes, and flipped the third floor breakers to the beloved concrete cathedral I've had the privilege of working in since September.

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Books that stayed with me this year:

Speedboat, Renata Adler
Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton
Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
Derek Jarman's Garden, Derek Jarman

That last one, a journal of poetry, essays, photographs, drawings, and horticultural notes by English filmmaker Derek Jarman, I've read and reread a few times now. Jarman spent his final decade battling AIDS while coaxing a wild coastal garden from a windswept expanse of shingle near a power plant in Dungeness, Kent. The last entry, from 1994, is from the day he died. What I keep thinking about is how more than his films, his writing, his painting, his artistic practice, he was, in the end, most fulfilled when he was working in his garden.




My beloved great-aunt Mame, from her deathbed in Bozeman, made me take detailed notes on how to propagate ferns from spores. I've written about this before. It was our last conversation, about the ferns. Not this is how you stay happily married for fifty years or this is how you balance your career and your family, but first you have to bake the soil at 200 degrees on a cookie sheet for half an hour to sterilize it –and don't think you can skip this step– so that the spores have a safe environment in which to germinate.  She died two years ago this Christmas. Talking about her the other morning with my mom, I realize Mame was giving me life advice when she was talking about growing ferns.

Mame gave me a book on Victorian landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll when I was about twelve, and I attribute my interest in color relationships not to my art education, not to Albers, not to India, but to Jekyll's essay on how and why to plant drifts of daffodils on a hill.

If one is invested in beauty, I mean in a substantive way, then one must have a philosophy on it. Elaine Scarry writes about this elegantly in On Beauty and Being Just. I used to be embarrassed about all this; grad school can really shake the foundation of one's purpose for making art, but, if you are lucky and stubborn, you persist, and aspire to the perfect ecstasy of Jekyll's daffodil drift.

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Beauty. Purpose. Symmetry. 

I wrote those three words down on the back of a receipt from a Marfa gas station. P. and I had just explored Judd's 100 untitled works in mill aluminum at Chinati. I think it was more a note-to-self than a summary of what I'd just seen.

SO HOW DO WE PROCEED? Like so:


On September 30th (my mom's birthday) P. and I closed on a 1952 cabin on five pristine acres of high desert land at the foot of Flat Top Mesa, about ten miles northwest of Joshua Tree, California. We're calling the place Flat Top.

Having that much space, seeing that far into the horizon, it opens up a lever in my soul. P. and I do best in the desert. My friend Taylor, a philosophy PhD student-turned-horticulturist for a famous museum garden, recalled Emerson when recounting her visit to a historic greenhouse filled with rare orchids: "now I know what Emerson meant by exciting the Over-Soul" is what she said. I've read that essay however many times and still can't really understand what the f*ck he's talking about, but that picture P. shot of me and Dolly out our front door, out on the lip of Pipes Canyon wash? I think that's an Excited Over-Soul, stretched-out baggy-butted mom jeans and all, g*ddamnit.

HOWEVER. Are we staring down the double barrel of grad school loans? Have we lost our MINDS to buy a tiny homestead cabin in the middle of the Mojave Desert when our lives are still very much in the Northeast? Obbbviously.

This changes everything.

Which is good.


We've been looking for a way to make Joshua Tree our foothold in the world for almost five years, trawling Zillow and local desert real estate listings almost every day since we left the desert in 2010. We've sent our incredibly patient, knowledgeable desert friends out to gather intel on promising places whenever something popped up on our radar (fyi "some slight smoke damage" is hi-dez for "blew up in a meth lab explosion"). When a tiny poached-salmon-pink homestead cabin with a wall of picture windows came on the market, I couldn't get it out of my head. It had just enough wrong with it –cess pit, no septic, no heat, asbestos shingle, draughty jalousie windows– that the price was already a steal, but still outside our very modest budget. We waited and watched. And waited. And watched. The day the listing price dropped we booked our flights to the desert.

From the moment we saw the tabletop silhouette of Flat Top Mesa we knew the place had to be home. We spent every sunrise and sunset on the property just walking around, watching the light shift, observing the resident quail and coyotes and jackrabbits, talking with the colorful neighbors. The house is tiny –680 square feet– but open, light-filled, and absolutely darling. We bought it from the original family who won the land in a lottery in 1949 as part of the Small Tract Act (a second-coming of the Homestead Act) and built the house a few years later. When we moved in the sheets had been washed and the bed made up, the 50's skillets oiled and retro furniture lovingly arranged to look out over the desert though the big windows.

The energy of the landscape is extraordinary; the outcropping of Flat Top Mesa to the west and the massive chasm of Pipes Canyon wash to the east is a perfect study in positive and negative geological space. Three and a half years after leaving, the homecoming to the desert is soul-level happiness for both of us.

Beauty. Purpose. Symmetry.



The house itself is just off a sand track road in a rural unincorporated neighborhood, and the property sits up on top of a small rise with an uninterrupted 180-degree view of protected BLM land that will never be developed. Time out there is measured in segments between that cherished event, the desert  dog walk: we trot a blissed-out unleashed Dolly down the wash at dawn, late morning, late afternoon, sunset, and moonrise. (We miss Mac terribly out here. He loved the desert. I can't even write about it.) I notice new plants at different times of day as the light shifts, and I'm keeping a running list of flora and fauna. It's thrilling how at this higher elevation the plants are slightly different than they were when we lived in Joshua Tree; up here pencil cholla, rabbitbrush, saltbush, jojoba, and catclaw acacia rule the desert floor.




THE PLAN:

RESIDENCY. P. and I are taking advantage of our last January on an academic schedule together to spend the next month working on the place. We'll use Flat Top as often as we can but otherwise rent it out as a quiet place for people to do the work they need to do. Afford people the time, space, and solitude to make work. An artist's residency of sorts, but not just for artists. Botanists, geologists, architects, writers, composers, water conservationists, horticulturists, seismologists; people who just want a respite in the desert to read the g*ddamn Goldfinch.

DESERT DYE GARDEN. As Hopie and I look to expand Block Shop, we'd like to develop an educational desert dye garden at Flat Top. Experiment with the Indian plants we use for our natural dyes in Bagru, as well as the native plants so vital to the textile and fiber art of the indigenous cultures of the Mojave. We have big plans and limited funds, which is the name of the game in Joshua Tree. Our friends Stephanie Smith and Jay Babcock are doing some incredible work in the community here, most recently with their desert nut and fruit orchard a little east of us, which they wrote about in the most recent issue of Wilder Quarterly (read full version here). And as the High Desert Test Sites continue to grow and draw more people to the hi-dez, only more people fall in love with the wild landscape and wild people of the high desert.

WARES-FOR-LODGING TRADE. We also want to do wares-for-lodging trades: are you a weaver, ceramicist, furniture builder, designer, horticulturalist, cabinet-maker and want to trade your skills or wares for a stay in the desert? HIT ME UP. We've had so much fun brainstorming with architect and designer friends who have traded blueprints and plans for a weekend getaway, and want to keep it going.



Hopie called me from India this morning to tell me about the first day of our Block Shop healthcare clinic in Bagru. It was before sunrise here and the light was just beginning to run lavender over Flat Top Mesa as she breathlessly told me how the team of Jaipur doctors and nurses set up shop in our main printing HQ and saw over 150 members of our printing co-op and their families. This picture she posted on Instagram made me tear up. All our incredible customers made this possible. We are so blessed.    
                    Onward.

Happy New Year from the desert. 

38 comments:

  1. Congratulations on finding Flat Top! I'm so excited for you guys! (I've been lurking here awhile but I don't think I've ever commented.) Having a little homestead project is an awesome, awesome thing.

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  2. OH, LILY! This is SPECTACULAR. I'm overjoyed for you both.

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  3. Lovely place to get marriage its really very informative and attractive blog.

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  4. your work GLOWS! wonderful and inspiring blog, thank you!

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  5. Oh, Lily. I'm just so so happy for you! This entire post... I soaked it up. I'm so happy for you. XOXO

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  6. Amazing. Inspirational. Words and photos full of textures, light, sentiments and intangibles that make time on this planet worthwhile. You guys make me feel good about the world and the people in it - and sometimes that's all you want to know and feel about that heaving anonymous population out there. Happy new year to you both. Thanks for the update!

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  7. SO SO HAPPY AND EXCITED for you guys and for all that is to come!! so proud of the leaps you take. xo

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  8. When I saw this round of desert pics on instagram - and that you were out there over xmas...I just KNEW it. so exciting and amazing. I love it. It looks magical. I hope there will be chickens added to this homestead!

    I do not have much to trade though my husband is a very good roofer :) but in all seriousness - I would love to stay there. Even for a weekend. Through all my gallivanting about in western America and LA I never set foot in the desert and always wanted to.

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  9. Congratulations dear Lily! This is amazing and lovely and fantastic.

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  10. A lump in my throat appeared during the first paragraph of reading and had developed into a regulation size baseball by the time I got to the end. I cannot wait to see what grows out of this beautiful, crazy, absolutely perfect adventure. Not sure the cabin needs an epidemiologist, but you can bet your blockshop I'll find an excuse to visit. xx

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  11. This is amazing, all of it. I'm a weaver! I'll definitely keep this in mind. I love the desert and love your plans for your little place. My husband and I are building a tiny house on wheels. It's a labor of love for sure.

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  12. It was your Joshua Tree posts that prompted me to push my hubby into taking a contract there last year. Your love for JT and the high desert is palpable and it thrills me to know that you & your P. have been able to begin to put down roots in a place you love so very much.

    Oh how I wish this could have happened this time last year when we were still there! I can't wait to see what you do with this lovely little homestead.

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  13. Oh, Lily. How very perfect. I'm so, so glad you and P were able to find a place, especially after the other one fell through. I can't wait to see what comes of it. And I'm absolutely positive that Mac had a hand in all of this.


    xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo
    Kathleen

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  14. I am stunned by those views, the colors and so so happy for you. this looks like the perfect spot. and your plans make it even look better. congratulations from berlin. and happy new year!

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  15. Minxie would be proud, Lily.

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  16. I always love your blog posts, and your gorgeous scarves are top of my wish list!1 and this one is so inspiring, aptly timed, I feel encouraged not to give up on my dreams and visions and really commit to making them a reality just as you have done. Would absolutly love to come and stay in your heavenly cabin in the desert, better get saving too! Thank you for sharing.

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  17. I am so excited for you. I can't wait to come visit ( yes, i'm inviting myself to come visit ). I love that little pink house. It looks like a great start to something fabulous. I wish my skill set was trade worthy, but homesteading skills aren't in there.

    I love how detail oriented you are. People say that I'm detail oriented, but not in the same cataloging way you are.

    Happy New Year!

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  18. Congratulations!!! It is not a crazy idea, especially when you feel so alive out there! I can't wait to follow your adventures and all the wonderful things happening out that way!

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  19. Happy New Year...inspiring post that I must come back to...enjoy the magical Joshua. I will be thinking about beauty and symmetry and purpose, all so important to me...take care

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  20. LILZ!!! It was so good to see you and P in what I think of as your native habitat last week and I'm so excited to see where this takes you. If you ever need help/homestead caregivers, we are THERE.

    And, we did finally watch the Source Family and I was simultaneously horrified and intrigued. Obviously we'll need a different model for the commune. Probably one with better food.

    XOXOXOXOXO

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  21. i'm so glad i found your blog... your creativity and spontaneity are what i need to cultivate in my own life. please keep sharing!

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  22. Holy shee-ut, I'm soooooooo so so so excited for you guys. In my experience, the best decisions are the ones that pretty much scare the poo out of you at first....so, well done! Home/land stewardship is a super challenging and fulfilling adventure. I've never been to J-Tree but it's on my short-list of Places I Need to Go ASAP, so let me know if you want a couple of concrete/woodworking/generally handy DIYers to crash your AMAZING salmon-colored abode sometime. We don't eat much but we do drink a lot. ;)

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  23. beauty. purpose. symmetry. and above all courage. soul-bursting courage. so excited to follow along. xxoo.

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  24. This is inspiring me (at the perfect time of year) to refocus and make some new PLANS. Congratulations on the stunning land/big idea with the perfect name and thank you for sharing the process...

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  25. This is very exciting and inspiring. I can't wait to read and see more about it Lily!

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  26. so very inspiring. loved this post.

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  27. Loved the post, the pictures, and the paintings. CONGRATULATIONS on Flat Top! I went to Joshua Tree for the first time over Christmas and I thought of you and the way you describe the desert - meanwhile, I'm completely at a loss for words. What an inspiring place.

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  28. Knowing what one wants and making plans and finding and making homes: Well done, Lilygal, and hearty, hearty congratulations on a house wee, a house pink, a house where your hearts be.

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  29. i just read this post now - just now! - and my heart jumped for you (and p!) + the fact that you've now got a lovely home to call your very own! congratulations, lily! this is so amazing, and whatever heartache you suffered waiting for it to come along has totally been worth it, because this is exactly what you have always wanted…you now have your own slice of heaven. i am so, SO happy for you both!! <3

    (on a completely selfish side note, i really hope i get to visit this amazing creative space, at some point in the future. it sounds so cool! i'm still as broke as i was when i first stumbled on your blog, but the feeling i got reading through your joshua tree posts then, is the same i have now - magic + hope, all bound up in cacti, dust, and sunsets.)

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  30. I would say an Excited Over-soul is akin to a Peak Life moment, one that connects all of your being, whilst still sending every fiber to the nether worlds without much thought put into the whys or where for arts! Just being. Or painting. Or planting. Or seeing. Or smelling. Big Happy Smiles all around for your ride thus far..........Thanks for the view!

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  31. I've got minimal house fixin' skills, but if you ever need a midwife...! My P and I are such a desert dwellers at heart, but work will probably keep us living near cities so I'm living vicariously through your adventures!

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  32. always appreciate your book recommendations. and CONGRATS on joshua tree. it sounds and looks incredible and i am really inspired by your thought to use it as a place of temporary residence for other creatives/desert lovers. thinking about going to joshua tree for the next great american adventure with my husband, and will have to keep this in mind for future photo/film expeditions...

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  33. Congratulations to you both (and Dolly)!! I had a feeling you would eventually get back there in a more permanent way. The desert has a way of getting it's hooks in some of us, doesn't it? I've been dreaming for ages about staying a long weekend/week somewhere around there where I can get unlimited views of the sunset (without camping), so while I don't have much to trade I most certainly will offer up dollars. :) The incredible quiet of the desert with only the wind in your ears is something everyone should experience at least once.

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  34. Holy crap this is AMAZING news! And, as usual, an amazing story that brought tears to mine eyes (it snowed like mad last night here in NYC, and I think about Jackson every damn step, so yeah, places that dogs we loved are meant to be, being there without them, etc., god). I would like to project myself 5 years into the future, residency for Lady Edith & me, please, we will trade for JAM. xx Aria

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  35. I'm a silent lurker here, but I must post to say congratulations! Love your vision for the space. Wishing you all good things this year!

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  36. Your photos make me want to travel so much !
    I love your blog, a new one to follow ahahaha !
    :)

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  37. well played. next winter when you and p and dolly are craving a little northeast we can swap homesteads for a week. meanwhile I'll study up on desert horticulture

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  38. all of them looks great. neat and clean images. love it

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