"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Happy New Year from the desert.