The Bird Line Residency
Last month I went to Wonder Valley, CA for a two week artist residency. It involved camping in the desert and working out of a shelter made from an abandoned house.
My intention for this residency was to forage various minerals to use for paint colors and see what this new desert landscape would teach me.
In my first few days there I sat down with a new sketchbook and starting drawing. Since my last visit to Peru I’ve been drawing curvy branching lines and different sorts of gardens.
These were the few pigments I foraged in the first couple days. The camp area is on the edge of an alluvial fan so most of the rocks soft enough for pigment are powdered by the time they make it to the campsite area.
Upon further exploration into the dense granite mountains, we found more varied and pure mineral samples. There were many iron and copper based minerals, pigment colors ranging from red, orange, yellow to green.
Most of the granitic rock in the Mojave Desert is late Mesozoic in age (80 to 180 million years old). The granites formed at depth within a volcanically active mountain range comparable in geologic setting to the Andes chain in South America.
The rich red hematite is one of my favorites. It carries so much weight and energy. All the minerals here are much denser than I’ve previously encountered. They each contain a different dimension of character to explore in its projected color and unique composition.
In this area we discovered salt mines, iron mines and and gold rich soils. I was most surprised by this vein of oxidized copper we stumbled across. I’ve never seen such a bright natural blue mineral in person, it was very magical!
After collecting a variety of minerals, I made a palette of handmade paints. Paint-making is a delicious process, getting to imbue every particle with your movement and energy. I approach paint-making very intuitively, the same way I approach cooking.
While I was here I learned about the Cahuilla, one of the original people of Southern California. They are known for their handmade basketry that are woven intuitively with intricate and sacred designs.
I’m reminded how the stories and knowledge imbued into something like their woven baskets are lost as manufactured products take the place of handmade goods. I feel the same way about manufactured paints.
All of this is to say, there is a material supply chain for color. A deep, geomorphic time chain, as well as a continuous and sprawling human chain gang of mining and distribution projects. Color is not some design spec Pantone or Munsell swatch floating in vague digital space. Color is social, behavioral, messy, tangible stuff. No matter how abstracted, eventually our colored worlds harken back to very specific somewheres and several somebodies bludgeoning the rainbow.
Naming my paint colors deepens my connection to the landscape and circumstance I found them. They become like poetry as I layer pigments to solidify the currents around me into paper. With symbols of the experience and textures of the landscape, I remember that this unsterilized, raw earth has lived a life much longer than than ours.
An excerpt from a little booklet I found about Cahuilla words:
We begin with names.
When we know the names of things we can see them better, and hear them more clearly. We can talk to them, and about them, and weave them into our lives.
Almost everything has a Cahuilla name, and if it doesn’t a Cahuilla name can be made for it. When we learn these, the language becomes part of us.
The basketmakers wove birds and rainbows and flowers and mountains into their baskets. The storytellers wove these things into stories.
Spider is an animal and a woman and a design. Rainbow is a rainbow and it is a caterpillar of many colors. Coyote is a man and an animal and a star.
Here they are, with others in a little book — the old Cahuilla people in a new form. If you learn their names, they will live on.
The complete palette is named campfire, pigeon, bloodstone, ember, fox, dune, redwood, toque, goldmine, sage, peppermint, shotgun, pelt and whitewater.
During this intense week of painting I found a lot of new shapes, breaking out of the geometric style. I was channelling the windy atmosphere and dropping into freeform currents. I’ve always felt my geometric paintings lacked movement so I’m excited to find this new space where the marks are more reflective of my own breath and rhythm.
Reading about symbols in woven basket patterns made me rethink the symbols I’m using now. My geometric forms contain coincidence, interiors, structure, timing and dimension.
These new shapes remind me of a phoenix or a combination of air and fire. I see land with many faces, the mountains the pigments came from, and various earth spirits visiting the page.
I stumbled across another quote about names inside a roadside geology book:
A name is at most a mere convenience and carries no information with it. As soon as I begin to be aware of the life of any creature, I at once forget it’s name. To know the names of creatures is only a convenience to us at first, but so soon as we have learned to distinguish them, the sooner we forget their names the better, so far as any true appreciation of them is concerned.
— Henry David Thoreau, The Journal.
A reminder to never let the naming or cataloguing take over experiencing each material fully.
In the beginning the desert felt sparse and scarce but by the end I found it to be an abundant and colorful place. Everything and everyone became so much richer in texture and quality with less surrounding noise. I can see why people live out here full-time, a little bit off the grid.
The biggest message I received on this trip was to invite even more connection and story into the process. Also to keep working with a spectrum of organic forms, this part of me has something to say now.
A final excerpt from the little book that inspired me so much:
The Moon’s Paintings
When the world was first created there were no animals. The two gods, Mukat and Temayawet, made some animals and plants. When it was dark, when the sun had set, the moon looked down on the earth and saw the animals and plants. She decided to decorate some of them.
She took the snakes and lizards and colored them. She made all kinds of designs with spots, stripes, diamonds and bands. She colored the animals black and white and red and yellow and brown. A few she gave touches of green and blue.
The moon danced, and the created ones danced and played. The moon taught them games and songs, and she named all the animals. And all the plants, too.
Many snakes and lizards come out only at night, when the moon is in the sky, for they are her children.