An essay I wrote for The Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere at Stanford:
Report from Twentynine Palms, Morongo Basin, Mojave Desert
Well, it was 120 degrees here the other day, still the first half of July.
Although we bought our wreck of a property two years ago, we only moved here full time as it became apparent the pandemic would make city living unbearable. It was the right decision. When my partner and I go back to Los Angeles or San Diego to get supplies, or check on family, the loss is palpable. Here in the desert we go for days without putting on a mask or seeing anyone. But it’s 120 degrees out, and leaving the swamp-cooled house is not a great idea.
We’ve become avid comet-watchers. The first time, we got up at 4am. Waiting in the darkness, our eyes adjusting, the warm night was silent. And then I saw a star with a streak, very faint, a reminder of how insignificant we are.
In the heat of midday, a baby hawk sits in the bird bath. Quail and roadrunners chirp and beep. A bobcat occasionally sleeps in our oasis. Nature continues, mostly.
We artists are trying to find a way forward. Continuing to paint/photograph/sculpt/perform as we did before Covid seems… stupid? futile? decadent? Those of us who are privileged should perhaps stay silent, and let other voices speak. Listening to these stories deserves almost all our attention. Or, maybe we continue to make work and hide it away for another time. Our calendars are filled with crossed out shows, non-existent deadlines, and canceled travel. There’s nothing but time, how should we use it?
For many years I assuaged my guilty painting-and-object-making lifestyle by teaching. My community college students needed me; I cared about them and their aspirations. I believe art saves lives, that I was helping. But as the years passed teaching became burdensome, and I felt I wasn’t doing enough. Perhaps getting older I could no longer relate to my young adult students. I gradually let the college jobs go, one by one. The nail in my teaching coffin was having to finish the spring semester remotely. I zoomed with students who couldn’t leave their houses because they were caring for a mentally disable sibling, a brother who had been shot, a granddaughter who was in an unsafe group home. It was traumatizing to us all. Teaching now belongs to a younger generation of academics, and I wish them strength.
Back to the question of what artists should be doing… perhaps continuing to make work during the pandemic, the racial unrest, and the disintegration of our democracy is simply an act of mental self-preservation. Does responding creatively to present circumstances, even if no one will ever see the work, give us reasons to get up each morning? For me, yes.
I’m now designing a big project in the desert--an arts center disguised as an entertainment park, to reach multigenerational families. I considering it a large-scale, long-term performance, and it feels more right that continuing to make objects (although I still do that, when the studio is not a body-melting temperature). As an artist, will businesses take me seriously? I do not know, and I really don’t care. It’s possible I’ll crash and burn, spending every cent I have in the process. I also don’t care.
The desert is fierce and merciless. The land has been mistreated--I will do my best to repair it, in the small ways available to a woman past her prime. The people here have been ignored, the rural children have little to look forward to. I want to help. Perhaps that’s what will be remembered about this horrible season. That art can still save lives, even if it’s just my own that is salvaged.
Anna does most of the writing. Ted does most of the photos. But sometimes we switch. We are repairing a distressed property in 29 Palms, California, and eventually hope to run an artist residency there.